The Washington Post Thursday, December 13, 4:18 AM
Mark Boal, screenwriter of the new movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” says he wanted to tell a story that conveyed the moral complexities of the hunt to kill Osama bin Laden. The debate already churning around the film shows that he and director Kathryn Bigelow succeeded in that, and much else.
The movie tells the story of the relentless pursuit of bin Laden, seen through a character called “Maya,” who is based on one of the real-life CIA targeters who tracked down the al-Qaeda leader. It was Maya’s good sense to focus on the courier “Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti,” who finally led the targeters to their prey.
But it’s a muted victory. In the haunting last scene of the film, Maya is seen sitting in a C-130 cargo plane at Bagram air base after she has identified bin Laden’s body. One of the crew asks her where she wants to go. She doesn’t know what to answer, and this frames the uncertainty of America itself: What did we accomplish in killing bin Laden? At what cost? Where do we go next?
The debate about the film centers on what role torture played in pinpointing al-Kuwaiti and then bin Laden himself. The film suggests that without “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the Orwellian euphemism), Maya might not have made the match. The movie doesn’t “advocate” torture — which it shows in horrifyingly believable detail — but it does demonstrate how evidence gleaned from it led to bin Laden’s door. Could Maya have gotten there some other way? The film doesn’t speculate.
Some critics contend that the film is wrong because, first, torture is ineffective and, second, bin Laden could have been found through other tactics. But I fear this argument softens the moral dilemma and overlooks part of the factual record. I asked intelligence officials to clarify some of the details, and they responded with information that may help audiences evaluate “Zero Dark Thirty” when it opens Dec. 19.
Let’s start with what Leon Panetta, then CIA director, said last year in a letter to Sen. John McCain, himself a victim of torture and one of its leading critics. Here’s an excerpt from the letter, written a week after the May 2, 2011, bin Laden raid:
“Nearly 10 years of intensive intelligence work led the CIA to conclude that bin Laden was likely hiding at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. . . . Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether those techniques were the ‘only timely and effective way’ to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively. What is definitive is that the information was only a part of multiple streams of intelligence that led us to bin Laden.”
So that’s a caution, at the outset: The role of harsh interrogation “cannot be established definitively.”
Let’s look specifically at information about the mysterious al-Kuwaiti. According to the intelligence officials, several dozen detainees provided information about him starting in 2002. Seven of the first eight detainees providing information were actually captives of foreign intelligence services, and the CIA can’t say whether they were tortured. (The eighth was held by the U.S. military.)
The first mention that al-Kuwaiti was a courier for bin Laden came in 2003 from a CIA detainee who was harshly interrogated. Opponents of torture counter that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, lied about al-Kuwaiti — which, in their view, shows that the practice doesn’t work. But counterterrorism experts argue that the fact Mohammed concealed the courier’s role, even under duress, was actually a red flag, convincing the analysts of the courier’s importance.
Even without the torture-based information, “we still would have focused on [al-Kuwaiti] like a laser,” insists one intelligence official.
“Zero Dark Thirty” describes the analysts’ triumph in persistently following leads about the courier. But intelligence officials say the real breakthrough was obtaining his true name, Ibrahim Said, which was discovered in Kuwait through “old fashioned spy work” — presumably meaning the recruitment of a source with access to al-Qaeda’s network. On that subject, senior officials are mum.
Here’s the bottom line, at least for me: We should oppose torture because it’s wrong, not because it doesn’t work. Perhaps the courier’s trail could have been found through other means; we’ll never know. President Obama was right to ban torture, but the public must understand that this decision carries a potential cost in lost information. That’s what makes it a moral choice.
For the first time, the Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden tells his story — speaking not just about the raid and the three shots that changed history, but about the personal aftermath for himself and his family. And the startling failure of the United States government to help its most experienced and skilled warriors carry on with their lives.
By Phil Bronstein
Phil Bronstein is the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and currently serves as executive chairman of the Center for Investigative Reporting. This piece was reported in cooperation with CIR.
The man who shot and killed Osama bin Laden sat in a wicker chair in my backyard, wondering how he was going to feed his wife and kids or pay for their medical care.
It was a mild spring day, April 2012, and our small group, including a few of his friends and family, was shielded from the sun by the patchwork shadows of maple trees. But the Shooter was sweating as he talked about his uncertain future, his plans to leave the Navy and SEAL Team 6.
He stood up several times with an apologetic gripe about the heat, leaving a perspiration stain on the seat-back cushion. He paced. I didn't know him well enough then to tell whether a glass of his favorite single malt, Lagavulin, was making him less or more edgy.
We would end up intimately familiar with each other's lives. We'd have dinners, lots of Scotch. He's played with my kids and my dogs and been a hilarious, engaging gentleman around my wife.
In my yard, the Shooter told his story about joining the Navy at nineteen, after a girl broke his heart. To escape, he almost by accident found himself in a Navy recruiter's office. "He asked me what I was going to do with my life. I told him I wanted to be a sniper.
"He said, 'Hey, we have snipers.'
"I said, 'Seriously, dude. You do not have snipers in the Navy.' But he brought me into his office and it was a pretty sweet deal. I signed up on a whim."
"That's the reason Al Qaeda has been decimated," he joked, "because she broke my fucking heart."
I would come to know about the Shooter's hundreds of combat missions, his twelve long-term SEAL-team deployments, his thirty-plus kills of enemy combatants, often eyeball to eyeball. And we would talk for hours about the mission to get bin Laden and about how, over the celebrated corpse in front of them on a tarp in a hangar in Jalalabad, he had given the magazine from his rifle with all but three lethally spent bullets left in it to the female CIA analyst whose dogged intel work and intuition led the fighters into that night.
When I was first around him, as he talked I would always try to imagine the Shooter geared up and a foot away from bin Laden, whose life ended in the next moment with three shots to the center of his forehead. But my mind insisted on rendering the picture like a bad Photoshop job — Mao's head superimposed on the Yangtze, or tourists taking photos with cardboard presidents outside the White House.
Bin Laden was, after all, the man CIA director Leon Panetta called "the most infamous terrorist in our time," who devoured inordinate amounts of our collective cultural imagery for more than a decade. The number-one celebrity of evil. And the man in my backyard blew his lights out.
ST6 in particular is an enterprise requiring extraordinary teamwork, combined with more kinds of support in the field than any other unit in the history of the U.S. military.
Similarly, NASA marshaled thousands of people to put a man on the moon, and history records that Neil Armstrong first set his foot there, not the equally talented Buzz Aldrin.
Enough people connected to the SEALs and the bin Laden mission have confirmed for me that the Shooter was the "number two" behind the raid's point man going up the stairs to bin Laden's third-floor residence, and that he is the one who rolled through the bedroom door solo and confronted the surprisingly tall terrorist pushing his youngest wife, Amal, in front of him through the pitch-black room. The Shooter had to raise his gun higher than he expected.
The point man is the only one besides the Shooter who could verify the kill shots firsthand, and he did just that to another SEAL I spoke with. But even the point man was not in the room then, having tackled two women into the hallway, a crucial and heroic decision given that everyone living in the house was presumed to be wearing a suicide vest.
But a series of confidential conversations, detailed descriptions of mission debriefs, and other evidence make it clear: The Shooter's is the most definitive account of those crucial few seconds, and his account, corroborated by multiple sources, establishes him as the last man to see Osama bin Laden alive. Not in dispute is the fact that others have claimed that they shot bin Laden when he was already dead, and a number of team members apparently did just that.
What is much harder to understand is that a man with hundreds of successful war missions, one of the most decorated combat veterans of our age, who capped his career by terminating bin Laden, has no landing pad in civilian life.
Back in April, he and some of his SEAL Team 6 colleagues had formed the skeleton of a company to help them transition out of the service. In my yard, he showed everyone his business-card mock-ups. There was only a subtle inside joke reference to their team in the company name.
Unlike former SEAL Team 6 member Matt Bissonnette (No Easy Day), they do not rush to write books or step forward publicly, because that violates the code of the "quiet professional." Someone suggested they might sell customized sunglasses and other accessories special operators often invent and use in the field. It strains credulity that for a commando team leader who never got a single one of his men hurt on a mission, sunglasses would be his best option. And it's a simple truth that those who have been most exposed to harrowing danger for the longest time during our recent unending wars now find themselves adrift in civilian life, trying desperately to adjust, often scrambling just to make ends meet.
At the time, the Shooter's uncle had reached out to an executive at Electronic Arts, hoping that the company might need help with video-game scenarios once the Shooter retired. But the uncle cannot mention his nephew's distinguishing feature as the one who put down bin Laden.
Secrecy is a thick blanket over our Special Forces that inelegantly covers them, technically forever. The twenty-three SEALs who flew into Pakistan that night were directed by their command the day they got back stateside about acting and speaking as though it had never happened.
"Right now we are pretty stacked with consultants," the video-game man responded. "Thirty active and recently retired guys" for one game: Medal of Honor Warfighter. In fact, seven active-duty Team 6 SEALs would later be punished for advising EA while still in the Navy and supposedly revealing classified information. (One retired SEAL, a participant in the bin Laden raid, was also involved.)
With the focus and precision he's learned, the Shooter waits and watches for the right way to exit, and adapt. Despite his foggy future, his past is deeply impressive. This is a man who is very pleased about his record of service to his country and has earned the respect of his peers.
"He's taken monumental risks," says the Shooter's dad, struggling to contain the frustration that roughs the edges of his deep pride in his son. "But he's unable to reap any reward."
It's not that there isn't one. The U.S. government put a $25 million bounty on bin Laden that no one is likely to collect. Certainly not the SEALs who went on the mission nor the support and intelligence experts who helped make it all possible. Technology is the key to success in this case more than people, Washington officials have said.
The Shooter doesn't care about that. "I'm not religious, but I always felt I was put on the earth to do something specific. After that mission, I knew what it was."
Others also knew, from the commander-in-chief on down. The bin Laden shooting was a staple of presidential-campaign brags. One big-budget movie, several books, and a whole drawerful of documentaries and TV films have fortified the brave images of the Shooter and his ST6 Red Squadron members.
There is commerce attached to the mission, and people are capitalizing. Just not the triggerman. While others collect, he is cautious and careful not to dishonor anyone. His manners come at his own expense.
"No one who fights for this country overseas should ever have to fight for a job," Barack Obama said last Veterans' Day, "or a roof over their head, or the care that they have earned when they come home."
But the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation:
Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.
Since Abbottabad, he has trained his children to hide in their bathtub at the first sign of a problem as the safest, most fortified place in their house. His wife is familiar enough with the shotgun on their armoire to use it. She knows to sit on the bed, the weapon's butt braced against the wall, and precisely what angle to shoot out through the bedroom door, if necessary. A knife is also on the dresser should she need a backup.
Then there is the "bolt" bag of clothes, food, and other provisions for the family meant to last them two weeks in hiding.
"Personally," his wife told me recently, "I feel more threatened by a potential retaliatory terror attack on our community than I did eight years ago," when her husband joined ST6.
When the White House identified SEAL Team 6 as those responsible, camera crews swarmed into their Virginia Beach neighborhood, taking shots of the SEALs' homes.
After bin Laden's face appeared on their TV in the days after the killing, the Shooter cautioned his older child not to mention the Al Qaeda leader's name ever again "to anybody. It's a bad name, a curse name." His kid started referring to him instead as "Poopyface." It's a story he told affectionately on that April afternoon visit to my home.
He loves his kids and tears up only when he talks about saying goodbye to them before each and every deployment. "It's so much easier when they're asleep," he says, "and I can just kiss them, wondering if this is the last time." He's thrilled to show video of his oldest in kick-boxing class. And he calls his wife "the perfect mother."
