4 years after bin Laden’s death, man who helped track him is in prison

Four years after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden at a house half a mile from Pakistan’s top military academy, the Pakistani doctor who allegedly ran a fake vaccination program for the CIA to find the al Qaida chief – but didn’t find him – is serving a long prison term on questionable charges of aiding an insurgent Pakistani militant group, his attorney said.

Suspected CIA operative Shakil Afridi has paid a heavy price for the huge embarrassment caused to Pakistan’s powerful military and its security services by the discovery of bin Laden: In addition to his 23-year term, his family lives in hiding and the lead attorney of his defense team was shot dead in March in the northern city of Peshawar.

His situation is in stark contrast to that of the two Pakistani militant groups that helped resettle bin Laden in Pakistan in 2002. Harakat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-i-Mohammed provided bin Laden with dedicated security teams as he moved around the north of the country before settling in the town of Abbottabad in 2005, retired militants familiar with the operation told McClatchy.

Since Pakistan’s return to democracy in 2008, the two groups have re-emerged as Islamic charities, and their leaders have joined religious parties in political campaigns widely considered to be backed by the Pakistani military’s security services.

“When the sheikh (bin Laden) moved, armed 12-man teams would travel ahead and behind his vehicle. He’d travel with two to four men with good local knowledge of the area they were moving in; they’d be unarmed and disguised,” said a ranking former Harakat operative. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing the dangers of reprisal by former colleagues and arrest by the Pakistani authorities.

The security escorts were part of a Pakistan-wide arrangement provided by the groups to al Qaida and Afghan Taliban VIPs who were fleeing the American forces that invaded Afghanistan after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the former militants said.

The groups had taken turns operating the camp in Khost, eastern Afghanistan, that the U.S. targeted with cruise missiles in retaliation for the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those nearly simultaneous explosions established bin Laden as a top global terrorist.

The two militant groups did not figure in the investigation that Pakistani security services undertook after U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden early in the morning of May 2, 2011. Despite being being closely associated with al Qaida since the 1990s, the two groups got a pass from senior intelligence operatives because they hadn’t participated in a decade-long insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban.

Both groups were officially banned in Pakistan in 2002, after staging failed assassination attempts on military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani army’s top commander in Karachi, and bombing the U.S. consulate there.

But they’ve operated more or less openly since 2008, even participating in the so-called Defense of Pakistan Council, which protested the alleged infiltration of CIA operatives under a $7.5 billion civilian aid deal approved by the U.S. Congress in late 2009.

Each operated a paramilitary camp in thickly forested valleys within easy reach of the large Abbottabad house that accommodated bin Laden, his three wives and 11 children, according to former militants.

The bin Laden residence was in an Abbottabad suburb that security operatives swept each year ahead of graduation ceremonies at the nearby Kakul military academy that were attended by the Pakistani army chief of staff.

Afridi, the alleged CIA operative, had posed as a manager for the British charity Save the Children to gather DNA samples of children in the Abbottabad area while immunizing them against polio. The idea was to capture the DNA of the children in the bin Laden house so the CIA could look for a match with known members of the bin Laden family. The scheme didn’t work.

Afridi was taken into custody by Pakistani security operatives from his Peshawar home three weeks after bin Laden was killed, but he wasn’t formally arrested until May 2012.

Rather than being charged by authorities in Peshawar, which would have entailed a trial under laws of evidence provided by Pakistan’s democratic constitution, Afridi was arrested in his native Khyber, one of seven tribal areas governed not by that constitution but by regulations introduced more than a century ago by British colonial rulers.

Afridi also was not charged with treason for allegedly working as a CIA operative, because it would have triggered a diplomatic row with the United States, his attorney said Friday. Rather, federal administrators in Khyber charged Afridi with financially supporting the locally dominant Lashkar-i-Islam militant faction and providing medical treatment to its fighters.

He was convicted and sentenced. His attorneys have sought a retrial on grounds that the convicting courts weren’t legally competent to pass sentence.

“Everything has been cooked up to implicate him . . . the security agencies felt Shakil had embarrassed them by leaking the secret whereabouts of Osama,” said Abdul-Latif Afridi, Afridi’s current lawyer, though no relation to him, and a former president of the Peshawar High Court Bar Association. He’s also a former member of parliament.

“Legally, there is no substance to any of the charges leveled against Dr. Afridi – they are all rubbish.”