They can say they buried him at sea, but they cannot say they did it according to Islam. Sea burials are permissible for Muslims in extraordinary circumstances. This is not one of them.

The Guardian, 2 May, 2011

In July 20111, about two months after "Operation Neptune Spear" ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden in a residential compound in the Pakistani hill station of Abbottabad, it was widely reported that a key United States asset in targeting the Al Qaeda leader had been a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi.2 A state surgeon in the Khyber Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), Afridi apparently supervised a Central Intelligence Agency-backed hepatitis B vaccination program as a cover for the collection of crucial information including blood samples in the area where bin Laden was thought to be hiding. The campaign reportedly began in one of Abbottabad's most impoverished districts, where health workers from the region, including Afridi himself, stopped people on the street and knocked on doors to determine the immunization status of the city's poorest residents, offering free tests when necessary. Journalist Matthieu Aikins reported in late 2012 that Afridi's vaccination team was instructed to perform rapid hepatitis tests, requiring a small blood sample, on patients who agreed to the vaccination. Afridi would then collect the used tests, along with the identifying information attached to them, and turn them over to American handlers.3

As with many public health campaigns in the area, the team targeted unimmunized children. One of the nurses interviewed said she gave oral polio vaccines to seven children at the suspected residence of the bin Laden family the year before. According to a similar account by the New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti, US intelligence operatives hoped that it was among these children that they would find genetic confirmation from blood samples of the presence of the bin Laden family in Abbottabad before carrying out an illegal military operation within Pakistan's borders.4 DNA from bin Laden's sister, who died at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston the previous year, was to be used as the basis for a match. It remains unclear whether such genetic evidence was collected, but the timing of Afridi's team's reported visit to bin Laden's home between April 21 and April 27, 2011, and the directive two days later to carry out the raid that would kill him, has suggested to some investigators that actionable information collected through or adjacent to the fake vaccination campaign played a role in the decision to carry out the targeted killing.5 By most accounts, the vaccination program was abandoned once the operation was brought to a successful close, leaving many patients only partway through a full vaccination course, effectively unimmunized.

Nearly a decade after the fact, there remains a great deal of confusion and conflicting information with regard to Afridi's role in locating and targeting bin Laden. Most of the official record will be classified for years to come, and very few intelligence officials in the US and Pakistan have been willing to speak on the record about what some authorities believe is a long-standing collusion between higher-ups in Pakistani, Saudi Arabian, and US intelligence. A staggering volume of resources has been poured into creating, interrogating, and defending the narrative of the reviled Al Qaeda leader's death as the inevitable denouement triggering what was supposed to be the final act in the War on Terror. Irrespective of its verifiability, the consequences of the vaccination ruse story are profoundly material. Specialists in infectious disease from around the world have noted, in the wake of the CIA-backed vaccination scandal, the exorbitant price paid by those caught in the crosshairs of the War on Terror: in addition to the hundreds of ordinary people abandoned with compromised immunization status, local and international public health workers in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, already subject to suspicion and aggression by the Taliban and its affiliate groups, have been targeted by the dozen in the years since the operation.6 Following these developments in the ever-shifting landscape of insurgency and counterinsurgency, polio a disease that had been effectively eradicated is once again endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan.7

The War on Terror's farrago of public health operations and military intelligence in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan are rooted in the imperialist origins of a concept of global health, born out of the cholera crises of nineteenth-century British India. The discourse of colonial medicine and insurgency from the mid-nineteenth century reemerge and shape contemporary geopolitical narratives, particularly those about Islam and terrorism in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora. The conflation of Islam and anticolonial violence and the association thereof with the mechanisms and metaphors of contagion first emerges in the official, historical, and fictional documentation of the 1857 Indian Mutiny. It also haunts Rudyard Kipling's enduring novel of the imperial contest over these same regions, Kim (1900), which stands as an emblematic text in the association of anticolonial rebellion and epidemic disease. Despite the many doubts and lingering questions about the veracity of the vaccination campaign ruse, accounts of the capture of Osama bin Laden and the role of public health workers in it borrow from and exist because of strategies of figuration at play in the historical and fictional record of the Mutiny. The "great game" in which Kipling was both player and chronicler is not only still under way in the northern reaches of the subcontinent, its rules also determine how we have told and interpreted the history of the War on Terror.


