Ten Years On: What Became of the CIA’s bin Laden Doctor, Shakil Afridi?

Ten Years On: What Became of the CIA’s bin Laden Doctor, Shakil Afridi?

As the world focuses on new problems such as that of the protracted pandemic and other geopolitical dilemmas, including the withdrawal of U.S troops from neighboring Afghanistan, some analysts fear Shakil will be forgotten in the fading of a failed war.

For more than a decade, the doctor once hailed by the United States as playing a pivotal role in bringing down 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden has been hidden from public view; his health and sanity slowly slipping away, and his legacy lost to the fog of war and memory. Dr. Shakil Afridi, now fifty-nine, has plunged into oblivion in the depths of a Pakistani jail, with his lawyer one of the few left speaking out on his behalf.

“His family said he looked feeble and seemed under severe stress because of his unending imprisonment,” Qamar Nadeem Afridi, his attorney and cousin, said. “The delay in justice has turned him hopeless.”

The depiction is based on the last time Shakil was permitted to meet with his immediate family in prison, which was in January.

“Last year, jail authorities had only allowed wife Amna Ghafoor along with their children to meet the doctor twice, given that the outbreak of Covid-19 has reduced meeting frequencies,” noted Qamar. “It has now been over four months, and the family is still waiting to get their second meeting request approved by the Jail Superintendent.”

Qamar and Shakil’s family fear that he has tested positive for the novel infection, which has run rampant in the overcrowded prison and a possible cause as to why the meeting request has languished without response.

The legal representative himself has not been granted access to his client for more than four years, he said. “The family has to pass through four rigorous checking points and can only communicate with Shakil using a microphone under the surveillance of cameras, and in the presence of jail authorities on both the sides of the glass,” Qamar said. “Prior to their meeting, the family is conditioned not to have a conversation in their regional language Pashtu; discuss Shakil's case; ask him about the jail conditions, and no political talks are allowed.”

As per the jail manual, Shakil’s wife and children are technically allowed to meet once a month for up to an hour, Qamar said. However, the jail authorities “deliberately obstruct their meeting by either switching off the fan or the lights of the meeting room just after twenty-five minutes, so the family is pushed to leave,” he explained.

The opportunity to make some side money, which quickly descended into a personal nightmare, started in the weeks leading up to the eponymous Navy SEAL raid of May 2, 2011, which was dubbed “Operation Neptune Spear.”

Americans recruited the doctor to run a door-to-door vaccination program in the two-hundred-thousand-population city of Abbottabad in the endeavor to derive DNA samples. According to his lawyer, Shakil did not know that the Central Intelligence Agency would use those samples to identify the most wanted man in the world, who at that point had a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head. The person of interest was known to him only as “Peter.”

Weeks after bin Laden’s death and just days after U.S. officials publicly revealed how the plot unfolded: Pakistani authorities were able to knuckle down on forensics and point fingers at Shakil as the one who fit the profile. He was promptly apprehended on May 23, 2011, never to be seen in public purview again. It’s notable that then-CIA director Leon Panetta had openly discussed that a doctor had provided “very helpful” intelligence.

But the road since then—dinged by a lack of due process—has been a bitter one for all involved.  Ever since the U.S.-lauded surgeon was placed into solitary confinement over ten years ago, he is said to be steadily wasting away and struggling with severe depression and psychosis. Last March, Shakil embarked on a hunger strike—a silent protest against the “deplorable” prison conditions and the lack of due process, given that he has repeatedly been denied visitation rights.

Shakil’s cell is reportedly six by six feet—shorter than his towering height—with no ventilation, no proper toilet, and little in the way of adequate food and nutrition, according to Qamar. The lack of sunlight and air sends him into rashes of skin eruptions and discomfort, especially in the sweltering months.

What is worse is the lack of due process, according to Qamar. He not only claims to have been endlessly denied visitation rights but also said that the appeals case in the Peshawar High Court has been postponed more than sixteen times, mainly as a result of the government prosecutor failing to attend.

