The man who was friends with the Taliban
Haji Bashir Noorzai fought the Soviets, ran a trucking business, befriended the Taliban, worked for the CIA, and enjoyed a holiday in Manhattan.
On 13 April 2005, Mike and Brian alighted at JFK International Airport in New York. The bearded entrepreneur accompanying them was on the older side, his face weatherbeaten, marked by a lifetime of conflict in Afghanistan. They were met by Patrick Hamlette from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) who preferred to identify himself as an employee of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Hamlette welcomed Haji Bashir Noorzai to the United States, then drove him to the Embassy Suites Hotel in lower Manhattan. Originally from Maiwand in Kandahar province, the Afghan had spent the past few years living in Pakistan. And while life there was hardly a tale of deprivation for him, the luxury of the Hilton property in Manhattan — where he lived for the next eleven days discussing Afghanistan with Hamlette & his colleagues — would have been a welcome change.
Noorzai's colourful past
Noorzai's father, Haji Mohammed Issa, had been a prominent leader of the million-strong Noorzai tribe from Kandahar, and Bashir had grown up to take his place. Along the way, he had cooperated with the United States Government on more than a few occasions, beginning with the early 1980s when he fought the Soviets in Afghanistan as a Mujahideen commander with weapons clandestinely supplied by the CIA. After the Soviets withdrew, the CIA scrambled to recover unused FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles that had been handed over to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence for distribution to Mujahideen like Noorzai. According to Noorzai, he helped the CIA recover a dozen unused Stinger missiles and was paid $50,000 for his troubles. The two parties then went their separate ways.
When the 9/11 attacks happened, Noorzai was in Quetta, Pakistan. Soon after the Taliban government fell, Noorzai established contact with American troops in Afghanistan. He was the leader of a major Pashtun tribe and sought to help stabilise the country, he told them. The Americans interrogated him for 6 days in Kandahar about the Taliban and Mullah Omar. During that interrogation, he offered to bring his tribe over to the new government that would soon be established in Afghanistan and, as a token of his own sincerity, offered to bring them weapons stashed by the Taliban in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province.
A few days after his release, Noorzai returned to Kandahar with a dozen trucks loaded to the brim with weapons. Trust established, he was soon tight with the new administration. With a private militia composed of twelve thousand fighters, Noorzai was the most powerful warlord in southern Afghanistan. The governor of Kandahar province, appointed by the United States, lived in Noorzai's sprawling mansion. And Noorzai deepened his collaboration with the Americans, providing them with intelligence about senior leaders of the Taliban, and helping negotiate a string of surrenders. At this point, Noorzai was well and truly a major power broker in Afghanistan.
But his honeymoon with the Americans wasn't destined to last. He convinced Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Foreign Minister of the Taliban, to surrender. But once the US military had him in custody, they apparently reneged on the deal and dispatched Muttawakil to Guantanamo Bay.
A few weeks or months later, Noorzai visited the residence of another prominent Kandahari with close ties to the Taliban leadership, to convince him to surrender. Shortly after Noorzai left, US aircraft bombed the residence and killed Noorzai's acquaintance, along with the acquaintance's wives and grandchildren. Fearing for his own life, Noorzai fled to Pakistan where Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence agency nudged him to focus once again on growing his family business.
Journey to New York
In the first half of 2004, Noorzai was contacted by a rather influential man with a request. Then in his 40s, Ahmed Wali was significantly younger and hadn't quite lived the eventful life that Bashir Noorzai had. In fact, while Noorzai was fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, Ahmed Wali was in Chicago running an Afghan restaurant, and had only returned at the very end of the decade. Ordinarily, someone like Bashir Noorzai wouldn't have given him the time of day. Except that Ahmed Wali's full name was Ahmed Wali Karzai, and his brother Hamid Karzai was the President of Afghanistan.
Ahmed Wali travelled to Quetta with a Kandahar-based lawmaker, Khalid Pashtoon, and requested that Bashir Noorzai travel to Dubai and meet a couple of American investigators. They were interested in the Taliban's finances, and given his breathtaking contacts with the Taliban leadership, Noorzai was the closest thing they could find to an expert.
In August 2004, Noorzai travelled to Dubai and met Mike and Brian. The trio appear to have hit it off, and met again the next month in Pakistan. Mike told Noorzai he was an employee of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), while Brian claimed to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). What they wanted from Noorzai, besides information about the Taliban's finances, was an introduction to some of the prominent money changers who helped al Qaeda move money through the shadowy financial system called Hawala.
With each meeting, the duo gave Noorzai the impression that they had high-level contacts inside the US government. They even suggested that if he travelled to America with them, high-level representatives of the US government would welcome the opportunity to learn from him, and grant him safe passage.