Afridi's reported participation in the bin Laden raid did not yield good results for him or for the residents of Abbottabad not only was the vaccination scheme abandoned before it was complete, but Afridi also found himself in the midst of conflicting criminal charges and a multiyear diplomatic snarl. News of his cooperation with the CIA emerged when he was arrested by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) and held on treason charges soon after the bin Laden operation. Through the vicissitudes of what a number of news outlets have pointedly described as "colonial-era tribal laws" that are still in place in some areas of the North West Frontier Province, Afridi was tried without a defense attorney or jury. The charges against him were not for treasonous cooperation with the United States, but rather for conspiring with and supplying medical treatment to the militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Islam, currently banned in Pakistan and labelled as a terrorist outfit.8 Afridi was sentenced to thirty-three years in prison, and although the conviction was overturned and a retrial ordered in 2013, he has since been held in Peshawar Central Prison on murder charges for the death of a patient he treated in 2005.9

For some time, the doctor claimed to have had no contact with CIA handlers, but officials in the US government stated that Afridi had acted on behalf of the United States and that the CIA had planned the hepatitis B scheme in Abbottabad.10 In 2012, former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta affirmed that Afridi had "helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation" and called his imprisonment "unfortunate," arguing that Afridi had not acted against Pakistan, but had provided crucial assistance in an operation that benefited both nations.11 In 2013, the Senate Appropriations Committee cut Pakistani aid by thirty-three million dollars per year, reflecting the thirty-three-year duration of Afridi's sentence, to remind Pakistan of the economic necessity of its full cooperation in the War on Terror.12 In a bizarre turn in US electoral politics, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump took up Afridi's cause in an interview in April 2016, declaring that if he were elected, he would achieve Afridi's release "in two minutes."13 In early 2020, Afridi began a hunger strike to protest his continued imprisonment.14 Pakistan's Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan responded, "Contrary to Mr. Trump's misconception, Pakistan is not a colony of the United States of America."15

Khan's response is stunningly simple and direct, invoking both the monumental historical fact of decolonization even as it conjures the de facto continuation of empire. Such references to the historical present of colonialism are pervasive not only in the statements of Pakistani and Afghani officials, but also in communiqués and media output from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.16 Over the last decade and a half, canny critics have noted the extent to which the central conceptual terms on both sides of the War on Terror are at times nearly indistinguishable; this, they suggestively note, may be both accidental and strategic.17 Dignity, rights, reason, the rule of law, economic and political sovereignty, democracy, occasionally (and perhaps unexpectedly) secularism: the vocabularies of "terrorism" (at least in the forms attached to the organized entities of Al Qaeda and ISIS) and liberalism, these critics argue, share many central concepts and positions. We can observe in these overlaps a kind of conceptual analog or shunting into language of the arms race, where an impoverished political vocabulary expresses the immanence of US imperialist rhetoric and its definitions of statehood, rights, property, and law.

The story of bin Laden's killing can be understood as an exemplary moment in the War on Terror in a number of ways. First, it represents one of the most decisive single events in an enormously diffuse, and oftentimes illegible set of actions. Second, it creates a sharp distinction between the Obama administration's approach to the war and that of the Bush and Trump administrations: where Bush's war was messy, costly, pointless, productive of a world of enemies, Obama's would be clean, smart, targeted, a veritable godsend to the incompetent but necessary ally of Pakistan. Lastly, bin Laden's death was, according to a number of commentators, one of the murkiest and most egregiously fictionalized moments in the war to date. In his 2015 account, "The Killing of Osama bin Laden," Seymour Hersh suggested its absurdity was such that "the White House's story might have been written by Lewis Carroll."18 The emphasis in Hersh's telling on the mythic, the performative, the "fabrications," "lies," and "covers" offered by White House staff and counterterrorism officials, the "hoaxes," "fairytales," and "political theater" draws our attention toward broader questions having to do with the historiography of colonial warfare and counterinsurgency, to the narratives that are available to describe and also to carry out the War on Terror. We can see this event even as it exists in a highly contested discursive space not just as exemplary in the War on Terror, but also as an expression of longstanding colonial narratives that bind military to humanitarian exploits, particularly medical interventions. This story and this practice impinge multiply on postcolonial sovereignty and contribute to both the actuality and the narrativization of counterinsurgency as a biopolitical and epidemiological practice.


We can see the figuring of rebellion as contagion appearing with alarming consistency in the historical and fictional record of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, where the language of natural disaster and epidemic is so ubiquitous that it ceases to register as figural.19 Although it would be difficult to argue that what began as a series of military rebellions in the ranks of the sepoys (native soldiery) was, strictly speaking, a "peasant uprising," Ranajit Guha's observations about the naturalizing rhetorical mode of counterinsurgent historiography (fires, storms, earthquakes, epidemics) hold in this archive as well.20 This is true even in texts that forecast the Mutiny: as early as 1849, nearly a decade before the uprisings began, J. W. Kaye, the celebrated British military historian and then officer in the Bengal Army, associated dissent among the Indian troops with communicable disease. In his essay "The Romance of Indian Warfare," a rhapsodic account of the exploits of James Abbott the same Abbott after whom the garrison town in which bin Laden was captured is named Kaye writes that Abbott "chafed at the irresolution which pervaded the counsels of Lahore, and yearned for an opportunity to strike a blow at the rebellion which was gathering strength from immunity and rioting without control."21 What Kaye means by "immunity" here does not obviously include the philosophical adoption of the term as inoculation through exposure or limited incorporation that we associate with it following Derrida.22 But his sense of the word isn't limited to legal immunity either, as we see in the next sentence: "Nothing is more contagious than rebellion."23 Dealing with cholera, and dying from it, was, from the moment of the 1817 outbreak, more or less a seasonal fact of military life in India, far more so than the suppression of aggression, revolt, resistance, or unrest with which it was symbolically associated. It's an astonishingly durable association, but Kaye, writing before the Mutiny, doesn't make as much of it as later writers would.

The discursive and imaginative impact of the Mutiny far outstripped its significance in tactical terms. Its literary manifestations are legion, if the particular texts are largely forgotten; scholars Patrick Brantlinger and Gautam Chakravarty both begin chapters on Mutiny writing by citing the same line from Hilda Gregg's 1897 Blackwood's essay "The Indian Mutiny in Fiction," which suggests that "of all the great events of this century, as they are reflected in fiction, the Indian Mutiny has taken the firmest hold on the popular imagination."24 Upwards of seventy novels constitute the literary archive of the Mutiny, and popular romances on the subject are as persistent in their reliance on naturalizing metaphors and the specter of epidemic as the histories. Philip Meadows Taylor's 1872 Seeta stands out as an exemplary triple-decker novel that both makes gothic and sediments the epidemic trope as a way of thinking about the uprising, bemoaning the difficulty of "check[ing] an evil which is like the cholera or the small-pox, and seizes whom it will."25 What first appears as an indiscriminate force of nature, the cholera or smallpox "seizing whom it will," later develops a demographic selectivity in the novel, which connects disease explicitly to religious fanaticism, as in the following scene depicting the galvanizing of the rebels:

[F]rom all quarters of the camp, the Mussulman warriors rushed forward, and the men of the cavalry became infected, and in a short time the Moulvee had a thousand fanatics around him, to whom, standing on a low mound of earth, he delivered a short sermon . . . on the delights in paradise which awaited any who might become martyrs; and was answered by hoarse cries of 'Ameen! Ameen!'26

Taylor's novel is so extravagantly riddled with cliché and stock phrases that, when read alongside the historical accounts, it is fair to say that the passage above gives voice to a set of shared ideas and perceptions about both the epidemic space of the Bengal Presidency and British India writ large, as well as to the infectiousness of an idea of Muslim "fanaticism."27 One might characterize Meadows Taylor's depiction of religious fanaticism, disease, and rebellion as prescient, but I want to argue something different: these accounts, produced in the three decades after the most transformative and widespread uprising in colonial India, do not anticipate but rather set the terms and install the attendant doxa for a reading of terrorist violence in the twenty-first century. The trifold representation of Islam, contagion, and insurgency is already a familiar strategy in the last third of the nineteenth century because it was part of the praxis of empire. The particular focus on the terror brought by orthodox sects of Islam, not long-implanted in India but lately imported there, also mark postmutiny fiction in ways that will be familiar to contemporary readers.


I turn by way of conclusion to that figure of incontestable significance in colonial literature and the imperial imaginary, Rudyard Kipling. Where The Revolt of Hindostan, The History of the Indian Mutiny, the "red pamphlet," Seeta, and The Afghan Knife indexed the colonial disease poetics of the day, Kim consolidates and transmits them into a canon of imperial writing in far more lasting ways.

Published as a serial in 1901, Kipling's most celebrated book relates a moment in British and Russian imperial machinations following the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. The "Great Game," as Kipling calls it, plays out in the same Central Asian and Northern Indian regions in which bin Laden was captured. Kipling's version of this period in colonial history is told through the itinerary of the young orphan Kim, son of a color sergeant in an Irish regiment, who attaches himself to a Tibetan lama and is subsequently conscripted into the service of imperial intelligence and espionage. Early in the journey of the lama and his chela, the two travelers encounter an old man who had served as a native officer on the side of the British during the Rebellion of 1857. The man tells them stories of his service during the Mutiny, and speaks of the evils of the time when "the land from Delhi south [was] awash with blood."28 The lama remembers hearing rumors of this "Black Year," when violence overtook reason, and asks the old man, "[W]hat madness was that, then?" He replies, "The Gods, who sent it for a plague, alone know. A madness ate into all the army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil, but not past remedy if they had then held their hands."29

The old man's words associate the Mutiny with a plague and a madness, a kind of parasite that "ate into" the army, and might have been "remedied" if the rebels had stayed their hands. Instead, he explains, "they chose to kill the Sahibs' wives and children. Then came the Sahibs from over the sea and called them to most strict account."30 Here, Kipling figures the mutiny, in fact a series of violent episodes and sieges that began in Meerut and spread throughout Northern India, as a plague and a madness something natural, like the trembling of the earth, another figure he uses to describe the uprising. But it is also, by Kipling's account, deliberate and human; the rebels "chose" to kill, and the Sahibs "called them to most strict account."

Even as it registers a colonial disease, a sense of menace, Kipling's novel maintains a soft-focus approach to the British Raj in India, full of what Said calls "the pleasures of imperialism." Kipling does not seem particularly interested in recording the hard facts of insurgency, or the violent side of the imperial spy games between Russia and Britain; cholera serves as a backdrop for an adventure plot, only reemerging in the soldier's offhand recollection of the Mutiny as a "plague, a madness." The same year Kim was published, however, Kipling revisited the felicitous analogy between the practicalities of administering empire and epidemic disease. In a pamphlet titled The Science of Rebellion, written for the Imperial South African Association in 1901, Kipling excoriated those British colonialists in South Africa who sympathized with their Boer neighbors in the Second Boer War. He draws a comparison to tribal jihadists in Northern India:

If you can imagine a Mahsud Waziri rising in fall [sic] swing with the heads of jirgas members of the Peshawar Club; the Mullah Powindah himself playing whist with the Commissioner of Peshawar, and all the priests who have preached the Jehad for the past sixty Sundays, calling on the wives of the Civil Service men, you will have some faint idea of the present situation.31

These comic scenes of rough tribals cavorting with the native and colonial elite in Peshawar, the mullahs paying a visit to the Memsahibs, are sketched as examples of maximum undesirability, to the point of preposterousness so chaotic and dangerous as to be unimaginable ("if you can imagine"). Doubling down on his warning in an addendum, Kipling develops an extended metaphor for the "present situation" in Cape Town, under the auspices of what he calls a "sign":

[T]hey wait, Rebel and Loyalist, for a sign.

February 24

It looks as though that sign had come. We have here a disease called the Plague a new visitor the outcome of filth and hidden dirt. It is caused by rats that seep into men's houses and run about under the floors and presently die; one rat infecting the other . . . Logically of course, the rat should only be disenfranchised, for Plague does not more than kill the body; and after all the present Municipality's notions of cleanliness are precisely on a par with the late Ministry's notion of loyalty. It is an interesting allegory. 32

Kipling's "interesting allegory" evinces a more than passing interest in the representation of rebellion through the logics of science, and more particularly narratives of plague. We also see at work in this pamphlet the comparative nature of his thinking as he calls to mind the struggles with tribal warfare and jihad in Northern India. In place of Kipling's maps, topographical surveys, rumors, certificates of horse pedigree, Masonic credentials, and letters of introduction the currency of nineteenth-century colonial espionage we now have public health, syringes, DNA, viral envelope proteins, targeted killing, and remote-control warfare.

Kipling's infectious words loom large, as well, in casual critiques of imperialism. As many critics of the humanitarian alibis for the War on Terror have pointed out, saving Afghani women, vaccinating Pakistani children, "Bring[ing] Back Our Girls" from the Boko Haram kidnapping sprees in Nigeria these campaigns and their dissemination under US imperial practice and neocolonial warfare appear to be this century's version of the white man's infinite burdens.33

Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb is Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto where she teaches postcolonial literature and theory. Her book Epidemic Empire is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in late 2020. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared in various venues and she's shortlisted for the 2020 Montreal International Poetry Prize.


