WASHINGTON— An American contractor held hostage in Afghanistan for more than two years has been released in exchange for a convicted Taliban drug lord jailed in the United States, the White House said Monday.
Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran who had spent more than a decade in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor, was abducted in January 2020 and is believed to have been held since then by the Taliban-linked Haqqani terrorist network. He was traded for Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban associate convicted in a heroin trafficking conspiracy who had spent 17 years behind bars before his release Monday.
U.S. officials said the deal for Frerichs was the result of months of quiet negotiations.
Those discussions gained new momentum in June when President Joe Biden agreed to grant Noorzai relief from his life sentence, setting the stage for what one administration official described as a “very narrow window of opportunity this month” to complete the deal.
Biden said in a statement released by the White House, “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly.”
Frerichs, 60, had been working on civil engineering projects at the time of his Jan. 31, 2020 abduction in Kabul. He’s believed to have been lured into a meeting to discuss a new project and then transported to Khost, a stronghold of the Haqqani network near the Pakistan border.
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. He was accompanied Monday by the administration’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and was in stable health, a U.S. official said. His ultimate destination was not immediately clear, though a Qatari Foreign Ministry official said Frerichs would soon head from Doha to the United States.
A sister of Frerichs, who is from Lombard, Illinois, thanked U.S. 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 the sister, Charlene Cakora.
Noorzai, at the time of his 2005 arrest, hardly seemed an ideal recipient for presidential clemency. He’d been designated on a list reserved for some of the world’s most prolific drug traffickers, and was prosecuted in Manhattan’s federal court on charges that accused him of owning opium fields in Kandahar province and relying on a network of distributors who sold the heroin in New York.
When he was sentenced to life imprisonment, the then-top federal prosecutor in Manhattan said Noorzai’s “worldwide narcotics network supported a Taliban regime that made Afghanistan a breeding ground for international terrorism.”
Monday’s deal underscored the two sides to the Taliban’s approach to illegal drugs. In April, they announced a ban on harvesting the poppies that produce opium for making heroin—an order that also outlawed the manufacture and transportation of narcotics. However, during the years-long attacks led by the Taliban, they reportedly made millions of dollars taxing farmers and middle men who moved their drugs outside Afghanistan.
Even before their takeover of Afghanistan in August last year, the Taliban had demanded the United States release Noorzai in exchange for Frerichs. But there had been little public indication of Washington proceeding along those lines.
The collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government and takeover by the Taliban in August 2021 raised additional concern that progress in negotiations could be undone or that Frerichs could be forgotten. But his name was invoked last month when Biden 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-Qaeda terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
U.S. officials were more circumspect. Though it does not recognize the Taliban, the United States does have interests at stake in Afghanistan and will continue to engage with the Taliban in addressing the hunger and humanitarian crisis gripping the country, administration officials said Monday.
But officials say they remain concerned about whether the Taliban are committed to fighting terrorism and by the exclusion of girls from high schools there, an issue that drew a United Nations reprimand on Sunday.