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How The CIA's Hunt For Bin Laden Impacted Public Health Campaigns In Pakistan


It took the U.S. nearly a decade to track down Osama bin Laden following his role in the 9/11 attacks. And the effort to locate him ended up having unexpected and long-term consequences for public health campaigns in Pakistan. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Islamabad, it's taken a long time for medical work to recover.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In early 2011, U.S. intelligence hunting for Osama bin Laden had honed in on a compound in the town of Abbottabad in eastern Pakistan. But they wanted to make sure it was the right place, so the CIA employed a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to organize a hepatitis B vaccination program. The idea was to vaccinate the children living in the compound, then test the DNA on the used syringes to see if they were related to bin Laden. The doctor went to the door but wasn't allowed in. Instead, Afridi was given a phone number to try again later. That phone was ultimately linked to bin Laden. A few months later, Navy SEALs stormed the compound.

NAAZIR MAHMOOD: I remember the day very well. In the morning, I think around 11 o'clock, I switched on the TV. And the news was there that Osama bin has been killed in Abbottabad. There was an American operation.

NORTHAM: That's Dr. Naazir Mahmood, a Pakistani consultant to international aid groups. He says the government here was furious and embarrassed about the killing of bin Laden on Pakistani soil. It discovered the connection with Afridi, who was arrested and is serving a 23-year sentence. Afridi maintains he never knew he was working for the CIA. Mahmood again.

MAHMOOD: They needed to find a scapegoat somewhere, and they found a scapegoat. So if he facilitated the arrest of the worst terrorist in the world, the government of Pakistan should have awarded Shakil Afridi rather than punished him.

NORTHAM: The repercussions for non-governmental organizations, NGOs, working in Pakistan were profound. Several international aid groups were kicked out of the country, including the U.S. arm of Save the Children, which did legitimately organize the hepatitis B vaccination program Afridi was working on. It says it knew nothing about Afridi's involvement. The government also placed new restrictions on NGOs, making it difficult for them to operate in Pakistan, says Aftab Alam Khan, a consultant for international development organizations.

AFTAB ALAM KHAN: There was already some kind of deficit of trust with the NGOs and civil society organizations. But that incident basically magnified and amplified the problems. And we are now in a situation where the NGOs are regulated in a very tough manner.

NORTHAM: Khan concerns the crackdown on aid agencies resulted in the loss of millions of dollars of help for disadvantaged Pakistanis, and local staff lost jobs. But the bin Laden raid also affected ongoing vaccination campaigns, like a polio eradication effort. Many religious leaders warned the CIA was involved in that campaign as well. The number of people refusing the polio vaccination spiked, and health workers were targeted. Even now, after the government has endorsed vaccination campaigns against polio and more recently COVID, Khan says there's still an air of suspicion that lingers from the bin Laden raid.

KHAN: The impression and the perception generated from that incident led to this situation which we are facing today. Sometime, one incident becomes so anecdotal, so big that it overcomes everything.

NORTHAM: In 2014, the CIA banned using vaccination programs for gathering intelligence.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.