The Missing Reward

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"Jihadists in Paradise" (March 2007)
A kidnapping at a Philippine resort triggered a yearlong hunt for pirate terrorists and their American hostages. A behind-the-scenes tale of intrigue, spycraft, and betrayal. By Mark Bowden

Two and a half years after the rescue of Gracia Burnham and the killing of Abu Sabaya, three Filipino men stood in front of Basilan Provincial Hospital, just miles from where Gracia and her husband, Martin, had been held during their yearlong captivity. Wearing long-sleeved white T-shirts and blue hats emblazoned with the “RFJ” logo of the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice program, each man had black leather gloves on his hands and a stocking masking his face. After a short speech by an official from the U.S. Embassy in Manila, each man was handed a bulky plastic attaché case stuffed with 18.7 million Philippine pesos, or roughly $334,000—reward money for informant work that had led to the killing of Hamsiraji Marusi Sali, one of five Abu Sayyaf commanders wanted by the U.S. government in the murders of Guillermo Sobero and Martin Burnham. It was the first reward paid in the Philippines under the Rewards for Justice program, which in 2002 had offered as much as $5 million for help leading to the arrest or capture of the Abu Sayyaf’s leaders. A placard beside the podium at the reward ceremony displayed photos of the five wanted men, with a bold red X through the faces of Sabaya and Sali (a third, known as Abu Sulaiman, has since been killed). But Alvin Siglos, who stood to earn just such a reward for his role in Gracia Burnham’s rescue and Abu Sabaya’s death, was not included in the ceremony that day.

Since the start of the rewards program in the Philippines, the State Department has paid a total of $1.6 million to six informants—awarded at three press conferences, each with its ceremony of disguised informants and suitcases full of money—but Alvin Siglos has not been a part of any of them. Although he has approached the U.S. Embassy in Manila several times, Siglos has yet to receive any reward from the U.S. government, nearly five years after the fact.

Why not? The reasons are unclear. Part of the explanation may lie in the sluggish pace of bureaucracy: The Rewards for Justice program doles out the money through a nominating system, in which an informant must be nominated by the employing agency, at the local embassy (in Siglos’s case, the CIA officers would nominate him through the embassy in Manila), and then vetted through an often lengthy verification process to determine his role in the case and the appropriate reward, if any. According to a Rewards for Justice spokesman, Siglos has not actually been nominated—which would mean that the CIA has yet to name him for a reward. Maybe this is because Siglos’s reputation is less than pristine—though the reward program has no official morals clause—or maybe it’s because someone in the embassy simply doesn’t like him. But the Philippine marines he helped believe he earned the money. For now, the Rewards for Justice spokesman will say only that Siglos’s case is “under review.”

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Terrence Henry is an Atlantic staff editor. More

Terrence Henry is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. In January 2009, he and his wife embarked on a food tour of Argentina, Spain, Italy, England, Canada, and the United States. Some 13 months later he settled in Austin, where he is now learning the art of Texas barbecue and writing about food and film.

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