US-Taliban prisoner swap: Who are Mark Frerichs, Bashir Noorzai?

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The US hails the release of navy veteran Mark Frerichs by Afghanistan, exchanged for convicted drug trafficker Bashir Noorzai.

Washington, DC – The United States has freed a convicted Afghan druglord imprisoned in the US in a prisoner swap with the Taliban that saw the release of a US Navy veteran held in Afghanistan since 2020.

US President Joe Biden on Monday welcomed the release of Mark Frerichs, who was abducted while working as a civil engineer in Afghanistan.

But he acknowledged that the deal “required difficult decisions”, referring to the release of Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban ally who was serving a life sentence in a US prison on drug charges.

The prisoner exchange comes more than a year after the Taliban took over the Afghan capital amid the withdrawal of US troops in August 2021.

Washington has not recognised the Taliban government. But on Monday, officials in both countries said the prisoner swap was the result of lengthy negotiations, suggesting that communication channels between the Biden administration and the Taliban are open.

Here, Al Jazeera takes a look at who Frerichs and Noorzai are, and the efforts that led to their release.

Bashir Noorzai (centre) at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul after his release from US prison, September 19 [Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo]

Bashir Noorzai

  • Noorzai, also known as Hajji Bashir, is a tribal leader in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province.
  • According to the US government, he owned poppy fields and laboratories for the production of heroin and oversaw a global drug operation. US officials have described him as the “Pablo Escobar of heroin trafficking in Asia”, comparing him to an infamous Colombian druglord.
  • Noorzai was accused of having close personal ties with the Taliban’s late co-founder Mullah Omar. US prosecutors say he financially supported the Taliban in exchange for allowing his drug business to continue.
  • He was arrested in 2005 in the US, where his lawyers said he planned to talk with federal officials. It is not clear in what capacity he was communicating with US authorities at that time.
  • In 2008, Noorzai was convicted of drug-related conspiracy charges. A year later, he was sentenced to life in prison.
  • “Bashir Noorzai’s worldwide narcotics network supported a Taliban regime that made 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 that time. “Today’s sentence definitively puts an end to Noorzai’s long criminal career.”
  • Noorzai’s lawyers have denied the allegations against him, arguing that he was lured into the US on the promise that he would not be arrested.

Mark Frerichs

  • Frerichs, 60, is a navy veteran and civil engineer who worked as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan until he was abducted in Khost province, southeast of Kabul, in early 2020.
  • While the circumstances of his kidnapping remain unclear, unidentified US officials have told news outlets that they believe he was abducted by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani Network.
  • The Associated Press news agency reported in 2020 that US forces conducted a failed rescue operation to free Frerichs that year.
  • In a video filmed late in 2021 and made public in April, Frerichs pleaded for his release, saying he wanted to be reunited with his family. “I’d like to ask the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, please, release me,” he said.
  • Frerichs’s family called on the Biden administration earlier this year to free Noorzai – a known key demand of the Taliban – to secure the US Navy veteran’s release.
  • “I understand Noorzai is a convicted criminal … But I know we have held him for more than 16 years and that others who have done a lot worse have been sent home. It’s normal for prisoners to be returned after wars end,” Frerichs’s sister Charlene Cakora wrote in the Washington Post in January.
  • Lawmakers from Frerichs’s home state of Illinois had also urged Biden to “push on every reasonable lever” to ensure his release. Frerichs is from Lombard, a town near Chicago.
  • Frerichs’s family defended the prisoner swap deal on Monday. “My brother is alive and safe because President Biden took action. There were some folks arguing against the deal that brought Mark home, but President Biden did what was right. He saved the life of an innocent American veteran,” Cakora said in a statement, as reported by several US news outlets.

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