WASHINGTON – The Bush administration foresees a sharp rise in the capture of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in the coming year and is asking for more money to pay for tips that may lead to their arrest or death.
The State Department says there is a high likelihood that several wanted terror suspects will be caught "in the near future" and wants to double the amount — from $6 million to $12 million — it holds in reserve for cash rewards to people who provide actionable information about the whereabouts of those individuals.
The increase won't pay for the up to $25 million offered for Usama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, and the department isn't naming names on who the U.S. hopes to catch. But, it says it expects members of Southeast Asian Al Qaeda affiliates Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf Group to be turned in soon. Both are radical Islamist groups targeted by local governments with U.S. help.
The $6 million boost, along with the prediction that it will be needed to pay rewards, is buried in the administration's State Department budget request for the next fiscal year that was sent to Congress this week.
It is part of a proposed $10 million jump, from $8.9 million to $19 million, for the department to respond to overseas diplomatic crises, a budget line that includes payments to informants who turn in suspected terrorists, war criminals and drug lords. The other $4 million of the 113 percent increase is largely for emergency evacuations.
The spending plan says the additional $6 million will go to the "Rewards for Justice" program that seeks information about terrorists and suggests that the administration expects to use it to pay for tips about Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf leaders who are under sustained pressure, particularly in the Philippines.
The budget proposal makes no assertions about arrests of any other terrorist groups, or any war criminal or drug trafficker.
Jemaah Islamiyah is blamed for the deadly 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings and plotting attacks throughout the region. Abu Sayyaf is accused of numerous terror acts in the Philippines, including abductions of U.S. citizens.
Rewards for Justice offers cash for tips on several top leaders of the two groups, among them:
—Up to $5 million for Zulkifli bin Hir, a U.S.-educated engineer and member of Jemaah Islamiyah's central command who is accused of training Abu Sayyaf bomb makers in the Philippines.
—Up to $5 million for Isnilon Hapilon, a member of Abu Sayyaf, who has been indicted in the United States for alleged involvement in terrorist acts against Americans and others in the Philippines.
—Up to $1 million for Umar Patek, a member of Jemaah Islamiyah who is believed to have assisted in the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, including seven U.S. citizens.
Budget proposals in previous years have also asked for increases in rewards funding but none has sought to justify the expenditures by anticipating arrests that would require payouts to informants. Congress has rejected or reduced similar requests in the past, including last year.
Rewards for Justice has paid some $77 million to more than 50 tipsters since it was created in 1984. At least $10 million of that was paid to four people in the Philippines who provided information that led to the killings of two Abu Sayyaf leaders held responsible for abducting Americans in the Philippines.
The program has outstanding bounties worth a total of about $704 million on dozens of terrorist, war crimes and narcotics trafficking suspects, including the bounties on bin Laden and Zawahri.
Given the amount the administration is asking for, neither bin Laden nor Zawahri appear to be considered likely candidates for arrest in the fiscal year that runs from Oct. 30 to Sept. 30, 2009.
Their captures are not precluded and officials stressed they can request additional funds at any time and have done so in the past when events have warranted it. Rewards for Justice also accepts private contributions.