TIME Afghanistan

Taliban Acknowledges Death of Leader Mullah Omar

Supposed family statement claims he died of an "unspecified illness"

(KABUL, Afghanistan) — The Afghan Taliban have released a statement purportedly from the family of Mullah Omar saying he has died of an unspecified illness.

The statement, emailed to The Associated Press on Thursday, didn’t say when he died.

It followed an announcement from the Kabul government the day before. Senior Taliban figures have also told the AP that Mullah Omar died.

The statement says it’s being issued in the name of Mullah Omar’s brother, Mullah Abdul Manan, and his son, Mohammad Yaqub. It apologizes for “any mistakes Mullah Omar (made) during his rule of Afghanistan.” It also asks all Afghans and Muslims to forgive any mistakes Mullah Omar made as leader of the Taliban.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until they were overthrown in a U.S-led invasion in 2001.

Read next: How the Death of Mullah Omar Could Disrupt Progress in Afghanistan

TIME Afghanistan

How the Death of Mullah Omar Could Disrupt Progress in Afghanistan

The one-eyed leader died two years ago, it has emerged. The news could impact hopes for peace with the Taliban

Only two weeks ago, Mullah Omar’s name surfaced on a website linked to the Afghan Taliban in a message approving of the insurgents’ peace talks with Afghan government officials. There was no video or audio, just a short statement purportedly from the one-eyed leader of the militants who ruled Afghanistan before fleeing into hiding amid U.S. air strikes in late 2001. And there he stayed, appearing only as the shadowy signatory of occasional messages such as the one that appeared in mid-July.

But on Wednesday morning, days before the second round of peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban are due to get under way, the Afghan government said it believed that Omar had in fact died as far back as 2013. “The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan,” a statement issued by the office of the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, said.

Earlier, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s national intelligence agency said Omar, who carried a $10 million U.S. State Department bounty on his head, was believed to have died at a hospital in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. “He was very sick in a Karachi hospital and died suspiciously there,” Abdul Hassib Sediqi, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, told the Associated Press.

Omar’s whereabouts have been the subject of speculation for years, with the Taliban repeatedly denying periodic reports and rumors about incapacitating illness or death. But this time, with the Afghan government confirming the news, “we can now finally be comfortable in our long-held assumptions that he’s been dead,” says Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Questions, however, remain about how the announcement might impact the talks, which were due to resume this week with a second round of meetings between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives. Islamabad hosted the first set of meetings as Ghani seeks to broker a settlement with the insurgents, who stepped up violent attacks as most NATO forces left the country at the end of 2014. With over 10,000 civilian casualties — up 22% on 2013 — last year was the conflict-ridden country’s deadliest since the U.N. began keeping records in 2007.

Afghanistan’s government said it believes that confirmation of Omar’s death means that the “grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before” and called on “all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”

But it is possible that the opposite might happen, as news of a leadership vacuum fuels Taliban infighting and different factions openly jostle for position. “The talks are by no means dead, but the momentum has been lost. I think the Taliban will now be consumed by this crisis — and it is a crisis,” Kugelman says. “It is going to be very difficult for the Taliban to think about peace talks. I don’t see how they’ll be able to focus on talks anytime soon.”

The fear that their organization is going to be “torn asunder” by the public announcement of their leader’s death might also explain why some Taliban militants had earlier on Wednesday put out the claim that Omar was still alive. “It could really tear the organization apart,” says Kugelman, who adds that the denials might be an attempt by certain groups to maintain unity.

Already, various Taliban factions are said to be making a push for power, with recent Pakistani press reports highlighting opposition within the militant group’s ranks to the leadership of its acting chief, Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor.

The announcement of Omar’s death by Afghanistan’s government, Kugelman adds, could also prove to be a “big-time victory” for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has expanded beyond its home ground in Syria and Iraq into Afghanistan in recent months. “You could argue announcing Mullah Omar’s death amounts to a recruiting tool for [ISIS],” he says, with the confirmed exit of Omar allowing ISIS to lure disaffected Taliban militants who were already concerned about his absentee leadership as foreign troops exited Afghanistan.

“I think you could have large numbers of these militants moving over to ISIS,” he says.

