May 27, 2014 -- In the fall of 2012, a young Pakistani girl named Rimsha Masih was released from a three-week stint in a local prison where she had been held for blasphemy.
During her detention, Masih’s controversial case garnered international attention so it was unsurprising that when she was freed, crowds had gathered at the prison. Fearing for her safety, the Pakistani government hustled her aboard a military helicopter to be flown to an undisclosed location.
A photographer at the scene, Farooq Naeem, snapped a picture of Masih in the helicopter, with her headset on, face barely visible through a small window in the side of the chopper. It’s a powerful image, but it also captured something else – a curious detail that a source familiar with the event recently noted to ABC News: a small red patch on the helicopter pilot’s shoulder that appears to say “Department of State Air Wing” surrounding what looks like the seal of the U.S. State Department. The pilot’s face, turned towards the Pakistani military co-pilot seated next to him, is not visible.
At the time, the State Department publicly had kept its distance from Masih’s ordeal, except shortly after she was arrested when State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland called the case “deeply disturbing.” When asked if the U.S. had been in touch with Pakistan about Masih’s detention, Nuland said then she was unsure if the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan was “on it.”
More than two weeks later, Masih was released on a Saturday and by Monday, other news had overtaken the State Department. She wasn’t mentioned in the Department’s daily briefing.
Still, the image indicates a State Department pilot was there and the small incident gave a glimpse, however brief, into the operations of the U.S. State Department’s Air Wing, formally called the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Office of Aviation (INL/A), a little-known but surprisingly robust air operation run in a number of foreign nations.
“The Department of State Air Wing operates a large number of helicopters and airplanes relatively unnoticed all over the world,” a source familiar with Air Wing operations told ABC News. “Most Americans have no idea that the program exists at all.”
The Air Wing, established in the mid-1980s, was originally intended solely “for the purpose of conducting aerial eradication and interdiction operations in drug-producing countries under bilateral agreements,” according to the State Department. A 2011 State Department magazine described the organization’s earliest missions as crop dusting over drug-production fields in Guatemala and Colombia. But over the years mission requirements expanded to “counter-terrorism, border security/law enforcement, and embassy transportation missions.”
The State Department says it currently employs 150 aircraft in the Air Wing, down from approximately 240 in 2010 – still more than the air forces of some smaller countries. A 2010 State Department fact sheet said then that the Air Wing operated in eight nations: Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan and Peru. Recently the State Department said it’s now active in five: Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan and Peru.
Air Wing’s formal relationship with Pakistan began in 2002, when it was brought in to help “combat the smuggling of narcotics, goods, arms and ammunition,” the State magazine said. The U.S. provided helicopters and “train[ed] Ministry of Interior personnel to fly and maintain them.”
In general the Air Wing also conducts what the State Department calls “personnel and cargo movement” and “other missions as agreed upon between the U.S. Embassy and the Host Nation,” either of which may explain their subtle involvement in Masih’s case.
A State Department Air Wing spokesperson declined to directly address the Air Wing pilot being spotted with Masih, except to say that State Department assets are operated under the Pakistani Interior Ministry’s own air wing.
“We were encouraged that the Government of Pakistan provided security for Rimsha and her family,” the spokesperson said.
[Editor's Note: The original version of this report identified the aviator with the State Department patch as the co-pilot of the aircraft and the other aviator as the pilot. This version has been updated to clarify the roles were reversed.]