International Bounty Hunters in the War on Terror: Abuse and Accountability

35 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2012

See all articles by Thomas Martin

Thomas Martin

Portland State University - Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science; Willamette University College of Law

Date Written: May 1, 2011


Jonathan Idema traveled to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 — his main objective: to find and capture Osama bin Laden. While working out of the Mustafa Hotel in Kabul, Idema “cruis[ed] around town in his SUV, with his wraparound shades, AK-47, beard and almost-but-not-quite U.S. military uniform,” and was thus “able to convince a surprisingly large number of people in Kabul that he was a supersleuth terrorist hunter with connections to the most secretive units in the American military.” As Idema hunted terrorists, he often worked through the auspices of his company, CounTerr Group. Unfortunately for Idema and his cohorts, Afghanistan officials arrested them in July 2004. Among the charges, Afghanistan police accused Idema of illegally detaining eight Afghans for twelve days in the basement of a house. While it is unclear whether Idema had government support for his actions, his situation raises several questions about the role of private individuals in the war on terror. First, what actual roles do international bounty hunters fill in the war on terror, and what role should they play, if any? Second, how does the government respond to this role, and should it promote, acquiesce, or prevent private individuals from acting in this capacity? Third, what kind of criminal liability can the U.S. and the international justice system place on those private individuals who illegally participate in such “vigilante justice?”

In section II, I discuss the definitions and classifications of what the public loosely refers to as “international bounty hunters.” First, I introduce government-sponsored actors, including the Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program and the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.). Next, I address non-government sponsored actors, including “renegades” and those seeking vigilante justice outside the rule of law. It is important to understand that there is considerable overlap between government-sponsored actors and non-government sponsored actors. In fact, even the two clearest examples of government-sponsored international bounty hunting I could find, namely the RFJ and the C.I.A., do not explicitly sponsor bounty hunting. Rather there are a large number of actors whose specific endorsement is unclear or unknown.

In section III, I analyze criminal liability under U.S. law, foreign law, and international law. Prosecution is perhaps the best remedy for bounty hunters’ destructive and systematically anti-societal behavior. It is likely that criminal liability will reach both past harms, for retributive purposes, and those yet to occur, for purposes of general deterrence. Additionally, governments may have a positive prospective impact by discouraging bounty hunter-like conduct. In section IV, I discuss the potential for changing or eliminating the role of bounty hunters through government oversight. In this section, I also discuss the consequences of having private individuals fulfilling a military role and the policy reasons for eliminating the Rewards for Justice program.

Keywords: Bounty Hunter, Terrorism, War on Terror, C.I.A., Central Intelligence Agency, FBI, Rewards for Justice, Geneva Convention, Afghanistan, Private Military Contractors, 9/11, International Law, International Criminal Court

JEL Classification: Z00, K33, K14, K42, K00, L33, L39, N40, N45

Suggested Citation

Martin, Thomas, International Bounty Hunters in the War on Terror: Abuse and Accountability (May 1, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Thomas Martin (Contact Author)

Portland State University - Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science ( email )

United States

Willamette University College of Law ( email )

245 Winter St. SE
Salem, OR 97301
United States

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics