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

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US applauds Afghanistan’s release of Navy veteran Mark Frerichs, who was exchanged for drug smuggler 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 in Afghanistan since 2020.

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

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


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

Washington does not recognize the Taliban government. But on Monday, officials in both countries said the prisoner swap was the result of lengthy talks, suggesting that communication channels between the Biden administration and the Taliban remain open.

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Here, Al Jazeera takes a look at who Freirich 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 on September 19 [Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo]

Bashir Noorzai

  • Noorzai, also known as Haji Bashir, is a tribal leader in the southern Kandahar province of Afghanistan.
  • According to the US government, he owned opium farms and laboratories for the production of heroin and oversaw a global drug operation. US officials have described him as the “Pablo Escobar of heroin smuggling in Asia”, comparing him to a notorious Colombian druglord.
  • Noorzai was accused of having a close personal relationship with the late Taliban co-founder Mullah Omar. US prosecutors say he financially supported the Taliban in exchange for continuing his drug business.
  • He was arrested in the US in 2005, where his lawyers said he planned to speak with federal officials. It is not clear in what capacity he was communicating with US officials at the time.
  • In 2008, Noorzai was convicted of drug-related conspiracy charges. A year later, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
  • A US Justice Department official said in a statement at the time, “Bashir Noorzai’s worldwide narcotics network supported the Taliban regime that made Afghanistan a breeding ground for international terrorism, a legacy that is destabilizing the region.” Is.” “Today’s sentence certainly puts an end to Noorzai’s long criminal career.”
  • Noorzai’s lawyers denied the charges against her, arguing that she was seduced in the US on a promise that she would not be arrested.

mark frerich

  • Freirich, 60, is a naval veteran and civil engineer who worked as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan until his abduction in Khost province, southeast of Kabul, in early 2020.
  • While the circumstances of her abduction are unclear, unnamed US officials have told news outlets they believe she was abducted by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network.
  • Associated Press news agency informed of In 2020 the US military conducted an unsuccessful rescue operation to free Freirich that year.
  • In a video filmed in late 2021 and made public in April, Freirich pleads for his release, saying he wants to be reunited with his family. “I want to ask the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, please release me,” he said.
  • Frerich’s family earlier this year called on the Biden administration to free Noorzai – a key Taliban demand – to secure the release of the US Navy veteran.
  • “I understand that Noorzai is a convicted felon… but I know that we have detained her for over 16 years and others who have done much worse have been sent home. Prisoners after the war ended It’s normal to return,” Frerich’s sister Charlene Cakora wrote In the Washington Post in January.
  • Lawmakers from Frerich’s home state of Illinois also urged Biden to “push every reasonable lever” to ensure his release. Frerichs is from Lombard, a city near Chicago.
  • Frerich’s family defended the prisoner swap deal on Monday. “My brother is alive and safe because President Biden took action. Some were arguing against the deal that brought Mark home, but President Biden did what was right. He saved the life of an innocent American veteran,” Kakora said in a statement, as reported by several US news outlets.

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