Who was the reclusive ailing uncle living with a large family in a big house in Abbottabad, a few miles away from Pakistan Military Academy? The question had troubled the US intelligence agencies in 2011 after they got to know that a high-value target was hiding in that house. He was believed to be Osama bin Laden, founder of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda and the world’s most-wanted terrorist since the 9/11 attacks. The US agencies had tracked an Al-Qaeda courier, known to be close to bin Laden, to the Abbottabad house where Qaeda operatives lived as two brothers with their ‘uncle’.
The CIA established a safe house near the hideout to keep an eye on the man and his family. The CIA operatives spotted a tall man who sometimes took walks in the garden within the compound but never went out. Yet the CIA could not establish it was bin Laden. The Obama administration wanted to take him out but a raid in the absence of definitive information was of not posible.
That definitive information is believed to have come from a local doctor, Shakil Afridi, who played a key role in hunting down bin Laden but has been languishing in jail ever since. The U.S. government has been accused of revealing his identity and then failing to rescue him from Pakistan.
Afridi, a CIA agent, ran a fake hepatitis B vaccination campaign in Abbottabad as a ruse to gain entry into bin Laden’s hideout and steal DNA samples of his wife and children. According to Pakistani intelligence agency ISI, Afridi did manage to get the DNA samples and passed them on to a CIA agent in Pakistan. The samples established that the bin Laden family was living in the compound, and the tall man was indeed bin Laden.
A sister of bin Laden had died in a Boston hospital whose DNA sample could be matched with those Afridi collected. In fact, the U.S. government confirmed bin Laden’s death by matching his DNA sample with his dead sister’s.
Afridi was picked up by ISI days after midnight raid on the Abbottabad house by Navy Seals on May 2, 2011. Since then, he has been in jail, serving 23-year prison sentence on various charges under a draconian colonial-era judicial system.
Though the U.S. government made efforts to get Afridi released, even by offering a prisoner swap to Pakistan, what made matters worse for him was the Obama administration officials blowing his cover. After Afridi denied to a Pakistani inquiry commission that he had helped the CIA track bin Laden and collected his DNA samples, ex-CIA director and then secretary of defence Leon Panetta confirmed Afridi’s role in an interview to CBS, leaving Afridi with no chance to save himself. The commission did take note of Panetta’s statement. It said Panetta’s confirmation of the role of Afridi in making the U.S. assassination mission a success rendered much of what Afridi told the commission very questionable.
The Obama administration’s reckless leaking of details of the raid to the media was widely criticised in the U.S., and many held the Obama administration officials responsible for jailing of Afridi. A Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher even wanted Afridi to be recognised as an American hero. Afridi’s wife and children had to go into hiding, and his lawyer was murdered. He is now kept in a high-security jail.
Many doubt if Afridi was able to collect the DNA samples of the bin Laden family. He was also not aware that he is helping the CIA hunt down bin Laden. According to ISI, he was a hired spy who was paid off for his efforts. While the U.S. government has never accepted that Afridi delivered DNA samples of the bin Laden family after the story was broken by a British newspaper, he is said to have played a significant role in the hunting down of bin Laden which seems credible since Afridi had managed to get access to bin Laden’s hideout. The US has also withheld aid to Pakistan for not releasing Afridi from jail.
An unintended consequence of the Afridi affair coming to light was people in Pakistan starting to have doubts about vaccination drives. In many areas, villagers chased off vaccinators, calling them American spies.
A glimmer of hope has now emerged for Afridi whose revision petition has been shifted to the Peshawar High Court (after the draconian colonial-era tribunal that sentenced him was repealed by Pakistan recently) where he can hope to get a proper hearing.