 

TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Police Kill Feared Sunni Militant Leader

Malik Ishaq
Khalid Tanveer—AP Malik Ishaq, center, a leader of the banned Sunni Muslim group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in July 15, 2011

Ishaq operated freely for years in Pakistan

(MUZAFFARGARH, Pakistan) — Pakistani police gunned down one of the country’s most-feared Sunni militant leaders and 13 followers in a mysterious pre-dawn shootout Wednesday, killing a man believed to behind the slaughter of hundreds of the nation’s minority Shiites.

Malik Ishaq, who directed the operations of the Taliban- and al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group, was so feared in Pakistan that frightened judges hid their faces from him and even offered the unrepentant killer tea and cookies in court.

Yet Ishaq, believed to be either 55 or 56, operated freely for years in Pakistan as the country’s intelligence services helped nurture Sunni militant groups in the 1980s and 1990s to counter a perceived threat from neighboring Shiite power Iran.

Details of Ishaq’s killing remain cloudy in Pakistan, where extrajudicial slayings by police remain common — especially in pre-staged ambushes. Ishaq already had been detained by police, arrested two days earlier on suspicion of being involved in the slaying of two Shiites, police officer Bakhtiar Ahmed said.

Early Wednesday, as officers tried to transfer Ishaq from a prison in the city of Multan, gunmen ambushed the police convoy transporting him in an attempt to free the militant, Ahmed said. The ensuing gunbattle killed Ishaq and at least 13 of his associates, including two of his sons and his deputy, Ghulam Rasool, Ahmed said.

In a later statement, police said “14 or 15 unidentified armed terrorists” attacked police vehicles to free Ishaq when officers were returning from an area in Muzaffargarh after seizing weapons, explosives and detonators on information provided by Ishaq and some of his associates.

It also said Ishaq and his associates were killed by those who ambushed the convoy, without elaborating.

Shuja Khanzada, the provincial home minister in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, where the alleged ambush took place, said the shooting wounded six police officers who “demonstrated extreme bravery.”

No other witnesses to the shooting could be immediately located, nor could Ishaq’s family members.

“Malik Ishaq was behind many acts of terrorism and he was freed by courts in the past due to lack of evidence,” Khanzada told The Associated Press. “Finally, this symbol of terror met his final fate.”

Fearing violence in Punjab, long the home of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, police mounted a heavy security presence around the province and the morgue in Muzaffargarh that took Ishaq’s body and those of his associates.

Ishaq helped found Laskhar-e-Jangvi, which allies itself with al-Qaida and the Taliban. His group is blamed for scores of attacks on Shiites, regarded as infidels, and on Pakistani and U.S. interests. They’ve also been accused of carrying out attacks in neighboring Afghanistan. The U.S. State Department designated Ishaq as a terrorist in February 2014, ordering any U.S. assets he held frozen.

Ishaq was arrested in 1997 and accused in more than 200 criminal cases, including the killings of 70 Shiites. But the state could never make the charges stick — in large part because witnesses, judges and prosecutors were too scared to convict.

Frightened judges treated him honorably in court and gave him tea and cookies, said Anis Haider Naqvi, a prosecution witness in two cases against Ishaq who spoke to The Associated Press in 2011. One judge attempted to hide his face with his hands, but Ishaq made clear he knew his identity in a chilling way: He read out the names of his children, and the judge abandoned the trial, Naqvi said at the time.

Despite the lack of convictions, Ishaq remained in prison for 14 years as prosecutors slowly moved from one case to the next. Ishaq proved his usefulness to the army in 2009, when he was flown from jail to negotiate with militants who had stormed part of the military headquarters in Rawalpindi and were holding hostages

A behind-the-scenes effort by the government to co-opt the leaders of militant outfits and bring them into mainstream political life, or at least draw them away from attacking the state, helped Ishaq secure his release in 2011. He had been in and out of police custody since.

Pakistan is a majority Sunni Muslim state, with around 15 percent of the population Shiite. Most Sunnis and Shiites live together peacefully in Pakistan, though tensions have existed for decades and extremists on both sides target each other’s leaders.

Pakistan has intensified its campaign against militant groups since December 2014, when a Taliban attack on a military school in the northwestern city of Peshawar killed 150 people, mostly children.

The school attack also prompted the Pakistani government to lift its moratorium on the death penalty. It has executed scores of militants and other men charged in murder cases since then.

___

Ahmed reported from Islamabad.

TIME Afghanistan

Afghan Government Officials in Direct Talks With Taliban

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
Allauddin Khan—AP Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a press conference in Kabul on May 26, 2015.

This marks the first official meeting between the two sides since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001

(KABUL, Afghanistan) — An Afghan official says a government delegation has met with Taliban representatives in Pakistan.

An official from the Afghan government’s high peace council told The Associated Press that the meeting took place Tuesday in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

Sayed Zafar Hashemi, deputy spokesman for the Afghan president’s office, confirmed that the delegation travelled to Pakistan for talks with the Taliban.

The talks marked the first official meeting between the two sides since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition invasion. Taliban and government representatives have met informally in the past. New Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has made it a public priority to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

TIME Afghanistan

Witness the Taliban Attack on Afghanistan’s Parliament

Seven Taliban militants were killed on Monday after launching a major attack, involving a suicide bomb and gunmen, on the Afghan Parliament. No lawmakers lost their lives

TIME Afghanistan

14 Killed in Afghanistan as Taliban Attacks Kabul Hotel

Afghan policeman stands guard at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan
Mohammad Ismail—Reuters An Afghan policeman stands guard at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan May 13, 2015.

At least two Indian nationals and an American were among the victims

Fourteen people, including 9 foreigners, were killed in an attack in Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul on Wednesday night after at least one gunman opened fire on a guesthouse, a government official said.

Fifty-four other hostages were rescued in the attack that only ended in the early hours of Thursday morning, the Associated Press reported. The assault began at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, when a gunman or gunmen opened fire at the restaurant of the Park Palace Hotel, according to Kabul’s chief of police General Abdul Rahman Rahimi.

U.S. embassy spokesperson Monica Cummings told the AP in an email that a still unidentified U.S. citizen had been killed.

At least two of the other victims were Indian, and three other Indians were rescued and were being sheltered at the Indian embassy, a diplomat told Reuters.

The Taliban claimed responsibility on Thursday, with the militant group’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid claiming in an email to media that they had targeted the hotel because of the presence of Americans and other foreigners there.

A majority of the guests were at the hotel, located in the same neighborhood as a U.N. compound and the Indian embassy, for a party honoring a Canadian citizen, American attendee Amin Habib told the AP.

A Canadian spokesperson said all its embassy staff were “safe and accounted for.”

Mujahid said in the email that there was only one attacker wearing a suicide vest and armed with a Kalashnikov rifle and a pistol, contrary to the three attackers cited by the Afghan security authorities.

The attack bears similarities to two others carried out by the Taliban in Kabul in 2014, at a hotel and a Lebanese restaurant respectively, and is one of the most blatant assaults since the extremist group announced its spring offensive this year.

TIME Pakistan

43 Shi‘ite Muslims Have Been Killed in a Sectarian Attack in Southern Pakistan

Security officials cordon off the area at the scene of an attack on a bus in Karachi
Akhtar Soomro—Reuters Security officials cordon off the area at the scene of an attack on a bus in Karachi, Pakistan, on May 13, 2015

More than a dozen others were injured after six gunmen opened fire

Gunmen attacked a bus carrying members of a religious minority in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi on Wednesday, killing 43 and injuring about a dozen.

Provincial police chief Ghulam Haider Jamali said the bus was headed to a place of worship for Ismaili Shi‘ite Muslims when the attackers boarded it and began firing, the Associated Press reported.

About 60 people were reportedly on board the bus when the six gunmen climbed aboard. The assailants reportedly used 9-mm pistols to execute their victims.

The Pakistani Taliban and other Sunni Muslim groups that have a presence in cities like Karachi have long targeted Shi‘ites, believing that they are apostates, although no one has yet claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack.

“That’s the probability, that some section of the Taliban or some other extremist sectarian organization carried out this attack,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political scientist and analyst, tells TIME.

Rizvi added that the attack is most likely a message to the government and the Pakistan army, which has recently stepped up its crackdown on extremist groups. “It’s a pre-emptive strike, it looks like an action to deter the army and Rangers [a border security force] from taking any firm actions against these militant groups,” Rizvi says. “But they will not be deterred by this kind of action, I expect some major action in two or three days time by the military and paramilitary forces.”

TIME On Our Radar

Meet the Afghan Photographers Telling Their Country’s Stories

A new documentary showcases four Afghan photographers working in the war-torn country

With the strengthening of Taliban’s hold on Afghanistan in the 1990s, came the end of a long photographic tradition. At the turn of the 20th century, the ruling royal family practiced photography as a hobby, and a serious one at that. Habibullah Khan, the Emir from 1901 to 1919, set up a studio in the palace while organizing competitions and exhibitions. Decades later, box cameras had made their way into the streets, popularizing the postcard-format family portrait. Yet, today, an entire generation is left without pictures of their youth, let alone a visual history of their nation.

“A country without photographs, is a country without identity,” says Najibullah Musafer, a photojournalist who took great risks to document his homeland despite the prohibition. After seeing b-roll from Afghanistan that challenged their perceptions of the war-torn region, Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, two American filmmakers, felt it necessary to connect with storytellers from the area committed to sharing more nuanced accounts of their country. Their curiosity prompted the documentary Frame by Frame.

The cast is composed of photographers that distinguish themselves not only by the compelling nature of their work, but also by their enthralling personalities. Beside wholehearted and wise Musafer, considered the grandfather of modern photojournalism in the country, there’s the trailblazing, industrious and thoughtful Farzana Wahidy, her calm and astute husband Massoud Hossaini, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, and Wakil Kohsar, the soulful up-and-comer.

“At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of a movie,” says Wahidy. “At the time, I was trying to keep a low profile, mainly for security reasons and so that I could continue to do my work with as few hurdles as possible. But when I saw that they were going ahead with it, and with three men, I felt it was my duty to be in it.” The documentary makes clear how difficult it can be for her to gain access, especially given that photographing women, which she’s specialized in, remains highly taboo.

As the camera follows the quartet in their daily lives, and as they share stories from their past — the very stories that inform their gaze and shape their voice — a larger layered narrative emerges; that of a disrupted nation.

“Originally, we thought it would be a short film,” says Bombach. “But, as we were conducting the interviews, the complexity of what was happening, of what each photographer was going through, the heaviness of their past and how that affects how they shoot now, it became clear that it needed to be a feature length that would use human narratives to give a much better sense of what’s been going on in the past thirty years.”

Take Kohsar. As he shares memories from his childhood – fleeing Panjshir and seeking refuge in Iran – the plight of Afghan refugees under the Taliban regime comes to light. The footage of him working offers glimpses of issues such as the prevalence of drug addiction and of political disillusion. And, his struggle with an official who suggest that he takes a staged photograph of voters getting their election card – rather than allowing him in – is telling of a country where misinformation is widespread.

“I hope that an audience gets to see what it means to be a storyteller, to be seeking truth when people are putting barriers in front of you, to uphold your responsibility to your craft no matter what’s thrown your way and to seek beauty and justice through photography,” says Scarpelli, who was greatly inspired by how much humanity is bursting from each and every one of the protagonists’ images.

Frame by frame, these four photojournalists, as well as their colleagues, are building an indispensable visual history of these tumultuous times. “Afghanistan is in a very particular and uncertain place right now. Everyone is holding their breath,” says Scarpelli, echoing Hosseini’s worries, expressed in the documentary, that the world might forget Afghanistan again. Frame by frame, the movie reminds us why we should not.

Frame by Frame‘s international premieres is this week at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival.

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Could End Up Charging CIA Officials With Murder Over Drone Strikes

A landmark case may open the door for a possible multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit launched by relatives of the alleged 960 civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan

A senior judge in Pakistan has ordered police to formally investigate former CIA agents for allegedly authorizing a 2009 drone strike.

If the case moves forward, it may subject the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to sensitive police investigations and even result in U.S. citizens for the first time being charged with murder for covert drone strikes in the South Asian nation.

Last Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court ordered police to open a criminal case against former CIA Islamabad Station Chief Jonathan Bank and ex-CIA legal counsel John A. Rizzo for murder, conspiracy, terrorism and waging war against Pakistan.

The complainant is Kareem Khan, whose son Zahin Ullah Khan and brother Asif Iqbal were killed in an alleged December 2009 CIA drone strike in the mountainous Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan.

The case was lauded as the “first of its kind for directly implicating and naming a CIA official” by University of Hull international legal expert Niaz Shah.

