Pakistan holds doctor who tried to collect bin Laden DNA

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 11, 2011 

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities have jailed a doctor who helped the CIA by creating an elaborate plot to get DNA samples of Osama bin Laden’s family before the al Qaida leader was killed in a special forces raid here.

The doctor, who holds a senior government health post in Pakistan, used nurses, who were able to gain entry to the residence on the pretext of giving vaccinations to children living there, according to Pakistani and U.S. officials and local residents.

The U.S. special forces operation that found and killed bin Laden on May 2 severely damaged relations between the United States and Pakistan, which was kept in the dark about the CIA's discovery that the al Qaida leader was living in a town filled with active-duty and retired Pakistani military.

The doctor's detention has added to the tension, and American authorities are thought to have intervened on his behalf.

Previous news reports have quoted U.S. officials as alleging that the Pakistanis had detained some people for questioning about their role in assisting the United States in tracking down bin Laden. But until now, there's been no detailed information on anyone detained or what he or she might have done for the Americans.

The doctor apparently is the only person still under arrest. His story provides previously unknown details about the lengths the CIA went to as it tried to confirm suspicions that bin Laden was hiding in the compound.

American officials are concerned that Pakistan is more focused on finding out how the CIA tracked down bin Laden than on determining how he managed to remain undetected for as long as five years in Abbottabad, a military garrison town where the nation's premier military academy is less than a mile from the bin Laden compound. So far, no one is known to have been arrested for helping to hide bin Laden.

In Abbottabad, a normally sleepy town, Pakistani authorities have gone to unusual lengths to make it difficult to gather information independently about bin Laden's time here. Residents who are in a position to know something about his stay say that Pakistani intelligence officials have warned them not to talk to reporters, and portions of the town near the bin Laden compound have been declared off limits to visitors.

The doctor's role was to help American officials know with certainty that bin Laden was in the compound, according to security officials and residents here, all of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they feared government retribution. U.S. officials in Washington confirmed the general outlines of the effort. They asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.

After years of fruitless searching, the CIA had tracked an al Qaida courier, known as Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, to the Abbottabad compound last summer, but it still wasn't sure that bin Laden lived there. The al Qaida chief and his family never left the house, which had no phone or Internet connection.

Satellite monitoring and surveillance from a CIA safe house in Abbottabad was used, but the monitoring was able to capture only fuzzy photos of a tall man who occasionally took walks in the compound's garden, images that didn't provide the confirmation officials wanted before they mounted a risky operation in another country.

So the CIA recruited the Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, who works as the health official in charge of Khyber, part of the tribal area that runs along the Afghan border, more than 120 miles west of Abbottabad.

Bin Laden had always lived with his wives and children, even in war-torn Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. The doctor was tasked with collecting DNA samples from those living in the house. A sample from any of the bin Laden children or grandchildren could be compared with DNA extracted from bin Laden's sister, who died last year in a hospital in Boston. A match would have indicated that at least bin Laden relatives were in the compound.

According to local residents, the doctor visited Abbottabad in March and April, saying he'd procured funds to give free vaccinations for hepatitis B.

Bypassing the management of the Abbottabad health services, he generously paid low-ranking local government nurses who provide door-to-door health services for women and children to visit the bin Laden compound. The nurses, who previously had entered the compound to administer polio drops to some of the children there, apparently were unaware of the true reason they were being sent there again.

The doctor went to great lengths to disguise the purpose of the vaccination program. He had posters advertising the program put up around Abbottabad, featuring a vaccine made by Amson, a medicine manufacturer based on the outskirts of Islamabad. On his first visit to Abbottabad in March, he had the vaccine distributed in Nawa Sher, a poor neighborhood on the edge of town that's some distance from the bin Laden compound.

In April, he returned, and instead of giving those same recipients the required second dose, he moved the nurses to Bilal Town, the upscale suburb where bin Laden lived.

"Bilal Town is a well-to-do area. Why would you choose that place to give free vaccines?" one Pakistani official said. "And what is the official surgeon of Khyber doing working in Abbottabad?"

According to some, the nurses would first take a blood sample before administering the vaccine. Alternatively, it probably would be possible to extract enough DNA for testing from the needle used to give a vaccination, even without extracting blood.

One of the nurses, Mukhtar Bibi, who goes by the nickname Bakhto, managed to gain entry to the bin Laden compound for the vaccinations. According to several locals, the doctor, who waited outside, also instructed her to take in a handbag that had been fitted with an electronic device. The purpose of the device, if such equipment was indeed given to her, is unclear. Mukhtar Bibi refused to discuss the issue.

Two U.S. officials confirmed the CIA's attempt to extract the DNA but one said that it didn't succeed. The second U.S. official said that no electronic device was part of the plan.

The doctor's activities emerged to the Pakistani authorities only during their ongoing investigation after the U.S. raid. The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate spy agency secretly detained the doctor in the provincial capital, Peshawar, in late May, according to Pakistani security officials.

The Pakistani military and the ISI are alarmed and angry that the U.S. has been able to develop an independent intelligence network in the country, which was starkly illustrated with the bin Laden operation.

The Pakistani authorities declined to comment, but a senior Pakistani official recently told McClatchy that "wouldn't any country detain people for working for a foreign spy service?"

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)

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