WASHINGTON (AP) - An American contractor held hostage in Afghanistan for more than two years by the Taliban has been released in exchange for a convicted Taliban drug lord jailed in the United States, according to the man's family and U.S. officials.
Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran who had spent more than a decade in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor, was abducted in January 2020 and was believed to have been held since then by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network.
Negotiations for his release had centered on a deal that would also involve the release of Bashir Noorzai, a notorious drug lord and member of the Taliban who told reporters in Kabul on Monday that he had spent 17 years and six months in U.S. captivity before being released.
The exchange is one of the most significant prisoner swaps to take place under the Biden administration, coming five months after a separate deal with Russia that resulted in the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed. It took place despite concerns from his family and other advocates that the U.S. military departure from Afghanistan, and the collapse of the government there, could make it harder to bring him home and could deflect attention away from his imprisonment.
President Joe Biden, who is in the United Kingdom to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, called Frerichs’s family Monday morning to share the "good news" that his administration was able to secure his release, according to a senior administration official.
The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, called the decision to grant Noorzai clemency a "difficult decision" but necessary to reunite a U.S. citizen with his family.
A sister of Frerichs, who is from Lombard, Illinois, thanked U.S. government 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.
In Afghanistan, Noorzai, who was arrested in 2005 on federal heroin trafficking charges in the U.S., told reporters at a press conference that he had been released from an unspecified U.S. prison and handed over earlier in the day to the Taliban in Kabul as part of the swap. Frerichs's family and U.S. officials subsequently confirmed that Frerichs was the American who was part of the deal.
Noorzai was sentenced in 2009 to life imprisonment after being convicted in federal court in Manhattan, with Justice Department prosecutors accusing him of owning opium fields in Kandahar province and relying on a network of distributors in New York who sold the heroin. At the time of his sentencing, 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."
Frerichs, 60, had been working on civil engineering projects at the time of his Jan. 31, 2020 abduction in Kabul. He was last seen in a video posted last spring by The New Yorker i n which he appeared in traditional Afghan clothing and pleaded for his release. The publication said it obtained the clip from an unidentified individual in Afghanistan.
Until Monday, U.S. officials across two presidential administrations had tried unsuccessfully to get him home. Even before their takeover of Afghanistan in August last year, the Taliban had demanded the U.S. release Noorzai in exchange for Frerichs. But there had been no public sign of Washington proceeding with any sort of trade or exchange along those lines.
Eric Lebson, a former U.S. government national security official who had been advising Frerichs' family, said in a statement that "everything about this case has been an uphill fight." He criticized the Trump administration for having given away "our leverage to get Mark home quickly by signing a peace accord with the Taliban without ever having asked them to return Mark first.
"Mark’s family then had to navigate two Administrations, where many people viewed Mark’s safe return as an impediment to their plans for Afghanistan," the statement said.
The collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government and takeover by the Taliban in August 2021, raised additional concern that any progress in negotiations could be undone or that Frerichs could be forgotten.
But his name surfaced last month when President Joe Biden, who had publicly called for Frerichs' release, 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-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
The Taliban-appointed foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, also spoke at the Kabul press conference alongside Noorzai and welcomed the exchange, saying it marked the start of a "new era" in U.S.-Taliban relations.
"This can be a new chapter between Afghanistan and the United States, this can open a new door for talks between both countries," Muttaqi said.
"This act shows us that all problems can be solved through talks and I thank both sides' teams who worked so hard for this to happen," he added.
The Taliban also posted a brief video Monday on social media showing Noorzai’s arrival at the Kabul airport where he was welcomed by top Taliban officials, including Muttaqi.
At the press conference, Noorzai expressed thankfulness at seeing his "mujahedeen brothers" — a reference to the Taliban — in Kabul.
"I pray for more success of the Taliban," he added. "I hope this exchange can lead to peace between Afghanistan and America, because an American was released and I am also free now."