In fact, the couple is officially separated, a common occurrence in ST6. SEAL marriages can be perilous. Husbands and fathers have been mostly away from their families since 9/11. But the Shooter and his wife continue to share a house on very friendly, even loving terms, largely to save money.
"We're actually looking into changing my name," the wife says. "Changing the kids' names, taking my husband's name off the house, paying off our cars. Essentially deleting him from our lives, but for safety reasons. We still love each other."
When the family asked about any kind of government protection should the Shooter's name come out, they were advised that they could go into a witness-protection-like program.
Just as soon as the Department of Defense creates one.
"They [SEAL command] told me they could get me a job driving a beer truck in Milwaukee" under an assumed identity. Like Mafia snitches, they would not be able to contact their families or friends. "We'd lose everything."
"These guys have millions of dollars' worth of knowledge and training in their heads," says one of the group at my house, a former SEAL and mentor to the Shooter and others looking to make the transition out of what's officially called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. "All sorts of executive function skills. That shouldn't go to waste."
The mentor himself took a familiar route — through Blackwater, then to the CIA, in both organizations as a paramilitary operator in Afghanistan.
Private security still seems like the smoothest job path, though many of these guys, including the Shooter, do not want to carry a gun ever again for professional use. The deaths of two contractors in Benghazi, both former SEALs the mentor knew, remind him that the battlefield risks do not go away.
By the time the Shooter visited me that first time in April, I had come to know more of the human face of what's called Tier One Special Operations, in addition to the extraordinary skill and icy resolve. It is a privileged, consuming, and concerning look inside one of the most insular clubs on earth.
And I understood that he would face a world very different from the supportive one President Obama described at Arlington National Cemetery a few months before.
As I watched the Shooter navigate obstacles very different from the ones he faced so expertly in four war zones around the globe, I wondered: Is this how America treats its heroes? The ones President Obama called "the best of the best"? The ones Vice-President Biden called "the finest warriors in the history of the world"?
The chief of Naval Special Warfare Command says the SEAL was counseled on his benefits before he left the service last year.
The "man who killed Osama bin Laden," featured in the March issue of Esquire magazine, knew full-well he was leaving the service short of a retirement and without benefits, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command says.
The so-called bin Laden "shooter" made world headlines this week after the story asserted that the former SEAL was "screwed" by losing his military health insurance benefits when he left service in September.
But Rear Adm. Sean Pybus said the SEAL in the article knew what he was giving up in leaving service with 16 years, shy of the 20-year retirement mark.
"Concerning recent writing and reporting on 'The Shooter' and his alleged situation, this former SEAL made a deliberate and informed decision to leave the NAVY several years short of Retirement status," Pybus said in a statement. "Months ahead of his separation, he was counseled on status and benefits, and provided with options to continue his career until Retirement eligible. Claims to the contrary in these matters are false."
STORY: Report: Uncertain future for bin Laden shooter
Even so, Pybus adds, "Naval Special Warfare and the Navy are prepared to help this former service member address health or transition issues, as we would with other former members."
Lt. Cmdr. David McKinney, a spokesman for Naval Special Warfare Command, would not confirm if the subject of the Esquire article was indeed the SEAL who killed bin Laden.
"The Shooter," as he is referred to in the story, is never identified. According to Esquire, he had 12 long-term deployments and 30-plus kills.
"My health care for me and my family stopped at midnight Friday night," he said in the story, referring to his end of service. "I asked if there was some transition from my Tricare to Blue Cross Blue Shield. They said no. You're out of the service, your coverage is over. Thanks for your sixteen years."
He told Esquire he has lost some vision and was planning to buy private insurance for $486 a month but will have to pay out of pocket for some chiropractic care.
Stars and Stripes newspaper refuted the SEAL's claim in a report released Monday. All combat veterans, including the SEAL, are eligible for five years of free health care through the Veterans Affairs Department. And no service member who does less than 20 years gets a pension, unless he has to medically retire.
Phil Bronstein, who wrote the Esquire article, told Stars and Stripes the SEAL was unaware of the VA benefits at the time of the interview.
Esquire later revised its story, adding a correction that reads, "A previous version of this story misstated the extent of the five-year health care benefits offered to cover veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since the article, the ex-SEAL has visited with lawmakers to discuss veterans benefits.
His meetings included a sit-down with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Sanders was interested in gaining perspective on how long it takes the VA to process disability claims, said Michael Briggs, the senator's press spokesman.
Associates of the former SEAL set up the meeting, Briggs said. He declined to say whether the SEAL revealed his true identity.
The killing of public enemy number one has become a legend, a political talking point, and this month a movie. But the question remains: How, after a decade on the run, did U.S. intelligence agents track him down? And who helped them? MATTHIEU AIKINS travels to Pakistan to investigate how one mysterious man led us right to Bin Laden's doorstep
By Matthieu Aikins
The locals had two names for it: the Big House and Waziristan House. Big House because of its unusual size, three stories tall in this one- or two-story suburb of Abbottabad, Pakistan. The second name was a kind of inside joke: Waziristan is a notoriously violent and remote area in the country's tribal regions, where the house's seldom-seen occupants had supposedly come from. Rumor had it they had settled in Abbottabad after fleeing a family vendetta.
The house belonged to two brothers, Arshad and Tariq Khan, who lived with their wives and kids, as well as a mysterious uncle who was said to be ill. They were a reclusive clan, which, it was true, wasn't all that unusual for conservative Pashtuns from the tribal areas. No one was invited inside the house's thirteen-foot walls, and apart from the kids, the family rarely ventured outside. But since building the place in 2005, they had never caused anyone any trouble, and the locals didn't ask too many questions. Better to live and let live in Pakistan these days.
Then, on April 21, 2011, a gray jeep pulled into town and parked in front of a property dealer's shack a short distance from the Big House. It was an official vehicle, with the logo of the provincial health department painted on the door, and from the passenger side stepped a doctor, here on business from the province's capital, Peshawar. In his collared shirt and pressed trousers, the doctor stood out among the wheat fields and dirt paths of this semi-rural suburb: a handsome, imposing man with a thick head of black hair, his filled-out frame a point of pride in a country where stunted growth can be a mark of the lower classes. Leaving his driver behind, the doctor set off along a narrow gravel-strewn path, beside fields thick with grass and dusky cauliflower leaves, his gaze focused intently on the house ahead.
Waiting for him outside the compound's forest-green metal gate were two nurses, Bakhto and Amna, their shawls drawn across their foreheads. All day, as part of a hepatitis B vaccination team that the doctor had assembled, the nurses had been canvassing the area, knocking on doors and looking for women ages 15 to 45 to cajole into taking the needle. First a drop of blood would be drawn from the patient and blotted on a rapid-test strip, which would show, within minutes, whether the patient had been infected with hepatitis. If the patient was negative, the nurses were instructed to administer the vaccination.
Normally a jovial man, the doctor seemed tense at the gate. Amna wondered why he was so interested in this house in particular, the only one whose vaccination he had bothered to personally supervise. She watched as he rapped sharply on the metal door. They waited. Again he knocked, but there seemed to be no one home. Amna shrugged. Did it really matter if they missed this one house? Undeterred, the doctor strode across the street to a low brick compound and roused a neighbor, whose son, as luck would have it, did the occasional odd job for the Big House. The man had the cell number of one of the Khan brothers. The doctor dialed it and handed his phone to one of the nurses, but when the brother answered and said the family was away on a trip, the doctor took the phone back from her.
"Hello?" he said. "This is Dr. Shakil Afridi." The doctor urgently explained the need for the hepatitis test. It was crucial that it happen soon. The vaccine, he said, would be very good for them.
As the doctor made his rounds in Abbottabad, back in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama and a small circle of senior advisers were fixated on a single question: Was Osama bin Laden concealed inside that three-story house? For months, in planning a raid on the compound, the CIA and the military had conducted intensive surveillance without coming to a definitive answer. President Obama himself put the odds of finding Bin Laden there at "fifty-fifty." Such an extraordinarily risky mission—sending a team of commandos deep inside Pakistan without Pakistani consent—could only be justified with a once-in-a-decade chance of getting the world's most wanted terrorist. The White House, desperate for information, had tasked the CIA with coming up with new and inventive solutions for getting inside the compound. One of them was Dr. Afridi.
We know what happened next: On May 1, two American stealth helicopters swooped from the sky and landed in Abbottabad, unloading a team of Navy Seals who shot dead Osama bin Laden. But even as the Abbottabad mission played out in front of the whole world, the mystery of the doctor's true identity and his role in the operation persisted. Though U.S. government officials have given extensive interviews about their military preparations for the raid, they have been cagey about the network of Pakistani "assets"—locals on the CIA payroll—who helped them track down Bin Laden. They have refused to say what exactly Afridi did to help the mission, even as they praise him for playing a key role. "This was an individual who in fact helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said. "He was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan. He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan."
Pakistan's military and its main intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), saw things differently. After the ISI discovered that Afridi had visited Bin Laden's house just before the raid, its agents arrested him as he was driving home in Peshawar on May 23, and as they say in Pakistan, "he was disappeared." Afridi was taken to a secret prison, leaving unanswered the question of what exactly happened that day in Abbottabad.
When I arrived in the border city of Peshawar this summer to learn more about Afridi, the doctor's grim fate had come to symbolize the ongoing animosity between America and its ostensible ally. Peshawar—dusty, crowded, its avenues lined with mirrored-glass shopping complexes and crumbling old office buildings—sits on the outskirts of Pakistan's tribal areas, where the CIA is waging a drone-warfare campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Pakistan's military has long grown fed up with the drone attacks and various other "unilateral missions," in which the CIA operates without its knowledge and consent. Military officials believe the CIA is bribing a vast network of local informants inside the country, not only to hunt Al Qaeda and the Taliban but also to spy on Pakistan's nuclear weapons, which some U.S. officials worry could one day fall into the wrong hands. Afridi—and the mission to kill Bin Laden—was a realization of the ISI's greatest fears.
The Americans, meanwhile, believe Pakistan's military maintains links to militant groups like the Haqqani network—a powerful insurgent group fighting the United States and NATO in Afghanistan—in order to further its influence in the region. The mistrust had taken hold outside the gates of the U.S. consulate, where I saw Pakistani police standing guard, dressed in black-and-khaki uniforms and carrying assault rifles. According to journalists and officials I spoke to, anyone leaving the compound was likely to be tailed by plainclothes Pakistani intelligence agents, who suspected the consulate of being a hotbed of spies; what else would they be doing in a city like Peshawar? "The consulate has a lot of suspicious types with bulging biceps, wearing Oakleys," one ISI official told me. "It's just like Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Every agency worth their name has people here."
In the wake of the Bin Laden mission, Pakistan's government has become increasingly intent on squeezing out those foreign assets. "We found they were conducting unilateral operations from inside Afghanistan, not just on Osama bin Laden but on so many other issues," the intelligence official told me. "We've been restricting access to certain people, tailing them, monitoring them."
The spy games have created an atmosphere of extreme paranoia in Peshawar. Not surprisingly, mentioning Afridi's name tended to bring an abrupt end to conversation. Almost everyone who knew the doctor well had been questioned—and some arrested—since the incident, and no one was eager to admit any association with the man. More than once, when asked about Afridi, my interview subjects would in turn ask my fixer, in Pashto, whether I was really a journalist. And the thing was, I had to admit that I was acting a little like a spy. It was necessary, for safety's sake. On my way to meet Afridi's friends and former colleagues, I would disguise myself in traditional clothing—a long, flowing shirt and baggy pantaloons. I'd have guarded, oblique conversations on the phone and arrange meetings in secluded environments where I could see if I was being followed—and indeed I was, stopped by the ISI twice.
