The United States welcomes Afghanistan’s release of former Navy veteran Mark Frerichs in exchange for convicted drug dealer Bashir Noorzai.
Washington DC – USA liberated a convicted Afghan drug lord detained in the US in a prisoner swap with the Taliban, who has freed a US Navy veteran held in Afghanistan since 2020.
US President Joe Biden on Monday welcomed the release of Mark Frerichs, who was kidnapped while working as a civil engineer in Afghanistan.
But he acknowledged that the deal “requires difficult decisions”, referring to the release of Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban ally who is serving a life sentence in a US prison on drug charges.
The prisoner exchange comes more than a year after the Taliban captured the Afghan capital amid the withdraw US troops in August 2021.
Washington did not recognize Taliban government. But on Monday, officials in both countries said the prisoner swap was the result of lengthy negotiations, suggesting that channels of communication between the Biden administration and the Taliban were open.
Here, Al Jazeera examines who the Frerichs and Noorzai were, and the efforts that led to their release.
- Noorzai, also known as Hajji Bashir, is a tribal leader in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan.
- According to the US government, he owns poppy fields and laboratories for heroin production and oversees a global drug operation. US officials have described him as the “Asian heroin dealer Pablo Escobar”, comparing him to a notorious Colombian drug lord.
- Noorzai is accused of having a close personal relationship with the late Taliban co-founder Mullah Omar. US prosecutors say he provided financial support to the Taliban in exchange for allowing his drug business to continue.
- He was arrested in 2005 in the US, where his lawyers said he intended to speak to federal officials. It is unclear in what capacity he communicated with US authorities at the time.
- In 2008, Noorzai was found guilty of drug-related conspiracy. A year later, he was sentenced to life in prison.
- Bashir Noorzai’s worldwide drug network supported a Taliban regime do Afghanistan a breeding ground for international terrorism, a legacy that continues to destabilize the region,” a US Justice Department official said in a statement at the time. “Today’s sentencing clearly ends Noorzai’s long criminal career.”
- Noorzai’s lawyers have denied the charges against him, alleging that he was lured to the US with the promise that he would not be arrested.
- Frerichs, 60, is a naval veteran and civilian engineer who worked as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan until he was kidnapped in Khost province, southeast of Kabul, in early 2020.
- While the circumstances of his abduction remain unclear, unnamed US officials have told news outlets they believe he was abducted by the Taliban. Haqqani Network.
- AP news agency report in 2020, US forces conducted a failed rescue operation to free the Frerichs that year.
- In a video shot in late 2021 and published in April, Frerichs begged for his release, saying he wanted to be reunited with his family. “I want to ask the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to release me,” he said.
- Frerichs’ family appealed to the Biden administration earlier this year to release Noorzai – a known key request by the Taliban – to secure the release of the US Navy veteran.
- “I understand Noorzai is a convicted criminal… But I know we held him captive for over 16 years and others who have done much worse have been brought home. It was normal to release prisoners after the war ended,” said Charlene Cakora, sister of Frerichs. Written in the Washington Post in January.
- Lawmakers from the Frerichs’ home state of Illinois have also urged Biden to “push every reasonable lever” to secure his release. Frerichs is from Lombard, a town near Chicago.
- The Frerichs’ family defended the prisoner swap deal on Monday. “My brother is alive and safe because President Biden took action. There were some who argued against the deal to bring Mark home, but President Biden got it right. He saved the life of an innocent American veteran,” Cakora said in a statement, which was reported by several US news outlets.
Mark Frerichs is about to return home after two and a half years of captivity in Afghanistan. Thank you to our diplomats, national security experts and partners in Qatar for your work to secure his release.
– Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) September 19, 2022