Was Bin Laden Really Undone By A Fake Vaccine Program?
One usually looks to GQ for hot babes and fashion finds for gay and metrosexual men, not investigative reporting, so Matthieu Aikins’ article, ”The Doctor, the CIA, and the Blood of Bin Laden“ stood out like a tailored suit in a sea of casual Fridays khakis. We all know that Pakistani physician Dr. Shakhil Afridi helped the CIA confirm Osama bin Laden’s presence in the large, mysterious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan by running a fake vaccine program to obtain DNA samples from the Bin Laden family. We also know Afridi has a controversial reputation – with some regarding him as a hero and others viewing him as a charming charlatan who was just in it for the money — and that he now languishes in a Pakistani prison. Yet, the facts surrounding the mission that killed Bin Laden remain murky. US officials have praised Afridi for the help he provided, but haven’t specified what Afridi actually did to help.
Aikins sheds more light on the subject by travelling to Afridi’s childhood home in Afridiabad, Bin Laden’s former compound in Abbotabad, and Peshawar, where Afridi had attended medical school, practiced, and had reportedly been recruited by the CIA.
How we got the DNA: Bakhto and Amna, nurses for the hepatitis B vaccination team assembled by Afridi, explained how they knocked on doors, drew a drop of blood to blot onto a test strip to see if the patient was already infected, gave vaccinations to those who tested negatives, and returned all of the test strips to Afridi, who presumably turned them over to his CIA handlers. DNA analysis proved that Bin Laden’s close family members — and hence, likely, Bin Laden — were living in the compound. Aikins was introduced to the women by a Pakistani journalist and Abbotabad resident obliquely referred to as “Nader,” who had promised that “he would prove that Afridi had actually collected DNA evidence from the Bin Laden House.”
They really fell for the vaccination scam?: Although extraordinary security precautions were taken to guard what locals called “The Big House” — the late Al Quaeda leader’s couriers were observed waiting 90 minutes before putting the batteries back into their cell phones after driving away from the compound — children in the household had been permitted to receive vaccines in the past. The nurses were wary and defensive towards Aikins, because the Pakistani government fired them from their positions in retaliation for helping Afridi, and they now live in poverty. But Nader told Aikins that he had interviewed Amna and Bakhto shortly after the raid, and they had told him that they had “gotten into the house and successfully collected blood samples from a young woman who may have been the age of Bin Laden’s daughter Maryam.” Further, Bakhto had administered oral Polio vaccines to seven children in the household the previous year.
Why did Afridi do it? Aikins reports — after extensive interviews — “Those who worked with Afridi remember a gregarious but elusive man, a swaggering joker who loved to sit and hold court but who rarely formed close bonds.” Afridi’s detractors insist that he was a charlatan who would do just about anything to make a buck, and have accused him of performing unnecessary and detrimental surgeries. An unnamed pharmaceutical sales man said, on the one hand that Afridi’s hospital was “lucky to have a doctor as qualified as him,” but on the other hand, declared, “his mission was to make money.” The CIA reportedly paid Afridi $55,000 to administer the hepatitis B vaccination program. Some also suspect Afridi’s reputed weakness for women had something to do with it: All four of his CIA handlers were female. Afridi’s brother Jamil “brushed aside such stories” during an interview with Aikins. “Shakil was a good man who took care of his family. When asked about the CIA’s mission to locate Bin Laden, Jamil responded, “I don’t think that he knew what he was doing. But even if he did, he did a very good thing.”
Through Aikins’ article, we also learn about the unfortunate unintended consequences of the assassination of Bin Laden:
- Criticism of the CIA’s fake vaccination program: According to an article in the UK Guardian, Doctors Without Borders and others have “lashed out at the CIA” because the mission jeopardizes their mission to provide medical care to vulnerable communities. “The risk is that vulnerable communities – anywhere – needing access to essential health services will understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid,” said Médecins Sans Frontières President Unni Karunakara. An unspecified US official responded, “The vaccination campaign was part of the hunt for the world’s top terrorist, and nothing else. If the United States hadn’t shown this kind of creativity, people would be scratching their heads asking why it hadn’t used all tools at its disposal to find Bin Laden.”
- Further strain on our relations with Pakistan: The April 2011 elimination of Bin Laden has caused endless embarrassment to Pakistan, in part because the World’s Top Terrorist was found within their porous borders, and in part because the US acted unilaterally in conducting a military operation without permission and with only a last-minute courtesy call to Pakistani officials. This comes on top of Pakistan’s long-standing objection to US drones, which most recently killed a rogue militant Taliban leader who had been leading forces against US-led coalition troops in Afghanistan, but whom Islamabad had viewed as a potential ally.
- Afridi’s imprisonment: Afridi was arrested by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) three weeks after Bin Laden’s death in late May, 2011. Afridi’s lawyer Qamar Nadeem told Aikins that instead of charging Afridi with treason for his work with the CIA — which would have been legally defensible because Pakistan is not officially at odds with the US — the Pakistani authorities charged him under a “draconian colonial-era tribal code” for providing money and medical treatment to Lashkar-e-Islam, a militant group. Even though an indignant and anonymous Lashkar-e-Islam commander angrily denied any ties to Afridi, snarling, “We have no links to such a shameless man. If we see him, we’ll chew him alive.” The charge may have been technically true, but only because the group had kidnapped and held him until Afridi’s wife raised and paid the demanded ransom. The nature of these charges also enables Pakistan to avoid the embarrassing publicity generated by a public trial. Meanwhile, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY and son of Ron), Faux News, and other conservatives are demanding that we withhold US Aid to Pakistan until Afridi is released. Although I agree in principle, the GOP’s sudden objections to secretive imprisonment and torture smack of Obama-bashing. Foreign policy isn’t as simple as all that. In addition several accounts — including Aikins’ article — mentioned that the CIA urged Afridi to leave Pakistan and offered to help, but Afridi feared crossing the turbulent border and chose to stay.
Until decades from now when the secret files are unsealed, the details surrounding the elimination of the menacing threat of Osama Bin Laden and the doctor who helped take him down will be the proverbial “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”