The paranoia got to my first fixer in a matter of days. After meeting someone who spoke too frankly about Afridi and the ISI, he sighed and said: "He will be killed." Shortly after, he quit, but not before offering me his advice: "You cannot distinguish truth from lie here." This was useful counsel. Afridi's story was wrapped in a protective layer of lies and half-truths, filtered through the multifarious interpretations of lawyers, spies, and politicians, at the center of which lay the lonely figure and his secret relationship with the CIA. No one had yet managed to discover what Afridi had accomplished that day at the Big House. Did he get what he was after? How did he become involved with the CIA in the first place? And what would lead a doctor to accept such a mission? Why would he risk so much, including his freedom, to get involved in the hunt for Bin Laden? To find the answers, I had to start at the beginning.
According to Afridi lore, the doctor wasn't the first world-famous hero—or traitor—in the family tree. In 1915 his grandfather Mir Dast won the Victoria Cross while fighting in the trenches of Ypres, Belgium, during the First World War. (Dast was one of a million Indians who fought alongside the Allied forces against Germany.) King George V himself presented him with the British army's highest honor. Meanwhile, in a historic act of betrayal that very year, Afridi's great-uncle Mir Mast led the only recorded mass defection from British to German lines.
After the war, Mir Dast settled his family in the Pakistani tribal lands, at a place now known as Afridiabad. This July, I drove south from Peshawar deep into the Punjab Province, where the summers are famous for temperatures that reach 115 degrees at midday. It was cotton season, and motoring down Pakistan's pocked highways, we passed tractors pulling carts piled twenty feet high with canvas-wrapped bales. Men moved slowly in the heat, and goats and donkeys clustered by wooden troughs.
In Afridiabad, Shakil Afridi's elder brother, Jamil, waited for us outside his home. He bore a striking resemblance to the doctor; they had the same broad frame, same thicket of dark hair swept back, same straight brow, same cropped push-broom mustache. Jamil's features were coarser, though, his nose slightly bulbous, and when he embraced me I was pressed against his protruding gut. "I hope it's not too hot for you," he said.
Jamil led me inside and sent for some mangoes. When his brother was arrested, the Afridi family was thrust into the media frenzy around Bin Laden's killing. Shakil's wife, a school principal named Imrana, had taken their three kids and left Peshawar to hide with her parents. Jamil's friends had advised him to do the same, but he had insisted on speaking out publicly, giving press conferences in which he defended his brother as innocent and pleaded for America to help him. His phone had been tapped, he said, and he was constantly followed by government agents. Eventually, Jamil decided Peshawar was too dangerous for him, and he had come back to the place where he and Shakil had grown up.
Jamil remembered a happy childhood in Afridiabad, filled with the simple pleasures of country life. His family, however, wasn't like the others in the village. His mother was a strict disciplinarian who saw their lineage—the descendants of one of the town's founding fathers—as above that of the neighbors. "They consider us British here," Jamil told me in his broken English. "They don't like us."
The Afridis' sense of apartness grew acute when relatives visited from abroad—especially their uncle, a dashing former air-force officer who had immigrated to Dallas and often brought gifts, including the village's very first electric refrigerator. Once, when the uncle had seen Jamil and his brother return barefoot from playing in the street, he had grown angry with his sister for failing to keep them from mingling with the villagers. "Why should you compare them to village boys?" he said. "You should compare them to my sons."
The rest of Mrs. Afridi's siblings—all six of them—had gone off to successful careers around Pakistan and abroad, but she had been blinded by illness at a young age and married a relatively humble police sergeant in Afridiabad. Growing up, Jamil says, he was a lot like his father, a bit of a loafer who loved nothing more than to hang around with a small herd of goats. But Shakil had inherited his mother's drive; she had taught herself to cook and sew and keep the household accounts. "He wasn't interested in goats," Jamil recalled. "He would take our sister's dolls and inject them with syringes or do operations on them. He wanted to be a doctor."
After high school, Afridi earned a spot at Khyber Medical College, Peshawar's premier medical school, where he was introduced to the woman who would become his wife. But away from home for the first time, Afridi also discovered the pleasures of the big city, temptations that upended his small-town mores. At the student hostel, he became known as a drinker and womanizer, a reputation that stuck with him beyond school. "He liked the ‘taxi girls,' " said Abdul Karim Mehsud, a lawyer in Peshawar, using a local term for prostitutes. "I saw many going into his room, down the hall from mine." He smirked in recollection. "Fresh Afghan-Persian girls, from the refugee camps."
Upon graduation, Afridi secured a position with the provincial health department, working in government-run clinics and hospitals in the volatile tribal areas. He was posted to Khyber Agency, a district just outside Peshawar that sat astride the main trade route between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was a lawless area rife with smugglers, spies, and militants—chaos that held opportunity for the enterprising doctor.
Those who worked with Afridi remember a gregarious but elusive man, a swaggering joker who loved to sit and hold court but who rarely formed close bonds. He advanced through the ranks in Khyber Agency and—despite being briefly suspended for sexual harassment—ultimately became one of the senior medical officers. Still, the salary of a government doctor in Pakistan was meager—$500 to $600 per month. So Afridi went into business on his own. Along with a partner, a doctor named Nusrat Shah, he opened a small private clinic in Khyber called Al Noor Hospital, really just a one-room shop partitioned by a green curtain, with a wooden desk on one side and an operating table on the other. And though not trained as a surgeon, he taught himself to perform a wide range of operations using a general anesthetic. "It was a pretty good hospital for the area," one pharmaceutical salesman (who preferred not to be named) told me. "They were lucky to have a doctor as qualified as him."
Afridi's hospital doubled as a prescription-drug clearinghouse. The sales rep told me that he would go see Afridi whenever he was short his monthly quota and the doctor would buy up the shortfall—demanding a kickback on his commission. The rep would show up with gifts—fans, calculators, cell phones—that Afridi dismissed with a wave of his hand. Forget all these things, he'd say. Talk to me about money. "His mission was to make money," the rep said. "I don't know how he sold all that medicine off—most probably across the border, in Afghanistan."
