The Daily Telegraph

US navy veteran freed for Taliban druglord in prisoner exchange

- By Rozina Sabur

JOE BIDEN has freed a prominent Taliban financier and drug lord in exchange for a US veteran held captive in Afghanista­n for more than two years.

Haji Bashir Noorzai, a key figure within the Taliban, had been serving a life sentence in the US on drug traffickin­g charges.

He was granted clemency by the US president, an official confirmed, in return for the release of Mark Frerichs, an engineer and US navy veteran abducted in 2020 while working in Afghanista­n. Noorzai’s release was proclaimed as a major symbolic victory by the militant group yesterday.

He played an instrument­al role in the Taliban’s original takeover of Afghanista­n in the late 1990s.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanista­n is ready to solve problems by negotiatio­n with all including the United States,” Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, told a news conference in Kabul.

President Biden said the release of Mr Frerichs was the “culminatio­n of years of tireless work”.

The US president said the negotiatio­n “required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly” but did not comment on the release of Noorzai.

The power to grant Noorzai clemency rested with Mr Biden alone.

Noorzai led one of Afghanista­n’s most influentia­l tribes and was named as one of the world’s most powerful drug kingpins by the George W Bush administra­tion, prior to his arrest in 2005.

His drug-running operation was crucial to “securing the position of [the Taliban’s] supreme leader”, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the US government said at the time.

Bette Dam, a Dutch investigat­ive journalist who chronicled the rise of Omar, said without Noorzai “the Taliban would most likely not have existed”.

She described how he had mobilised groups in Kandahar behind Omar to “lead an armed rebellion” in the province in 1994.

Noorzai remained a key ally of Omar’s and drug profits helped arm Taliban fighters and made Afghanista­n a breeding ground for internatio­nal terrorism.

He served 17 years in a US prison after being convicted of conspiring to smuggle more than $50million (£43million) of heroin into America and Europe.

Senior US officials said that the Taliban had made it clear during months of negotiatio­ns that Noorzai’s release “was the key to securing [Mr Frerichs’] overdue freedom”.

One official said US government experts had judged that Noorzai’s repatriati­on would not “materially change” the nature of Afghanista­n’s drug trade or the country’s risk to Americans.

Mr Biden has faced intense pressure from American families to secure the release of citizens detained by hostile states and has vowed to step up efforts for their release.

Officials said the president had grown more concerned for Mr Frerichs’s safety after the US assassinat­ed Ayman alzawahiri, an al-qaeda leader, with a drone strike on Kabul.

Mr Frerichs, from Illinois, had been detained in Afghanista­n for 31 months.

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