WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Monday that the U.S. has secured the release of Mark Frerichs, an American contractor and Navy veteran abducted more than two years ago in Afghanistan.
Biden said in a statement that he had spoken to Frerichs’ sister and that Frerichs, who was said to be in stable health, would be home soon.
Frerichs was freed after the Biden administration struck a deal with the Taliban that allowed imprisoned drug lord and Taliban ally Haji Bashir Noorzai to return to Afghanistan. Noorzai revealed during a news conference in Kabul that he was part of a prisoner swap for an unnamed American, whom U.S. officials later identified as Frerichs.
Noorzai was in U.S. custody for 17 years after a conviction by a New York court for drug trafficking. In his statement confirming that Frerichs had been released, Biden indirectly acknowledged that the deal involved granting clemency to Noorzai, a member of the Taliban who was sentenced to life in prison for heroin importation, including trafficking large quantities into the United States.
“Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” Biden said. “Our priority now is to make sure Mark receives a healthy and safe return and is given the space and time he needs to transition back into society.”
Biden’s effort to secure Frerichs’ release was complicated by several factors, including the U.S. withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover of the country last year. The Taliban, or one of its affiliates, abducted Frerichs, a civilian contractor from Illinois, in January 2020.
The Biden administration does not recognize the Taliban as a governmental authority. A senior U.S. official said Monday that it told the group that a better relationship could not be had until Frerichs was released.
The exchange is one of the most significant prisoner swaps to take place under the Biden administration, coming five months after a separate deal with Russia that resulted in the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed. It took place despite concerns from his family and other advocates that the U.S. military departure from Afghanistan, and the collapse of the government there, could make it harder to bring him home and could deflect attention away from his imprisonment.
A sister of Frerichs, who is from Lombard, Illinois, thanked U.S. government officials who helped secure her brother’s release.
“I am so happy to hear that my brother is safe and on his way home to us. Our family has prayed for this each day of the more than 31 months he has been a hostage. We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home safely to us,” said a statement from Charlene Cakora.
Others were not so happy with the swap, including some of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials who spent years investigating Noorzai and other Taliban-linked heroin traffickers who used their massive profits to bankroll the insurgency in Afghanistan that led to America’s longest war.
“In a nutshell, it just clearly demonstrates the connection between the Taliban and drug traffickers and how it is something that they hold dear to this day,” said Michael Marsac, who headed DEA’s on-the-ground operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan until 2013. “It’s like a bag of snakes. You look in there and can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.”
In a briefing with reporters, two senior administration officials said that Biden decided to release Noorzai only after consulting national security experts across the U.S. government with a deep understanding of the current state of the drug trade in Afghanistan, the broader threat networks there and the potential dangers posed by someone who has been in U.S. custody for 17 years to return to that.
Ultimately, those experts assessed that Noorzai’s return to Afghanistan would not materially change any risk to Americans emanating from the country or the nature of the drug trade there, the officials said.
But Marsac, who retired from the DEA in 2014 after 28 years, predicted that Noorzai would immediately assume a position of prominence within the Taliban leadership, given his decades of close ties to it.
“I expect him to be an integral member of the Taliban government,” Marsac told USA TODAY. “So now you have a convicted international drug trafficker exercising a high-level of influence in the Afghan government, if not working directly for it in a high-level position.”
Another former top U.S. counternarcotics official agreed.
“This is an absolute disaster for America. We shouldn’t be negotiating with terrorists,” said Derek Maltz, the former head of Special Operations Division at the Drug Enforcement Administration, who was involved in the investigation into Noorzai and other Afghan heroin traffickers.
“It makes me sick, but I’m not too surprised. We have a movement in this country where we want to give hugs to thugs,” said Maltz, who retired in 2014 after 28 years in federal service, including setting up the DEA’s Counter Narco-Terrorism Operations Center.
Maltz also criticized the Biden administration for reportedly offering the release of imprisoned Russian weapons trafficker Viktor Bout in exchange for Women’s National Basketball Association player Brittney Griner and possibly other Americans detained in Russia. Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport last February and sentenced to nine years in prison for possession of vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
“This is very concerning because it opens up opportunities for other terrorists around the world to take American citizens hostage so they can benefit and carry out their strategic radical agendas,” Maltz told USA TODAY.
Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who represents Frerichs’ home state, countered that it is unlikely that Noorzai will have the same connections than when he was taken into custody more than a decade ago.
Duckworth said in an interview with USA TODAY that she asked Biden to consider a swap during a meeting early last year in the Oval Office.
She learned six months ago that the administration recommended her proposal to the president, and three months ago she was informed that Biden was willing to make the trade, which took another three months of negotiations to facilitate.
