SANAA, Yemen — Jaber Elbaneh is one of the world's most-wanted terrorism suspects. In 2003, the U.S. government indicted him, posted a $5-million reward for his capture and distributed posters bearing photos of him around the globe.
None of it worked. Elbaneh remains at large, as wanted as ever. The al-Qaida operative, however, isn't very hard to find.
One day last month, he shuffled down a busy street in the Yemeni capital, past several policemen. Then he disappeared inside a building, though not before accidentally stepping on a reporter's toes.
Elbaneh, 41, is one of two dozen al-Qaida members listed under a U.S. program that offers enormous sums of cash for information leading to their capture. For years, the Bush administration has touted the bounties as a powerful tool in its fight against terrorism. But in the hunt for al-Qaida, it has proved a bust.
Known as Rewards for Justice, the program dates to 1984 and was originally used to track down fugitive terrorists of all persuasions, from the Balkans to the Palestinian territories. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the most-wanted list was expanded — and the rewards boosted exponentially — as part of a push to eliminate al-Qaida's leadership.
So far, however, Rewards for Justice has failed to put a dent in al-Qaida's central command. Offers of $25-million each for al-Qaida founders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have attracted hundreds of anonymous calls but no reliable leads, officials familiar with the program say. For a time, the program was generating so little useful information that in Pakistan, where most al-Qaida chiefs are believed to be hiding, it was largely abandoned.
"It's certainly been ineffective," said Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan and former director of the agency's counterterrorism center.
The failures of Rewards for Justice can be traced to several factors: weak publicity campaigns in places where al-Qaida's leadership is based; a lack of trust that the United States would actually deliver the money and protect informers; and a mistaken assumption that anyone's loyalty can be bought if the price is high enough.
"The program could use some, well, 'rejuvenation' is the word," said Walter Deering, a former State Department official who oversaw Rewards for Justice until 2003. "You can't just put a price on someone's head and expect something to happen."
Rewards for Justice is administered by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which operates Web sites advertising the program in 25 languages.
Which suspects are included on the most-wanted list and the rewards are decided by a panel of counterterrorism officials from several agencies, including the FBI and the CIA, as well as the Pentagon and the White House.
In most cases, the State Department does not divulge how much it pays out, or to whom, citing security concerns. Annual reports are sent to Congress, but are classified.
Most of the money distributed under the program, however, has gone for the capture of suspects unrelated to al-Qaida, cases that have been publicized by the government show.
In addition to $30-million given for information about Saddam Hussein's sons, the U.S. government has paid at least $3-million for tips leading to the capture of three of Saddam's former commanders in Iraq. It has also given more than $11-million in rewards to tipsters who turned in members of the Abu Sayyaf network, a radical Islamist group in the Philippines.
The only publicly confirmed award connected to al-Qaida was granted in January. A Minnesota flight instructor, Clarence Prevost, received $5-million from Rewards for Justice for serving as a witness in the 2006 trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.
Meanwhile, Elbaneh is allowed to remain free as long as he promises to appear in court when summoned.
Khaled al-Anesi, a defense attorney who represented Elbaneh before his prison breakout, said the U.S. reward had caught some people's attention in Yemen. The sheer size of it, he joked, might even make his former client think twice about staying on the lam.
"Five-million for a bounty is an awful lot of money," Anesi said. "If I were him, I'd say, 'I give up, but give this $5-million to my family.' "