Dr. Shakil Afridi: How a Valuable U.S. Intelligence Asset Became a Liability

EDITORIAL/COMMENTARY — The house had been watched for quite some time.  The home in Abbottabad was just about a mile from the Pakistani Military Academy and was significantly bigger than others in the area, surrounded by barbed wire fence and equipped with security gates. U.S. officials believed that the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden had taken up residence there, but they needed proof.  Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi could get it.

The intelligence collection operation would be challenging.  There was no internet or telephone service and residents of the house burned their trash rather than have it picked up like most of the other houses in the area.  DNA would be hard to retrieve.  But the CIA had an idea and soon the doctor from Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province began conducting a vaccination drive in the area, secretly collecting DNA samples in an effort to try and collect the proof that would eliminate any doubt about whether bin Laden was living there.

On the night of May 2, helicopters filled with U.S. Navy SEALS raided the compound, killing bin Laden and retrieving his body.  One can imagine the confusion the doctor must have felt as the news broke in the early morning hours about gunfire that went on for 40 minutes.  Given the sensitivity of the mission, it’s doubtful that the Agency had given him details of the larger operation.   

Pakistani officials said they had no idea bin Laden was there and promptly turned their attention toward arresting those who had helped the Americans find him.  Within weeks, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, had taken suspects into custody. Dr. Afridi was among them.  Pakistani officials charged him with treason and by May of the following year, Dr. Afridi had been sentenced to 33 years in prison.

How a Valuable U.S. Asset Became a Liability

The story of Dr. Afridi is an excellent one to study in order to truly understand the complicated nature of recruiting and running assets, if only more people would talk about it.  The Cipher Brief reached out to numerous intelligence officers with knowledge of the case, all of whom politely said they couldn’t talk. The Agency or its officers won’t discuss sources or methods for the understandable reasons of not feeding the adversary information that could put others in harm’s way. Since we don’t know the exact details, let’s break (what used to be) the cardinal rule of journalism – and speculate.

The CIA certainly would have known after the Abbottabad raid that the Dr.’s freedom and possibly his life, were at risk.  There could have been offers to move him and his family out of the country and provide them cover and a comfortable life.  Dr. Afridi would have had to make a decision.  Take his family and leave everything he had known behind, or risk staying in place, believing that Pakistani officials had better things to do than make an example out of him and believing naively that he could easily turn aside any probing questions about his own activities.  His arrest and subsequent interrogation likely would have changed his perspective.

Once in jail, I imagine the idea of a CIA-led extraction would have become magnitudes more complicated.  Though it could have been done.  Maybe such a move would put the doctor’s family and extended family at greater risk, while certainly damaging an already strained relationship with the Pakistanis.  But what message would this send to other CIA assets around the world if he were just left there?

Maybe others felt a moral obligation not to let the doctor remain behind bars simply because he helped the U.S. verify the identity of the man responsible for taking 2,977 lives on September 11th and taking even more lives as the effects on first responders took their toll over time.  Maybe those closest to the asset felt the worst about his arrest but had little opportunity to do anything about it because of politics that were undoubtedly at play by then.  In a situation like that, the default position would have been to do nothing. Nothing that is but to live with the outcome.  The CIA’s once valuable asset had become a liability if addressed further.

Regardless of whether this speculation rings true on some levels or all, it raises issues worth thinking about and highlights the difficulties of a covert life. The case of Dr. Afridi can’t be pushed publicly by those who know better than others what he did and the sacrifices he made in order to help the U.S.  And now squarely in the hands of the State Department, public requests have so far failed to earn the doctor’s release. 

Looking Ahead:

There have been very few moments of hope since Dr. Afridi was arrested and incarcerated eight years ago.  He was moved to another prison last year, prompting speculation that either the Pakistanis may be getting ready to release him, or that the U.S. was planning to break him out.  Neither happened.

The doctor was in the headlines again in July when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited the United States and suggested a prisoner swap for Dr. Afridi.  Given that the person he wanted to swap for, neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui was convicted of attempted murder and assault of U.S. nationals and U.S. officers and employees in Afghanistan, that might not have been a deal that ended well for Americans who could be the targets of future attacks.

Before Khan’s visit, Administration officials had said that the President would demand the release of Dr. Afridi, but when asked at a press conference, the President seemed confused about who Dr. Afridi was and didn’t respond specifically to his case but said instead that there would soon be good news about the release of ‘hostages’. 

 As we observe this anniversary of 9/11, it’s worth remembering not only the victims of that heinous terrorist act, but also those who took enormous risk to help lead the U.S. to the mastermind behind it.  

Updated 9-15-2019

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2 Responses

  1. Nicholas Dujmovic says:

    The article is unsigned (unless I missed it somewhere) even with a first person reference (“I imagine…”). There are some major mistakes in it, so I wonder who your source is. BTW, as an Agency staff historian, I was the lead writer for the compartmented history on the UBL operation.

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