  1. Reprinted with permission from Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817-2020, by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2020 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.[]
  2. Saeed Shah, "CIA Organized Fake Vaccination Drive to Get Osama bin Laden's Family DNA," The Guardian, July 11, 2011.[]
  3. Matthieu Aikins, "The Doctor, the CIA, and the Blood of Bin Laden," Gentlemen's Quarterly, December 19, 2012. []
  4. Mark Mazzetti, "Vaccination Ruse Used in Pursuit of bin Laden," The New York Times, July 11, 2011. []
  5. Matthieu Aikins, "The Doctor, the CIA, and the Blood of bin Laden," Gentlemen's Quarterly, January 2013; Tim McGirk, "How the bin Laden Raid Put Vaccinators Under the Gun in Pakistan," National Geographic, February 25, 2015.[]
  6. Anthony Robbins, "The CIA's Vaccination Ruse," Journal of Public Health Policy 33, no. 4 (November, 2012): 387-389; McGirk, "How the bin Laden Raid,"; "How the CIA's Fake Vaccination Campaign Endangers Us All," Scientific American, May 1, 2013.[]
  7. Donald G. McNeil Jr., "C.I.A. Vaccine Ruse May Have Harmed the War on Polio," The New York Times, July 9, 2012; World Health Organization, "Circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2Pakistan," November 28, 2019. []
  8. "Lashkar-e-Islam," Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University. []
  9. Jibran Ahmed, "Pakistani Doctor Who Helped U.S. Find bin Laden Charged with Murder," Reuters, November 22, 2013. In 2015, Afridi's former lawyer was shot and killed in Peshawar: "Taliban Faction Kills Lawyer," The New York Times, March 17, 2015.[]
  10. Jason Ukman, "CIA Defends Running Vaccine Program to Find bin Laden," Washington Post, July 13, 2011.[]
  11. Leon Panetta, interview by Scott Pelley, 60 Minutes, CBS News, June 10, 2012.[]
  12. Chris McGreal, "US Cuts Pakistan's Aid in Protest at Jail for Doctor Who Helped Find bin Laden," The Guardian, May 24, 2012. Afridi was reportedly removed from prison "for security reasons" in April 2018: see "Dr. Shakil Afridi Moved from Prison 'to Safer Location'," Dawn, April 27, 2018.[]
  13. Donald Trump, interview by Bill O'Reilly, The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News, April 28, 2016. []
  14. Holly McKay and Mohsin Saleem Ullah, "'Hero' doctor Shakil Afridi who helped find bin Laden launches hunger strike behind bars after 'losing hope for justice,' lawyer says," Fox News, March 4 2020. []
  15. Ayaz Gul, "Pakistan: Trump Wrong on Jailed Doctor Who Helped Find bin Laden," Voice of America, May 2, 2016.[]
  16. The best analyses of this discursive bleed are Thomas Keenan, "A Language That Needs No Translation, or: Can Things Get Any Worse?," in Terror and the Roots of Poetics, edited by Jeffrey Champlin (New York: Atropos Press, 2013), 92-109; and Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008). For bin Laden's statements, see Bruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (London: Verso, 2005). In his introduction to the material, Lawrence draws a different conclusion from the absence of direct references to empire in bin Laden's writings; see xix-xx.[]
  17. See Keenan, "A Language That Needs No Translation," 109; Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, 8.[]
  18. Seymour M. Hersh, "The Killing of Osama bin Laden," London Review of Books 37, no. 10 (May 21, 2015): 3.[]
  19. Gautam Chakravarty provides a thorough periodization and contextualization of Mutiny literature and historiography in The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), and addresses Kaye's and Malleson's in chapter 1.[]
  20. Ranajit Guha, "The Prose of Counter-Insurgency," in Selected Subaltern Studies, edited by Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 45-46.[]
  21. John W. Kaye, "The Romance of Indian Warfare," North British Review 12 (November 1849-February 1850): 205.[]
  22. See Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, translated by Zakiya Hanafi (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011) 4-20; Jean-Luc Nancy, L'Intrus (Paris: Galilée, 2000); Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).[]
  23. Kaye, "The Romance of Indian Warfare," 205.[]
  24. Hilda Gregg, "The Indian Mutiny in Fiction," Blackwood's Magazine 161 (February 1897): 218-231; Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism 1830-1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 199; Gautam Chakravarty, The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1.   []
  25. Philip Meadows Taylor, Seeta (London: K. Paul, Trench & Co., 1880), 271.[]
  26. Ibid., 369.[]
  27. Brantlinger reads Taylor's mutineers as "good men goaded to rebellion by the dread of losing caste," and in this way understands the novel to invest the uprising with an overarching cause. Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism 1830-1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 212.[]
  28. Rudyard Kipling, Kim, edited by Edward W. Said (New York: Penguin, 1989), 100.[]
  29. Ibid., 100.[]
  30. Ibid.[]
  31. Rudyard Kipling, The Science of Rebellion (1901).[]
  32. Ibid.[]
  33. For the definitive account of the collusion of gendered "care" in colonial practice, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?," in Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflection on the History of an Idea, ed. Rosalind C. Morris (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 21-78, particularly the reading of the statement "White men are saving brown women from brown men" (49-50).[]