Afridi had a caustic sense of humor about the desperation of his milieu. "Look at these monkeys," he once said to the salesman, indicating his bearded and turbaned patients. "And I'm the big monkey." There were persistent accusations that the self-trained Afridi performed unnecessary operations in order to make money and that his patients sometimes suffered grievously as a result. His lawyers and family rejected the allegations as professional jealousy. But in Peshawar, I spoke to Ahmed Saeed, a student living in Bara, who told me that in 2007 he took his father to see Afridi after his father complained of chest and abdominal pains. Saeed left to buy some medicine next door, and when he came back he found that his father and Afridi had disappeared. "They went to his clinic," one of the nurses told him. When Saeed finally arrived at Afridi's private practice, he found his father unconscious. "I operated on his kidney," the doctor told him. Afridi charged them about $200. After the surgery, his father's condition worsened, and Saeed took him to a government hospital in Peshawar. The doctors there diagnosed his problem as a heart condition and, according to Saeed, said his kidneys had been damaged in a sloppy and unnecessary operation. Less than a month after being operated on by Afridi, Saeed's father died at home. His family blamed the doctor. "He was a cheater, and he betrayed his profession," Saeed said.
At his home in Afridiabad, Jamil brushed aside such stories. Shakil was a good man, he said, who took care of his family. He bought a house in Hayatabad, a suburb of Peshawar, for his wife and kids and gave money to support Jamil and his family. At the end of our discussion, I asked Jamil if he thought his brother had really played a key role in the CIA's mission to find Bin Laden. "I don't think that he knew what he was doing," he replied. "But even if he did, he did a very good thing."
When did Afridi start working for the CIA? On one of my visits to Peshawar, I obtained copies of a sealed court record that contained documents from the prosecution of his case. One is a long narrative of Afridi's recruitment by the agency, supposedly based on his interrogation by the ISI. It's hard to know what to make of it. The document, which is strangely specific in some places and conspicuously vague in others, can't be taken at face value. It's marred by an inconsistent time line and several demonstrably false statements. Yet its overall gist has been confirmed by U.S. officials, and it offers a window into Afridi's recruitment and handling by CIA agents working undercover in the capital city of Islamabad.
According to the document, the doctor was first recruited in 2008 after attending a workshop for medical professionals in Peshawar, hosted by Save the Children, an international NGO that carries out extensive humanitarian operations in Pakistan. There, the report says, he met with Michael McGrath, then Save the Children's country director. (McGrath, who left Pakistan in August 2009, told me that while he did meet Afridi at a training session, he denies any further contact and any relationship between the CIA and Save the Children.) McGrath, the report says, asked Afridi if he was the same doctor who was recently kidnapped by Mangal Bagh, a local warlord who headed a militant group called Lashkar-e-Islam. Afridi answered that yes, indeed, back in April he had been taken from his hospital and held for the equivalent of around $10,000, a big sum for his family. The incident had made local headlines. Afridi's wife had to sell her jewelry and borrow money from relatives in order to pay the militants.
After Afridi recounted his misfortune, the report says, McGrath asked if he could meet with him alone at Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad on Saturday morning. A week later, at half past seven on the dot, McGrath drove into the capital's busy market and picked up Afridi in front of the bank's red-and-white storefront. Passing a carpet shop and a bank on the commercial strip, they entered a tree-lined residential area and stopped at a house nearby, where Afridi was introduced to "Kate," described as a blue-eyed, blond-haired woman in her late thirties. Over dinner, Kate and Afridi talked about his abduction, his family, and the political situation in Khyber Agency, where militants had taken over several main towns. About an hour and a half later, Afridi was dropped off at a gas station down the road.
According to the documents, Kate was the first of four CIA handlers to work with Afridi, followed by "Toni," "Sara," and "Sue." Each of them was female—perhaps the CIA knew the doctor's reputation—and each worked with the doctor for less than a year. Afridi would meet them at gas stations or taxi stands, and then, after driving a short distance to a secluded spot, he would get in the back of his handler's SUV and hide underneath a blanket. They would then drive for about fifteen or twenty minutes before arriving at a lot with several shipping containers converted to offices (almost certainly, though the report omits it, on the premises of the U.S. embassy). Eventually, Afridi was given his mission: to create and administer a vaccination program focusing on a specific suburb of Abbottabad. Due to the extreme secrecy of the mission, it's all but certain that Afridi was never told the identity of his target. The report does not mention what, if any, other assignments Afridi was given, but it does say that he received a device capable of communicating by satellite with his handlers—and that the CIA paid him about $55,000 to conduct the vaccination campaign. That's more than five times his ransom and about nine times his official annual salary.
"Shakil Afridi is part of a big game," Qamar Nadeem said, as we strode through the marble hallways of Peshawar's High Court. Nadeem was a key player on Afridi's defense team; when I met him at the High Court, he was wearing the traditional uniform of a Peshawar lawyer, astarched white shalwar kameez with a charcoal suit vest. He led me into the bar room, where litigators in white robes lounged under low ceiling fans that stirred the torpid summer air. Nadeem peered at me through his pair of rimless rectangular glasses. As he saw it, Afridi was a pawn in the struggle between the United States and Pakistan. At stake was the future of CIA operations against Al Qaeda and billions of U.S. dollars in aid to the Pakistani military. "In America, there is a show called The Six Million Dollar Man," he said. "Dr. Shakil is the hundred-million-dollar man."
After his arrest in late May 2011, Afridi had disappeared into ISI custody. He would later claim he was blindfolded and chained in an underground prison in Islamabad, tortured with electric shocks and cigarette burns (charges the military denies), and interrogated extensively about his collaboration with the CIA. A year later, having had almost no contact with his family, Afridi was handed back to the civilian authorities to stand trial. To his legal team's surprise, they found that Afridi had been charged not with treason for his work with the CIA but rather, under a draconian colonial-era tribal code, with supplying Lashkar-e-Islam—the same militant group that had kidnapped and ransomed him—with money and medical treatment for its fighters. The tribal code provided no right of representation or trial by jury, and that same month, during secret proceedings that neither he nor his lawyers were allowed to attend, Afridi was sentenced to thirty-three years in prison.
Like most observers of the case, Nadeem believed the terrorism charges were just a way for the government to handle Afridi as quietly as possible, behind the closed doors of the tribal system, without the messy task of proving the treason charges—as it would have to do in the ordinary courts, where lawyers could demand to see the evidence and, more dangerously, pose the question of whether it had indeed been so traitorous to support the U.S. in its search for Bin Laden, especially when the villain had been sitting under the nose of the Pakistani government in Abbottabad. "There is no charge in the Pakistani criminal code for taking money from a foreign government," said Nadeem. "The charge is for waging war against the state. Will Pakistan say that the U.S. is their enemy?"
Pakistani officials—who were frank in private that Afridi was being punished for his association with the CIA—were adamant that Afridi was a traitor and his actions criminal. "The American concern about Afridi, where they're projecting their own patriotism about getting Bin Laden onto him, is nonsense," one ISI officer in Islamabad told me. "He was in it for money."
Now Nadeem and a group of lawyers from the tribal areas are appealing Afridi's sentence. But the appeal process kept getting postponed by the government, and in the meantime, Afridi languished in prison. During one of my visits to the High Court, Nadeem brought me upstairs to an outdoor stone-tile-lined hallway and asked me to peer over its high wall. Looking out into the sunlight, I could see, adjacent to the court building, an extensive compound with windowless whitewashed one-story buildings, shaded by trees and surrounded by a double wall topped with razor wire.
"That is Peshawar Central Prison," he told me. "Dr. Afridi is there."
I managed to get a copy of a letter written by Afridi from his prison cell. In his crabbed doctor's handwriting, he claims to have been tortured into false confessions by the ISI. "I received death threats, I have been tortured, and my body has suffered serious violence," he writes. He goes on to issue a terse, blanket denial of his collaboration with the CIA handlers, saying, "All of this is an untrue story fabricated by the ISI, and they have been telling it to me for the last year."
Nadeem squinted through his spectacles off into space, as if he were trying to peer through the web of lies and conspiracy that surrounded his client's case. He sighed and turned to me. "Do you think that the American government cares about Dr. Shakil?" he asked. I thought about it for a moment and then told him that the CIA probably wasn't being very sentimental about it. A few politicians had taken up the case individually. Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, was making a lot of noise, and Congress was genuinely upset with Pakistan these days. In May, it proposed docking $33 million, one for each year of Afridi's sentence, from U.S. aid to Pakistan, and Paul had been trying to compel a vote to freeze all aid to Pakistan. "America should not give foreign aid to a country whose government is torturing the man who helped us kill Osama bin Laden," he said in a statement.
Nadeem nodded. "Yes, I know about Mr. Paul. He is the vice presidential candidate. If he wins, it will be very good for Dr. Afridi." No, I said. That is Paul Ryan, the congressman from Wisconsin. Nadeem smiled and shook his head, muttering something about the complexity of American politics. I could tell he was disappointed.
There is one thing that the U.S. and the ISI agree on: Afridi was a critical component in the Bin Laden raid. Panetta had said that he provided "very helpful" intelligence, and this summer Hillary Clinton said that "his help, after all, was instrumental in taking down one of the world's most notorious murderers." The ISI documents put it thusly: "In May 2011, in the incident of Osama bin Laden, he played a fundamental role as a result of which Pakistan was humiliated in front of the whole world."
After a year in a secret prison, Afridi was transferred to Peshawar's Central Prison. Yet no one has been able to determine what exactly he accomplished. U.S. officials, as well as Afridi himself, have consistently claimed that he was never actually able to get inside the Big House to vaccinate a member of the Bin Laden clan. But this is to be expected. Since the raid, U.S. officials have repeatedly tried to control the public narrative and cover the tracks of their assets in Pakistan. On May 9—two weeks before Afridi was detained by the ISI—White House spokesperson Jay Carney said that as far as he was aware, no one was eligible for the $25 million reward offered for information leading to Bin Laden, because there was no one helping on the ground. One of the earliest comprehensive reports on how the CIA tracked Bin Laden, by ABC's Matthew Cole on May 19, cites "senior U.S. officials" who claim that the whole thing was done through electronic eavesdropping and that no human assets were involved: "[A] single errant phone call, snapped up in a web
of electronic surveillance, had led them to Abbottabad."
Now we know that Afridi was one of several Pakistani assets assisting the operation from the ground, including a local who found the Bin Laden house by tailing an Al Qaeda courier there. While I was in Pakistan, I was introduced to a journalist—I'll call him Nader—who lived in Abbottabad. Nader promised that if I came to his hometown, he would prove that Afridi had actually collected DNA evidence from the Bin Laden house. And so I drove, as Afridi did, from Peshawar toward the verdant foothills of the Himalayas, where the city of about half a million lies at the start of the famous Karakoram Highway, which crosses over some of the highest passes in the world into China. It's part of the belt of military towns in northern Pakistan that are full of bases, training academies, ammunition factories, and retirement colonies for officers—sort of like certain stretches of Virginia near D.C.
Arriving in Abbottabad, I met with Amna and Bakhto, the two nurses who had been part of the twenty-two-member vaccination team and who had gone with Afridi to Bin Laden's house. After the raid, the whole team had been arrested, interrogated, and then fired, and the women had to be coaxed by Nader into meeting me in the murky light of his unfinished office.
From the outset, they were wary and defensive, and my greeting set loose an impassioned defense of their innocence in the whole affair, followed by a heartrending description of their unjust dismissal and subsequent impoverishment. (The women were the only Pakistanis I found, besides Afridi himself, who had been punished for the Bin Laden imbroglio.) They became taciturn as I tried to pry the specifics of what had happened at the Big House. When pressed for details, elderly Amna, hunched forward in her flecked cotton cloak, retreated into guttural arias about her age and misfortune.