However, the Pakistani police appear unlikely to comply with the judge’s order, having already refused on two previous occasions. “[We] are appealing the case in the Supreme Court of Pakistan,” Islamabad police superintendent Mirvais Niaz told TIME on Wednesday, citing jurisdictional disputes.

Mirvais maintains that the local Waziristan authorities should investigate the incident as that’s where the deaths occurred; Khan, a journalist, argues that an Islamabad bench should try the case as that’s where he contends the decision to launch the strikes was made.

However, the case appears to rest on whether Pakistan’s political apparatus is willing to pursue a sensitive legal action that police say may imperil U.S.-Pakistan relations.

According to court documents seen by TIME, not only does Khan’s case implicate ex-CIA officials, it also calls for an investigation into the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, where Khan believes the drone strike was ordered.

“The Pakistani government has questions to answer about why they have fought the filing of this criminal complaint if they are indeed opposed to the drone strikes,” said Jennifer Gibson, an attorney with international legal aid charity Reprieve. “They’ve been fighting it in court at every level.”

Even if the investigation receives the green light, bringing ex-CIA officials to trial will be an onerous battle in Pakistan. Should Bank and Rizzo fail to appear, one recourse is the international police body Interpol, which can extradite former CIA officials to stand trial, says Mirza Shahzad Akbar, the Pakistani attorney leading case. However, cases against CIA officials seldom succeed, even when Interpol is invoked, for reasons of diplomatic sensitivity. (In 2005, Italy unsuccessfully forwarded a request to extradite CIA agents to Interpol, an action repeated by Germany in 2007 with a similar result.)

“It’s very difficult to get the CIA to come to court in Pakistan,” Akbar told TIME in March.

The CIA removed Bank from Pakistan after he received death threats following his public identification in Khan’s initial $500 million civil lawsuit in 2010. He became chief of Iran operations but was removed for creating a “hostile work environment” and now works in intelligence for the Pentagon, the Associated Press reports. Rizzo, who Khan alleges authorized the strike that killed his family members, worked in Pakistan as a CIA lawyer and has since retired. Both are currently living in the U.S. and appear unlikely to return to Pakistan to stand trial.

CIA spokesman Christopher White declined TIME’s request for a comment on the case involving Bank and Rizzo.

As the case moves ahead, some see it paving the way for a possible multibillion-dollar class-action suit against U.S. officials. The U.S. has carried out more than 400 covert drone strikes in Pakistan, with the most recent on Sunday, according to data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Since 2004, drone strikes in Pakistan have allegedly killed up to 3,945 people, including some 960 civilians. The U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Pakistan focuses on drones to uproot the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other militants in Pakistan’s fractious tribal areas.

In 2013, the Peshawar High Court, whose rulings apply nationwide, declared U.S. drone strikes illegal in Pakistan and demanded compensation for civilian victims. Likewise, in April 2012, Pakistan’s Parliament issued a resolution that “no overt or covert operations inside Pakistan shall be permitted.” Neither the 2013 Peshawar court ruling nor the 2012 parliamentary resolution seems to have halted the U.S. drone campaign inside Pakistan.

Should the former CIA officials prove difficult to prosecute, civilians harmed by drones may pursue other legal channels. “The [drone victims] may also be able to sue the state of Pakistan for failing to protect them from harm caused by someone else. The state is responsible for protecting people and their lives,” said the academic Shah, who also serves as an advocate of the High Court in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, the political will to pursue drone-related litigation remains shaky in Pakistan, where many believe “tacit consent” allows U.S. drone operations to continue. In 2012, U.S. officials familiar with the drone program told the Wall Street Journal that Pakistan clears airspace and sends acknowledgment receipts after the CIA faxes upcoming drone-strike alerts to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.

In an interview with TIME, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tasnim Aslam rejected the principle of tacit consent as a “rumor” and said Pakistan was continuing to pressure the U.S., both in private and public meetings, to end the drone program, given the success of its own counterterrorism operation in Waziristan, Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

“Drone operations without our permission are violating our sovereignty, and they result in collateral damage — killing off large numbers of innocent civilians — which creates more resentment,” she said.

Nevertheless, in the leaked 2013 Abbottabad Commission report, the former head of the ISI appeared to publicly acknowledge Pakistan signing off on U.S. drone strikes: “It was easier to say no to them in the beginning, but ‘now it was more difficult’ to do so,” said the ISI’s former director general Ahmed Shuja Pasha. The classified document reported that “The DG [director general] said there were no written agreements. There was a political understanding.”

