(WASHINGTON) — Two days after gunmen killed seven of his employees, the head of a Pakistani aid organization blamed their deaths not only on the militants who pulled the trigger, but also on America’s Central Intelligence Agency.
“The militants are taking revenge for the fake [vaccination] program in Abbottabad,” Javed Akhtar, the executive director of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Support With Working Solution, told ABC News in a telephone interview.
Akhtar was referring to a hepatitis vaccination program created by the CIA and run by Pakistani Dr. Shakil Afridi in the town where Osama bin Laden lived. Afridi and a team of Pakistani nurses worked in the town, hoping to obtain a DNA sample from a bin Laden family member to prove he was living there. The campaign failed to get bin Laden DNA, admitted a senior U.S. official at the time, although Afridi did speak on the phone with Osama bin Laden’s courier, whom the CIA used to track down the terror leader.
Bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011 in a nighttime raid by America’s elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, commonly known as SEAL Team Six. Afridi was arrested after the raid and remains in Pakistani custody, convicted of treason. He never finished administering the vaccination regimen he started on some of the town’s children.
The United Nations, international and Pakistani NGOs have criticized the CIA in the past, but Akhtar’s accusation is among the first times a health worker in Pakistan has directly linked the death of vaccine distributors to the CIA’s Abbottabad campaign.
Seven of his employees, including six women, were brutally killed Tuesday as they travelled in northwest Pakistan. The teachers and health workers ran a school for 150 girls, a maternity health clinic and distributed the polio vaccine. Their deaths come just three weeks after nine other vaccine workers were assassinated elsewhere in Pakistan. No group has publicly taken responsibility for the attacks, but officials suspect the Pakistani Taliban.
Vaccine distributors, many of whom are women, said they are now too scared to work anymore. One echoed Akhtar’s criticism and linked December’s and Monday’s attacks to the CIA program. They are especially angered by the fact that Afridi did not complete the hepatitis vaccinations.
“We were never threatened before the fake program of Dr. Afridi,” a female health worker told ABC News, requesting anonymity. “The militants now see us as foreign spies.”
The CIA declined comment for this report, but a senior counterterrorism official with knowledge of operations against al Qaeda in Pakistan defended the vaccine program, arguing it was “limited” and “real.”
“They [the vaccinations] were conducted by genuine medical professionals,” said the official. “The idea that these were in any way ‘fake’ is simply mistaken. Many Pakistani children received vaccinations, and if the effort had not been interrupted by the arrest of the doctor, they would have been fully immunized.” The official added that “the plan was for everyone to get the full course of treatments.”
Pakistan has seen a long-running campaign by militants and conservative religious leaders against vaccines, female health workers and female educators. Long before the CIA vaccination campaign, Taliban leaders argued polio drops were American attempts to sterilize children or collect intelligence information. Militants often threatened anyone who represented the government of the West.
“Militants go after representation of the state,” said Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert and professor at Georgetown University. “They go after health care workers as part of their evolving inventory of targets that really shake people’s confidence in the state’s ability to protect them.”
But while in the past militants might have threatened vaccine distributors or aid workers, they usually stopped short of attacking them.
That’s why Akhtar and other Pakistani health workers are pointing to the CIA campaign. The three deadly attacks on female health workers in the last three weeks is an unprecedented assault on polio vaccinations in Pakistan, one of only three countries in the world where the disease is still endemic.
Health workers have made massive gains against polio in Pakistan. In the early 1990s, more than 20,000 children contracted polio, but that dropped to 28 in 2005, according to the World Health Organization. Cases fluctuated in the years since. They rose to 190 in 2011 before dropping again this year.
But Pakistani health workers warn the violence may prevent them from doing their jobs, risking some of the hard-won progress.
“I am now too scared to carry on. My parents have told me that I cannot carry on my job,” said Nazia, a health worker in northwest Pakistan who asked that neither her last name nor her exact location are disclosed. “I don’t know yet but I would like to carry on with my job. If people like us stop doing our job, our children will be at risk.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio