USAID Administrator Raj Shah was forced to cut short a visit to a flood relief camp in Pakistan this week after his security detail detected “suspicious individuals” in the area.
Dr. Shah told reporters in Washington on Friday that contrary to some media reports, he did not visit a camp run by a charity affiliated with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The State Department has designated LeT as a terrorist organization.
Dr. Shah said he visited a World Food Program food distribution camp in Sukkur.
A report in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper claimed USAID’s top official had visited a camp run by Falah-i-Insaniyat, a charity linked to LeT.
Dr. Shah said he had barely started speaking with flood victims at the camp in Sukkur when his security detail informed him that some “suspicious individuals were in the area and we needed to leave.”
“And so we tried to make as graceful and appropriate an exist as possible,” he said, noting that he had hoped to spend more time talking to people affected by the floods.
Security personnel who visited the camp a day prior to his visit saw no sign of these suspicious individuals who most likely arrived because they knew he was visiting, Dr. Shah said.
Charities with links to terrorist organizations have been exploiting the humanitarian crisis caused by the floods to make inroads with the local population.
More than one-fifth of Pakistan, or the size of Italy, has been affected by the floods and 20 million people have been displaced.
At an event at the Brookings Institution this week, Jehangir Karamat, a former chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was quite likely that groups linked to terrorist organizations are providing flood relief.
“They live in those areas, and they would very much like to get into the public and gain support and sympathy and make inroads,” Mr. Karamat said.
“But,” he added, “their capacity is limited to dishing out odd things here and there. This is a disaster on a national scale, where you need relief from helicopters, military troops, boats, hovercraft… They have nothing like that. So [their role is] going to be insignificant.”
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, has threatened to attack international aid workers, and U.S. officials acknowledge that they have information of such a threat.
“Without getting into intelligence matters, we have – we’re in possession of threat information,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters this week.
Mr. Crowley said the administration is concerned that “extremist elements within Pakistan, including the TTP, may well decide to attack foreigners who are in Pakistan helping the people of Pakistan, or may choose at this time to attack government institutions in Pakistan that are responding on behalf of the Pakistani people.”
He said such threats “just underscores the bankrupt vision that these extremists have.”
Dr. Shah described the threats as “disappointing and inappropriate.”
He pointed out that the flood relief camps are open sites so people can get access.
“It is deeply saddening that others would use these environments to propagate themselves and threaten international aid workers,” he said.
The WFP food distribution camp is the first structured distribution of 30-day rations in that part of flood-ravaged Pakistan, and Dr. Shah said he thought it was important to “highlight that as an important part of the solution.”