For her part, Bakhto says she first met Afridi on March 16, about a month before the vaccination campaign reached the Bin Laden house. She had been late to a planning session at the local health clinic and arrived flustered, but Afridi, who was holding forth confidently in front of a roomful of female health workers, smiled at her and waved for her to sit down. The campaign, he announced, would take place in several neighborhoods in the suburbs of Abbottabad. Calling his driver over, he pricked him with a needle to demonstrate how the testing strip worked: One bar meant negative and two bars meant positive. After the campaign, all materials, including the used strips, were to be returned to him. He handed out promotional items, including flyers with his grinning face plastered on them.
On April 21, after the vaccination campaign had started, Afridi called Amna and Bakhto to meet at the Big House. When no one had answered the doctor's knock on the gate, Afridi stalked across the street to find the neighbor's son and got the cell-phone number for the house's owner. What happened next is unclear. Nader, the local journalist, told me that when he had first interviewed Amna and Bakhto immediately after they were released in the initial days of the investigation, they said that they had indeed gotten into the house and successfully collected blood samples from a young woman who may have been the age of Bin Laden's daughter Maryam. Contact with the house's residents wasn't unheard of: Bakhto herself had vaccinated seven children for polio there the year before, when one of the brothers brought them to the gate to receive the oral vaccine. Why wouldn't he do it again, this time for a hepatitis shot?
But by the time I got to them, the women's stories had calcified into self-protective denial. Amna said that they had never gone inside and that although the vaccination campaign continued for another day, she never returned to the house, even though Afridi had asked her to. She said she couldn't, claiming that her leg was aching. The nurses said Afridi returned to Abbottabad on April 27, this time driving his personal vehicle, to collect the vaccination records and materials from a social worker. According to the ISI's investigation document, that same day Afridi drove with his driver and the social worker to Islamabad. After dropping them off, he met with his CIA handler "Sue" and gave her the used vaccination kits and records, and she paid him for the job.
With this information, the doctor's potential importance comes into sharper focus. We know that Afridi's attempt to get DNA from the Bin Laden house came at a crucial point in the preparations for the U.S. mission. According to journalist Peter Bergen's book-length account, Manhunt, the CIA had tracked an Al Qaeda courier—the brother of the man Afridi spoke to on the telephone—to the three-story compound and had been monitoring it from a safe house in the neighborhood since early fall 2010 without being able to confirm that Bin Laden was actually there. The White House agonized over authorizing the mission without hard proof. At a final meeting about the mission on April 28, Obama gave it just "fifty-fifty" odds. Vice President Joe Biden advised against going ahead.
The day before Obama and his team met, if Nader and the court documents are to be believed, Afridi had delivered the used vaccination kits to the CIA in Islamabad. Rapid DNA testing takes at least a day, once the samples were out of Pakistan, and so the results would have arrived, at the earliest, on the president's desk the very evening before he made his final decision. On the morning of April 29, the president made up his mind and ordered the mission to go ahead.
The Big House no longer looms above the neighborhood outside Abbottabad; the military razed the compound last spring, and in its place lies an empty field. But its presence lingers indelibly on the quiet streets, where residents stop and eye strange cars warily. In the center of the plot, where the living room might have been, a busted water line burbles freely out into the grass, and women from the poorer houses come in their colorful robes to collect clean water from what was once Bin Laden's personal supply.
As Nader and I neared the site, we saw a black late-model Toyota Hilux with an extended cab idling by the road. I noticed Nader tense as we cruised past it. We drove around the corner, parked on a side street, and then walked down the same path Afridi had used to approach Bakhto and Amna as they waited, over a year before, at the door of Bin Laden's house.
There wasn't much to see anymore. The government was still trying to decide what to do with the land—perhaps build a school there. The triangular outline of the lot and the house's floor plan could be made out in the short concrete stubs of foundation that remained. You can walk onto it, as if onto a giant architectural blueprint, and stand in, or under, rather, the exact place where they shot Bin Laden after he peered out of his bedroom into the darkness of the hallway. Touring the house's footprint, you get the unreal sensation of passing freely through a space that had taken so many years and billions and lives to breach.
As I retraced the doctor's steps, I thought of the mysteries hiding in plain sight around us. Whatever Afridi's true relationship with the CIA, he could hardly have known the identity of his quarry that day. And he didn't seem to understand the serious business he had found himself in—his grinning photos on the vaccination brochures betray not a hint of worry. But now, caught up by his own imprudence and avarice, the doctor would surely rot in prison, yet another life ground in the gears of the vast machine of the war on terror, a pawn in the impenetrable spy games between the United States and Pakistan.
The rumble of tires on gravel sounded behind us, and Nader and I turned to see the black Hilux coming slowly down the road. It rolled to a stop beside us, and the doors opened. From the rear passenger side closest to me, a cherubic young man with a neat goatee and round spectacles popped out and came forward, smiling amicably. Three considerably larger, clean-shaven men then emerged. They were not smiling. "Hello," the little man with round spectacles said, and we shook hands, beaming at each other like old friends. He had the air of a young academic and introduced himself as an officer from the Intelligence Bureau. "Welcome to Abbottabad," he said. He didn't bother to ask for any identification. I noticed that Nader was looking past him at the three broad-shouldered men, who were returning his gaze intently. The intelligence officer and I continued to exchange pleasantries.
"So have you found anything interesting?" he asked. I wasn't certain if he was mocking me, but I grinned and shrugged, raising my palms in the universal gesture of helpless confusion. The hard-faced men stared back at me. "Well," the man continued, smiling, "let me know if you learn anything." With that, they got back in the truck and drove off.
Standing silently on the path, Nader and I watched them disappear around the corner. After a moment, we turned and walked toward our own car. Behind us, there was just an empty lot, as if nothing had been there at all.
Matthieu Aikins is a freelance writer based in Kabul.