Sana'a: Jaber Al Banna is one of the world's most-wanted terrorism suspects. In 2003, the US 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. Al Banna 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 here in the Yemeni capital, past several indifferent policemen. Then he disappeared inside a building, though not before accidentally stepping on a reporter's toes.

Al Banna, 41, is one of two dozen Al Qaida members listed under a US programme 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 programme dates to 1984 and was originally used to track down fugitive terrorists of all persuasions, from the Balkans to the Palestinian territories. After the September 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 (Dh91.75 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 programme say.

"It's certainly been ineffective," said Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan and former director of the agency's counterterrorism centre."It hasn't produced results, and it hasn't particularly produced leads."

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 informants; and a mistaken assumption that anyone's loyalty can be bought if the price is high enough.

"The programme 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 websites advertising the programme in 25 languages.

Classified information

Since 1984, the programme handed out $77 million to more than 50 tipsters, according to the State Department. The largest single reward, $30 million, went to an informant who enabled the US military to find and kill ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussain's sons, Uday and Qusay, in 2003.

More than $700 million worth of bounties remain available for scores of terrorist suspects who are still on the loose.

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.

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security declined interview requests, and the State Department would not answer a list of questions submitted for this article. Such information "might compromise the integrity of this programme," Raphael Cook, a State Department spokesman, said in an e-mail.

In addition to the $30 million given for the information about Saddam's sons, the US 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.

Two - Jamal Al Badawi and Fahd Al Quso - were convicted in Yemeni courts for helping to organise the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 US sailors and wounded 39. The Yemeni government has refused to hand them over to Washington, citing the lack of an extradition treaty.

The third is Al Banna, a US-Yemeni citizen and accused member of the so-called Lackawanna Six, a group of young men from Buffalo who travelled to Afghanistan in the spring of 2001 to train in Al Qaida camps. In January 2004, under pressure from the United States, Yemeni authorities arrested him. But two years later he escaped from a maximum security prison in Sana'a, along with 22 other inmates.

He resurfaced 2 1/2 months ago, on February 23, when he walked unannounced into a cramped Sana'a courtroom, escorted by four bodyguards.

He dropped another bombshell by saying he had personally surrendered to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and was under his protection.