U.S. frees Taliban narcotics kingpin in exchange for Navy veteran

The Taliban released Mark Frerichs, an American veteran who had been held hostage since early 2020, in exchange for Haji Bashir Noorzai, a convicted Taliban drug kingpin who was serving a life sentence for smuggling heroin into the United States. The U.S. routinely claims it does not negotiate with terrorist groups, but this prisoner swap is just the latest example.

The Taliban, which also claims to be against narcotics production and smuggling, gave Noorzai a hero’s welcome upon his return to Kabul on Sept. 19. He was given a military escort and showered with garlands of flowers.

Before his arrest in 2005, Noorzai was added to the list of the U.S. government’s foreign narcotics kingpins and was considered to be one of the world’s 10 most wanted narcotics traffickers. The U.S. government claimed Noorzai smuggled more than $50 million in heroin into the U.S. In 2008, Noorzai was sentenced to life in prison.

Noorzai had longtime ties to the Taliban. At the time of his arrest, U.S. Attorney David Kelley described Noorzai as “perhaps the most notorious Afghan drug lord and has built, over the last 15 years, a multimillion-dollar heroin business by forging an unholy alliance with [Taliban founder and first emir] Mullah Mohammad Omar and the Taliban.”

“Between 1990 and 2004, Noorzai and his organization provided demolitions, weaponry, and militia manpower to the Taliban. In exchange, the Taliban permitted Noorzai’s business to flourish and served as protection for Noorzai’s opium crops, heroin laboratories, and drug transportation routes out of the country,” Kelley said.

Frerichs kidnapped by the Taliban’s Haqqani Network

Frerichs, a U.S. Navy veteran who was working as a civil engineer in Afghanistan, was kidnapped in Jan. 2020, just one month before the Trump administration cut a deal with the Taliban that paved the way for the U.S. withdrawal under the Biden administration.

Frerichs was kidnapped in the eastern Afghanistan province of Khost, a bastion of the Al Qaeda-allied Haqqani Network, the powerful and arguably the most influential Taliban subgroup in Afghanistan. Frerichs’ disappearance triggered a multi-agency search across Afghanistan.

While the U.S. military was frantically searching for Frerichs in Afghanistan, it was highly likely he was moved across the border to Pakistan, where the Taliban has previously detained other U.S. and foreign hostages. The Haqqani Network controls territory in the Pakistani tribal districts of North and South Waziristan, as well as in Kurram, despite claims by the Pakistani government and military that it has rooted out the group through military operations.

The Haqqani Network is led by Sirajuddin Haqqani. Sirajuddin is the Taliban’s Interior Minister, and also serves as one of the two deputy emirs of the Taliban. Sirajuddin played a key role in the Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network is closely tied to Al Qaeda and other foreign terror groups, and helped institutionalize suicide tactics within the ranks of the Taliban.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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