“Shakil’s last hearing was on March 14, 2021, in Peshawar High Court, which like other hearings wasn't fruitful,” Qamar said. “I’m waiting for a new hearing date, which is yet to be announced.”

Given the localized charges, the trial is overseen by the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), in which tribal elders and other bureaucrats are selected as judges. The FCR was installed in 1872 “by imperial administrators to manage the frontier inhabitants” and "designed to exclude the Frontier’s inhabitants from the colonial judiciary, and more broadly the colonial sphere, encapsulating them in their own colonially sanctioned ‘tradition,’” according to the Cambridge University Press.

As part of this still-in-effect legal system, Qamar could not cross-examine witnesses. Also, the mainstream court system has little jurisdiction over the tribal areas, according to Qamar. Thus, the quest for a fair trial is a quest that is fast-fading.

It is a far cry for a man who remains as darling in Washington's eyes and who—long before his brush with U.S. intelligence personnel—lived a comfortable life as what locals described as a charismatic physician providing for his family and serving his local community. At the time, Shakil was the chief surgeon at Civil Hospital Jamrud, nestled on the western hem of the Khyber tribal region.

Although contrary to public perception, Shakil was never charged with treason or even in connection to the bin Laden showdown. Instead, he was convicted of medically and financially supporting Khyber-based militants belonging to the foreign terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Islam.

Yet, to the likes of Qamar, such a charge sheet is as ludicrous as it is unfathomable. 

Nonetheless, Shakil was sentenced in 2012 to thirty-three years behind bars. That sentence was reduced to twenty years on an appeal in 2014, making his release no sooner than 2034. 

While the doctor's immediate family is occasionally permitted to visit him behind bars, their lives have also amounted to imprisonment of a different kind. They move from house to house, fleeing to a new, undisclosed abode every few weeks as threats against them mount. Furthermore, they are unable to leave the country, according to Qamar.

Shakil’s imprisonment has also left his wife, Imrana Ghafoor, and their children destitute. Without a breadwinner and no means of safely acquiring work themselves, they have to rely on a small circle of relatives for survival.

In the years before the coronavirus outbreak, Shakil’s wife and children desperately wanted passports to complete the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, a religious pillar for Muslims, according to Qamar. Yet the family was denied passports and put on an “exit control list to prevent them from escaping Pakistan at any time,” he said.

Through both the Obama and Trump administrations, the State Department has maintained in statements that Shakil is “unjustly imprisoned” and that the issue continues to be raised “at the highest levels during discussions with Pakistan's leadership.” U.S lawmakers have also made numerous efforts to impose financial punishment on Pakistan. In 2012, the Senate voted to reduce aid to the country by $33 million, or $1 million for every year Shakil was slapped with jail time. In early 2018, former President Donald Trump tweeted that the United States had “foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid” and three days later halted security assistance. 

Alas, it has not amounted to Shakil’s release. The State Department did not respond to requests for further comment.

However, many Pakistanis view Shakil as a traitor who helped to violate the nation's autonomy and tarnish its reputation by exposing the terrorist leader's whereabouts. The mission propelled Pakistan into the embarrassing bind of either being complicit in harboring the prominent terrorist leader or incompetent in not knowing that he had been sheltering in the bustling city for quite some time.

Multiple Islamabad officials have since highlighted that the country has paid the price for their counter-terrorism Washington partnership in a tremendous amount of blood and treasure, including attacks on their soil. They indicate that the trust was severed when they were excluded from the operation on their turf.

Furthermore, the unveiling of the carefully coordinated CIA plot involving the fake vaccination drive has had a swell of dire ramifications for the Pakistani people. As an aftereffect, local leaders encouraged parents not to allow their children to get shots. Some districts even prohibited vaccination teams from operating with the concern that they could be part of a spy expedition, and more than ninety-five polio workers were slain. Pakistan is one of just three countries yet to eliminate polio—with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention documenting a spike in cases over the past six years, according to the World Health Organization.