How an operation to capture Bin Laden created a polio epidemic in Pakistan

How an operation to capture Bin Laden created a polio epidemic in Pakistan
A healthcare worker administers polio vaccines in Karachi, Pakistan, this December. (EFE)

The CIA used a Hepatitis B vaccination campaign as a cover to try to collect DNA from Bin Laden in Pakistan

Cases of polio in Pakistan already reach the rank of “epidemic”. In 2018, slightly less than 40 cases of polio were counted worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. This year, at least 111 cases (of 125 worldwide) have been detected in Pakistan alone, although they could be more because of the difficulty of accessing the most remote regions of the country. Pakistan is, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, one of the only countries in the world where polio is still endemic. And like icing on a cocktail of poverty, difficulty in accessing health services and violence, many point to a covert US operation to catch Bin Laden, which had the unexpected consequence of ending the polio crisis in the Muslim country.

In 2011, a few weeks before several dozen ‘Navy Seals’ stormed the residential complex where the al Qaeda leader(mastermind of the 9/11 attacks) was sheltering in Abbottabad, northeast Pakistan, the CIA team used a seemingly harmless hepatitis B vaccination campaign to obtain DNA samples from America’s most wanted terrorist. Although they did not obtain the genetic material, the information collected, with the cover of the sanitary operation, was key to cornering Bin Laden.

Beyond its anti-terrorist success, the operation fueled the anti-Western narrative in the country by giving rise to persistent rumours that vaccination programs are only a way to cover up foreign interests in Pakistan. If the CIA had tried to use a vaccination campaign to act illegally in Pakistani territory, what other rumours could be true? Everybody. The seed of distrust had been planted and watered.

Rumours continually surround vaccination campaigns, including those organized by the Pakistan government itself without the participation of other “foreign forces.” In 2015, the Government had to “prove” that the polio vaccine was not ‘haram’ (outside the precepts of Islamic law) and that it had no “hormones” that made children sterile. Last April, a false rumor that vaccine doses actually made children sick, hundreds of parents overflowed hospitals, while thousands more refused to have their children vaccinated.

It is not the most serious case: the consequences of these rumors usually include murders of health workers, attacks against vaccination convoys or even furious crowds attacking hospitals and igniting hospitals. Fire to medical facilities. At least 102 health workers in vaccination campaigns have been killed in the last five years. The recurrent outbreaks of violence have forced the Pakistani Government on dozens of occasions to cancel vaccination campaigns in entire provinces of the country.

The last campaign, which the Pakistani government has had to cancel just a few weeks ago due to the continuing cases of violence against health workers, included a detachment of 265,000 vaccinators who were supposed to immunize more than 35 million children, door to door, especially in the provinces of the north of the country, against this highly contagious disease and that it almost certainly paralyzes the small children under five years of age infected. The security detachment was more than 100,000 officers. It wasn’t enough.

A “traitor” doctor to Pakistan

In July 2011, just two months after the death of Bin Laden, the Pakistanis were surprised to confirm their conspiracy theories about the performance of US intelligence services on Pakistani soil: with the intention of approaching the leader Al Qaeda and identify his whereabouts, the CIA had organized a Hepatitis B vaccination campaign as a cover. The story was published by Saeed Shah, a Pakistani journalist who later claimed that the CIA “had tried to push for its media not to publish the story”. By then, the Pakistani government had already arrested Dr Shakil Afridi, a local campaign organizer, as a CIA collaborator. Afridi became a “traitor” in Pakistan.

More details came to light with the leak in 2014 of the ‘Abbottabad Report’, ordered by the Government of Pakistan to an independent commission. Afridi, who according to Pakistan was arrested while trying to flee from the country to Afghanistan, had organized the Hepatitis B vaccination campaign in the Abbottabad region, where it was presumed that Bin Laden was hiding, at the request of a CIA contact, a woman named “Kate.”

The objective of the operation was to enter the residential complex where it was suspected that the leader of Al Qaida was hiding with the excuse of vaccinating children residing in that house, collecting the DNA from the syringes and analyzing it to compare the genetic material of the minors with that of Bin Laden. If anyone had come out positive, it would be a relative of the jihadist leader. Such a test would end up assuring the blow that the US secret services had received shortly before on the location of Bin Laden and would give the green light to the lightning operation to end the terrorist.

The Abbottabad report contains the interrogation of Dr. Shakil Afridi – arrested just 20 days after the death of Bin Laden – and his background, which seems to prove Afridi’s relationship with the CIA. The Pakistani had resided a few years in the US before returning to Pakistan in 2009 due to the impossibility of practising as a doctor in the United States. Back in Pakistan, Afridi worked as a doctor and established relationships with USAID, the US agency for humanitarian aid, which in turn collaborated with “Save the Children”.

CIA orders

Soon after, he would have met ‘Kate’, an American woman who was in charge of vaccination campaigns in outlying regions of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. According to Afridi’s confession, interrogated by the Pakistani Intelligence Service, this woman recruited him and would have been her contact at the CIA [Afridi would later change his version of events]. This same woman convinced him, in January 2011, to organize a vaccination campaign in the city of Abbottabad.

Finally in April, one month before Bin Laden’s death, Afridi, accompanied by a local health worker, knocked on the door of an imposing residential complex in the ‘Bilal Town’ neighbourhood of the city of Abbottabad. The neighbors knew it as ‘Waziristan Kothi’, and Bin Laden was hiding there.

Afridi, following orders from the CIA, asked for a step to vaccinate children living in the complex. He was denied, noting that the children were not at that time. Afridi did not get the DNA samples, but other information that finished completing the CIA puzzle: the ‘boss’ of the ‘compound’ was one of those identified as “messengers” of Bin Laden. Enough to give the green light to the operation ‘Death of Osama bin Laden’, which culminated in the execution of the leader of Al Qaida.

It was later learned that Pakistan had not given permission for the operation, which was launched from Afghanistan, and denounced an outrage on its sovereignty by the United States. The investigations began, and in less than two weeks they already knew about the existence of the Afridi vaccination campaign. It is not clear if the CIA had come to inform Afridi of the use that the US wanted to give to the DNA samples it had to get and that the campaign would be a cover for an anti-terrorism operation.

After knowing the details of the CIA operation, six foreign workers from Save the Children were expelled from the country. The director of the organization for Pakistan, David Wright, stated that “he was outraged by the misuse of the name Save the Children (…) That a life-saving activity, such as a vaccination campaign, has been for non-purposes sanitary or humanitarian”. The scandal was such that the CIA itself issued a statement stating that “it would not use vaccination campaigns” of NGOs as a cover.

Last October, Afridi appealed his 33-year jail sentence (later reduced to 23) on the grounds that he did not have “a fair trial.” Afridi remains in Peshawar prison despite Donald Trump’s campaign promises in 2016, which he said would free Afridi – considered a hero in the US – “in two minutes” if he was elected president.

Highest number of cases in the last five years

While Pakistan was about to eradicate polio in the early 2000s, that trend changed as of 2012, according to WHO data. Even so, the 2019 figure is still record. With 111 cases of children affected by polio, this is the highest number in the last five years.

Because the undercover CIA operation to stop Bin Laden is not the only cause of the polio epidemic that Pakistan is experiencing today. To try to overcome the reluctance of Pakistanis to foreign humanitarian workers, the Pakistani Ministry of Health began recruiting local workers to organize door-to-door campaigns (instead of forcing the transfer of families to hospitals) with people who are already part of the community.

And although at first, it seemed to work, the country’s political instability and the presence of Taliban from neighbouring Afghanistan have continued to ignite violence against vaccination campaigns and perpetuate the disease in their children’s legs. The difficulty of accessing the most remote areas of the country is another problem. A new trend is the dissemination of videos of anti-vaccines produced in Europe and dubbed into Urdu, according to a recent report by Al Jazeera. In 2019 alone, the Pakistani authorities have removed at least 174 content that promoted the non-vaccination of children on social networks such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

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Jiya Saini
Jiya Saini is a Journalist and Writer at Revyuh.com. She has been working with us since January 2018. After studying at Jamia Millia University, she is fascinated by smart lifestyle and smart living. She covers technology, games, sports and smart living, as well as good experience in press relations. She is also a freelance trainer for macOS and iOS, and In the past, she has worked with various online news magazines in India and Singapore. Email: jiya (at) revyuh (dot) com