The veracity of the report was confirmed by the Foreign Ministry, but suppressed inside Pakistan, prompting an inquiry into how information was leaked.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said that the U.S. operates drones with the cooperation of foreign governments, in part to protect strategic alliances. In a 2013 speech at the National Defense University, which remains the Administration’s most comprehensive and recent public statement on drone policy, Obama said “America cannot take [drone] strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners and respect for state sovereignty.”

Still, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rebutted Obama’s speech a few months later, saying, “The government of Pakistan has made its position clear that drone strikes constituted a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, violative of international humanitarian laws, besides being counterproductive to our efforts for bringing peace and stability in Pakistan and the region.”

Ultimately, the Islamabad High Court’s action may reveal more details of how the drone program operates in Pakistan and which state agencies, if any, interface with U.S. officials in the decisionmaking process. Pakistan’s courts, increasingly powerful and independent, have emerged as an important arena to wrestle for these answers.

For Khan, who is still desperate to learn who ordered the death of his brother and son, culpability is less important than accountability.

“The Pakistani government owes it to Kareem Khan, and the many other civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes, to honor the judgment. Justice and an end to drone strikes are long overdue,” said Gibson, the Reprieve lawyer.

In a statement after the judge’s order last week, Khan said, “I sincerely hope that authorities now will do their job and proceed against the culprits.”

TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Militants Kill Former Lawyer of Doctor Who Helped Find bin Laden

Afridi, lawyer for a Pakistani doctor who helped U.S. officials find al-Qaeda chief Osama bin laden, speaks to the media in Peshawar
Khuram Parvez—Reuters Samiullah Afridi, lawyer for Dr. Shakil Afridi who ran a fake vaccination campaign to help U.S. officials find al-Qaeda leader Osama bin laden, speaks to the media after appearing before the court in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Oct. 30, 2013

“We killed him because he was defending Shakil, who is our enemy”

A Pakistani lawyer who represented the doctor charged with helping U.S. intelligence authorities hunt down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed on Tuesday, according to local police in his hometown of Peshawar.

A police official said Samiullah Afridi was shot in the abdomen and neck while returning to his home and died on the spot, Reuters reports.

Afridi had reportedly received death threats for defending Dr. Shakil Afridi (no relation), who was handed a controversial 33-year jail sentence in 2012 for running a fake vaccination campaign that helped CIA agents locate the Saudi-born terrorist leader. Two militant groups, both affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban, have claimed responsibility for Afridi’s murder.

“We killed him because he was defending Shakil, who is our enemy,” said Taliban splinter group Jundullah. Another Taliban faction, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaatul Ahrar, said it killed Afridi because they couldn’t get to the doctor who “spied on our respected and supreme leader Sheik Osama.”

The lawyer had only recently returned to Pakistan, having relocated to Dubai after quitting the case last year out of concern for his safety. “Not only is my life in danger, my family is also in danger,” he had said in an interview with Reuters.

The targeting of lawyers by militant groups is not uncommon in Pakistan, says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based Pakistani political scientist and commentator, citing the murder last year of prominent prosecution lawyer Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali. Ali was involved in the trial of Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, accused of masterminding the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, as well as the case of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s 2007 assassination — he was gunned down in his car last May while on his way to court.

Dr. Afridi, meanwhile, had his sentence overturned in 2013 and is currently awaiting a new trial.

“It becomes difficult to find a lawyer because nobody wants to stick their neck out, and therefore cases stay pending and nothing happens,” Rizvi tells TIME. “The government will be able to find a lawyer, maybe in a couple of months’ time, but the new lawyer will also become a target of these groups and that fear will haunt the whole process.”

Pakistani militant groups have also cracked down on polio-vaccination drives following bin Laden’s killing and Dr. Afridi’s prosecution, saying they are un-Islamic and either fronts for espionage or an attempt to sterilize Muslims.

On Tuesday, a gun attack killed two female immunization workers at an Afghan refugee camp near Pakistan’s northwestern city of Mansehra, according to Agence France-Presse. The incident is the latest in a recent spate of attacks against polio workers, 77 of whom have been killed since December 2012.

Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where the disease still exists, and the number of polio cases recorded in the country last year reached a 14-year high of 306.

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