“We don’t normally swap prisoners, but in this case, the prisoner that we had was in ailing health,” Duckworth said. “I was just desperately afraid that this guy was going to die in U.S. hands and then we would have nothing to swap to get to get Mark back.”
Efforts to free Frerichs
In Afghanistan, Noorzai told reporters at a news conference that he had been released from an unspecified U.S. prison and handed over earlier in the day to the Taliban in Kabul in exchange for an American prisoner held in Afghanistan whom he did not identify. Frerichs’ family later confirmed that it was him.
Other Taliban officials claimed Noorzai was held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay but did not offer any support for that claim, but a U.S. official disputed that. Noorzai was prosecuted by the Justice Department, which does not send its defendants to the military prison in Cuba, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009 on drug trafficking charges.
Frerichs, 60, had been working on civil engineering projects at the time of his abduction in Kabul on Jan. 31, 2020. He was last seen in a video posted last spring by The New Yorker, in which he appeared in traditional Afghan clothing and pleaded for his release. The publication said it obtained the clip from an unidentified person in Afghanistan.
Until Monday, U.S. officials across two presidential administrations had tried to get him home. Even before their takeover of Afghanistan in August last year, the Taliban had demanded the U.S. release Noorzai in exchange for Frerichs. But there had been no public sign of Washington proceeding with any sort of trade or exchange along those lines.
Eric Lebson, a former U.S. government national security official who had been advising Frerichs’ family, said in a statement that “everything about this case has been an uphill fight.” He criticized the Trump administration for having given away “our leverage to get Mark home quickly by signing a peace accord with the Taliban without ever having asked them to return Mark first.”
“Mark’s family then had to navigate two Administrations, where many people viewed Mark’s safe return as an impediment to their plans for Afghanistan,” the statement said.
The collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government and takeover by the Taliban raised additional concern that any progress in negotiations could be undone or that Frerichs could be forgotten.
But his name surfaced last month when Biden, who had publicly called for Frerichs’ release, was said by his advisers to have pressed officials to consider any risk posed to Frerichs by the drone strike in Afghanistan that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
‘New era’ in relations, Taliban says
The Taliban-appointed foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, spoke at the Kabul news conference alongside Noorzai and welcomed the exchange, saying it marked the start of a “new era” in U.S.-Taliban relations.
“This can be a new chapter between Afghanistan and the United States. This can open a new door for talks between both countries,” Muttaqi said. “This act shows us that all problems can be solved through talks and I thank both sides’ teams who worked so hard for this to happen.”
The Taliban also posted a brief video Monday on social media showing Noorzai’s arrival at the Kabul airport where he was welcomed by top Taliban officials, including Muttaqi.
At the news conference, Noorzai expressed thankfulness at seeing his “mujahedeen brothers” – a reference to the Taliban – in Kabul.
“I pray for more success of the Taliban,” he said. “I hope this exchange can lead to peace between Afghanistan and America, because an American was released and I am also free now.”
A powerful warlord
Before his capture in 2005, Noorzai was one of the most powerful warlords in Afghanistan, biggest heroin traffickers in the world and a close ally of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
In April 2009, he was sentenced to life in prison on heroin importation and distribution conspiracy charges after being found guilty by a federal jury in New York city of importing millions of dollars of the drug into the United States and other countries.
The federal judge in his case, Denny Chin, rejected Noorzai’s pleas for leniency based on his cooperation with American authorities.
According to the evidence at his trial, Noorzai – the leader of his namesake tribe, one of Afghanistan’s largest and most influential – owned opium fields in the southern province of Kandahar and had subordinates convert the opium into heroin at laboratories in Afghanistan’s border regions.
Heroin from these labs was later imported into the United States, hidden in suitcases and on ships. As early as 1990, Noorzai had a network of distributors in New York City who sold his heroin. And he was part of a group of co-conspirators who trafficked Afghan heroin to every continent, and used the proceeds to bankroll the Taliban insurgency with weapons, night vision goggles and fighters from the local populace.
Noorzai was lured to New York in 2005 ostensibly to meet with American counternarcotics officials who wanted his help in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. Instead, after nearly two weeks of meetings with federal agents, he was arrested.
At trial, Noorzai was found guilty of conspiring to import heroin and to manufacture and distribute heroin knowing that it would be imported into the United States. While he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, he was sentenced by Chin to life imprisonment on each count in the Indictment.
In sentencing Noorzai, Chin found that he led a conspiracy involving hundreds of people and that the conspiracy helped arm the Taliban with narcotics proceeds.
Contributing: The Associated Press