The Death of a Counterterrorism Activist

Bruce Smith, the man who helped set up the Counter Terrorism Rewards Program-the precursor to today’s Rewards for Justice Program-died on September 21 when the single-engine plane he was piloting crashed near Daytona Beach, Florida. His son, Scott Smith, said engine failure was to blame.


Mr. Smith became a counter terrorism activist in 1988, after his wife Ingrid was killed when Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. Fifteen years later, in 2003, Libyan intelligence officer and former head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi, was sentenced to 27 years in a Scottish prison for the deaths of the 270 people in the Lockerbie disaster. The bombing killed 189 Americans and stood as the deadliest terrorist attack against American civilians until 9/11.

Bruce Smith’s pioneering efforts began when he took Pam Am’s $100,000 next-of-kin death payout and petitioned the federal government to develop a cash rewards program for tips that led to the capture of suspected terrorists. From the Los Angeles Times:

Experts told him it would take at least $3 million to make a difference — the bounty at the time was a few hundred thousand dollars. Smith prodded Congress to pass legislation that increased the reward to up to $2 million and persuaded airline industry groups to contribute, boosting the fund to $4 million.”

The program played a significant role in the arrest and conviction of master terrorist Ramzi Yousef for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Today, the State Department calls its Rewards for Justice Program, “one of the most valuable assets the U.S. Government has in the fight against international terrorism.” The Secretary of State can offer up to $5 million dollars for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a terrorist. In October 2001, that payout was raised to $25 million dollars owing to a provision in the Patriot Act.


Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri both have $25 million rewards on their heads as part of the Rewards for Justice Program. Following in Mr. Smith’s pioneering footprints, an additional $2 million for Bin Laden is being offered from the private sector, under a program funded by the Airline Pilots Association and the Air Transport Association. This brings the Bin Laden bounty to $27 million. Unlike with Ramzi Yousef, there have been no takers so far.

But that wasn’t all Mr. Smith did. He was the first family member of a victim of Pan Am Flight 103 to attempt to sue Libya for its role in the bombing. Mr. Smith filed a lawsuit in New York federal court, one which was initially thrown out. The court ruled that under the existing law, Libya was a sovereign nation and therefore had immunity from being sued by U.S. residents. Mr. Smith was undeterred. He successfully lobbied Congress to amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. After the law was changed, Smith re-filed his lawsuit. Other victims’ family members followed in Mr. Smith’s footsteps and filed suit. Libya ultimately accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation — most of which has been paid.


Mr. Smith was 71 when he died. As a younger man, he was a pilot for Pan Am.

Annie Jacobsen writes about aviation security and homeland security for a variety of newspapers, magazines and blogs. She is the author of the book, Terror in The Skies, Why 9/11 Could Happen Again.


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