Before he graced the cover of TIME magazine as Afghanistan's, and the world's, most prolific heroin kingpin, and before the White House's prisoner swap Monday that traded him for kidnapped American contractor Mark Frerichs, Haji Bashir Noorzai had another, far more dangerous identity.
As few people outside the closed world of counter-terror missions know, Noorzai was a high-priority target on the U.S. special operations forces' highly classified kill-or-capture list, because he was pouring millions of narcodollars into the Taliban treasury.
"We were running around Afghanistan looking for him from 2001 to 2005," a retired, formerly high-ranking U.S Army. special operations commander tells SPYTALK. "I was almost exuberant when we found out that Mike's team got him."
"Mike" was Michael Braun, chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He oversaw, among other things, an intricate sting that lured Noorzai to his arrest in New York City in April 2005. Braun's team was a group of agents from the DEA's Special Operations Division who focused on "narcoterrorists," meaning, people who use drug money to finance terrorism.
The special ops commander was exuberant because DEA's guileful collar, which went down in an Embassy Suites hotel in Manhattan, no shots fired, meant that American soldiers could stop pounding sand outside the wire, searching for the extremists' elusive paymaster.
"U.S. military special operations forces considered Noorzai a Tier 1 target," Braun says. U.S. intelligence showed that he was using his formidable resources to sustain the Taliban's war against the fragile Afghan government and its U.S. and NATO allies.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the Noorzai heroin trafficking enterprise went straight into the war chests of the Taliban and most assuredly funded attacks against our military forces and those of our allies in Afghanistan and the region," Braun says. "The lives of U.S. military and coalition partners were placed at great risk while executing several highly dangerous operations to hunt him down."
As I observed first-hand during several years traveling to Afghanistan to research the Afghan drug cartel, military officers there welcomed DEA operations that took important Taliban associates like Noorzai off the battlefield. The more collars, the fewer potential firefights.
The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Afghanistan put Noorzai on its kill list soon after the U.S. went into Afghanistan. It wasn't his role as a heroin kingpin that interested JSOC but rather his close relationship with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, dating from their time as mujaheddin comrades-in-arms fighting the Soviets. According to declassified U.S. cables, Noorzai financed Mullah Omar's religious school, madrassa, then helped him create and arm a militia that became known as the Taliban in 1994, when Afghanistan was plagued by anarchy, civil war and banditry.
Omar's men took Kabul in 1996, the intelligence said, with arms financed in part by Noorzai; the warlord's financial support continued after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, and Mullah Omar and his inner circle fled to Quetta, Pakistan.
While American soldiers were looking for Noorzai and other Taliban leaders in the backcountry, DEA agents in New York were investigating Noorzai. Their investigation, opened in March 2001, determined that Noorzai's organization had shipped at least $50 million worth of heroin to New York and other cities internationally. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York filed a sealed indictment against him in June 2004.
A team of DEA agents learned that Noorzai, was living in Quetta, Pakistan, near other Taliban leaders, so they could evade U.S. ambushes and drone attacks. But the agents heard that Noorzai was eager to return to Afghanistan to cement his leadership over his one-million-strong tribe and run his business. Working through two American contractors, the DEA agents got word to him that he could extricate himself from the military kill list by traveling to Manhattan, meeting with CIA officials, and offering useful information. Noorzai had dealt with the Agency before, during the Soviet war and afterwards, retrieving Stinger missiles from former mujaheddin groups in exchange for CIA payments.
If Noorzai had bothered to Google himself, he would have discovered that on June 1, 2004, the Bush White House added him to the President's list of most-wanted drug kingpins. This might have given him pause. Overconfident, he flew to New York, landing on April 13, 2005, and enjoyed U.S. government hospitality over 11 days at the Embassy Suites in Manhattan and talking to men who identified themselves as DEA agents. (The agents gave him several Miranda warnings, which he ignored, according to court records. He later insisted he had no idea he was under investigation.)
In fact, DEA agents went into these sessions open to a deal–if he gave up spectacular information that would shorten the war. "We told him, if you give us Mullah Omar, all this could go away," says Paul Craine, the DEA supervisor on the case.
Noorzai didn't tell the DEA agents anything they didn't already know, Craine says, so they arrested him. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in federal prison, where he acquired yet another identity: Basheer Ahmad, prisoner 57722-054.
The leaders of the Taliban had not forgotten their debt to Noorzai. During peace talks conducted by the Trump administration, Taliban negotiators pressed hard for Noorzai's release, U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad backed the idea, according to reports at the time, but FBI, DEA and Justice Department officials succeeded in killing it. The Taliban renewed their efforts on Noorzai's behalf when President Biden took office. In early 2020, the Haqqani group, an ally of the Taliban, had abducted Navy veteran Mark Frerichs, a civil engineer working on development projects in Kabul. His plight moved President Biden to grant clemency to Noorzai, in exchange for Frerichs.
When the exchange was consummated earlier this week, the White House insisted that releasing the drug lord's would not make a significant difference to U.S. security or to the heroin business. At a background briefing Monday, an unnamed White House official said:
We consulted with experts across the U.S. government who 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 President made the difficult decision this summer in June to grant clemency to Noorzai if that meant bringing an American home where he belonged and reuniting him with his family who missed him.
The official didn't say who exactly the White House consulted. DEA's experts on the Afghan trade say White House officials never called them, but if they had, they would have said that Noorzai was sure to return to drug trafficking. Drugs – opium, heroin, methamphetamine and hashish – constitute the only industry in Afghanistan that generates hard currency – lots of it. Afghanistan accounts for an estimated 86 percent of the world's illicit opium production, generating billions of dollars in the global underground economy, by the latest report of the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime. The UN agency says that Afghan production has actually increased by eight percent over the past year, despite, or because of, political chaos and widespread hunger.
"If Noorzai is not going to help the drug trade and he is no threat, why did the Taliban want him back?" says Larry Baumeister, a DEA group supervisor who oversaw investigations of Afghan trafficking networks until his recent retirement. "Once he was arrested, the Noorzai drug trafficking organization fractured into lesser but still significant organizations. Now that Noorzai is back, he will consolidate all the Noorzai traffickers back under one roof. Also, since he is highly respected by the Taliban, he will be able to operate freely and provide major funding to the Taliban, since they are in desperate need of funds. Maybe that is why they wanted him back so bad."
Now they've got him. Twitter feeds from Kabul show Noorzai, now a robust 59-year-old (by his own account), receiving a hero's welcome, greeted with flower garlands and wild applause.
(This tweet is erroneous in one respect: Noorzai was never a detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. He was held in the federal prison system.)
Many U.S. law enforcement and military officials fear that Noorzai's release will inspire other terrorist and criminal organizations to kidnap innocent Americans and seek to trade them for incarcerated leaders.
What will the Biden administration do, agents ask, when Mexican cartel gunmen round up some Americans vacationing in Cancun and seek to exchange them for Sinaloa cartel boss Chapo Guzman?
"Now we're just starting to exchange kidnapped people for bad guys," says Jack Lawn, a former DEA administrator and FBI official.
"I'm glad we got the American [Frerichs] out," says the former military special operations commander who pursued Noorzai. "I just think Noorzai was too much of a price."
This article by Elaine Shannon originally appeared on Spytalk.co.