At the end of four meetings, Noorzai was convinced. A holiday in America sounded like a pleasant change of pace, and Mike assured him it would all be done quietly: nobody in Afghanistan or Pakistan would find out, least of all, Noorzai's contacts in the Taliban leadership.
And so, on 13 April 2005, Bashir Noorzai flew to New York with Mike and Brian.
The years between the Soviet withdrawal and 9/11 had been kind to Noorzai. Even before Bashir was fighting Soviets and helping the CIA on their treasure hunt, Mohammed Issa Noorzai — his father — was a notorious drug smuggler. Not only did Mohammed Issa own and operate a cluster of heroin refineries along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, he was prominent enough to be a member of the Quetta Alliance. The alliance was a powerful trucking mafia that smuggled drugs and other commodities between southern Afghanistan and the Balochistan region in Pakistan across the Durand Line. The DEA described the alliance as:
Three interrelated heroin and hashish smuggling groups that routinely exported multi-ton shipments of heroin and morphine base.
Bashir leveraged the relationship he had established with the CIA to meet with DEA agents posted to Pakistan. Inside an Islamabad safehouse, he would tip them off to activities of rival smugglers, using the DEA to get rid of Turks who had encroached upon his territory.
In the early 1990s, when civil war raged in Afghanistan, the trucking mafia suffered at the hands of rival warlords who would put up roadblocks every few kilometres and demand that their trucks pay them 'transit fees'. Tiring of the lawlessness and extortion, Bashir Noorzai tapped his family connections — his father — and raised $250,000 for a group of fighters from Kandahar who called themselves 'Students' and promised to bring an end to the terror of warlords. Once they had liberated Kandahar, he and his father convinced other members of the Quetta Alliance to contribute to the Taliban. And that was how Bashir Noorzai became good friends with Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban, and became one of 8 members of the Taliban's highest policymaking body, the shura.
As the Taliban captured province after province of Afghanistan, Noorzai's trucks were no longer harassed, and business flourished. And with the Taliban happy to take a 10% cut from farmers and a 20% cut from truckers to finance their fight against warlords, the area of Kandahar controlled by Noorzai's tribe began growing bumper crop after bumper crop of papaver somniferum, making Bashir's family one of the largest traders of opium in the world.
That opium would then be 'cooked' into morphine base and heroin in more than a dozen refineries owned by the Noorzai family, and trucked to the Pakistan coast or through Iran in the Noorzai family's trucks, eventually making its way to Europe and the United States.
By 2004, when he met Mike and Brian, Noorzai was shipping roughly two metric tons of heroin out of Kandahar every two months.
A few months before the September 11th attacks in 2001, Noorzai had popped up on the radar in Washington. The DEA had carefully cultivated an informant with deep connects among drug smugglers in Afghanistan. The intelligence he delivered led to the arrest of 11 heroin wholesalers in New York. As the DEA went to work on them, one of them flipped. When Mohammed Essa wasn't gambling in Las Vegas, he was coordinating large shipments of heroin into the US. He led the DEA to his supplier, a man named Haji Baz Mohammed, who was in the nerve centre of the global heroin trade: Pakistan. Trailing Baz Mohammed in Pakistan led the DEA to his primary supplier, Haji Bashir Noorzai.
But that wasn't Noorzai's only unwitting brush with the counter-narcotics folks in Washington.
Hussein Karimi Rikabadi was an Iranian smuggler operating out of Bucharest in Romania, smuggling morphine base via the Iran-Turkey-Eastern Europe route into Western Europe. The DEA and Romanian police worked their way backward to Rikabadi and learnt that he had three suppliers in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. When they tapped his telephone, they heard him discussing a large shipment of heroin with Haji Bashir Noorzai. Rikabadi was arrested in 2007 and extradited to the United States. There, he testified that Noorzai had supplied him over two metric tons of morphine base over six years.
Morphine base is one of the intermediate drugs created from opium. It is either consumed as it is, or can be processed further into heroin
Back to New York
On 23 April 2005, DEA Special Agent Patrick Hamlette arrested Noorzai at the Embassy Suites hotel in Manhattan. Even while Mike and Brian were meeting Noorzai in Dubai to pick his brain about the Taliban's hawala transactions, a grand jury in the United States had indicted him for conspiring to smuggle morphine base and heroin into the United States.
Noorzai was convicted in 2008 of drug-related conspiracy charges and sentenced to life in prison. The judgement noted:
“At Noorzai's direction, laborers cultivated his land and grew crops, including opium…Noorzai's subordinates then converted the opium into morphine and heroin, which was subsequently sold to heroin brokers at great profit and smuggled out of Afghanistan…Noorzai knew that some of the heroin from his land was ultimately smuggled into the United States in clothing and suitcases.”
According to a US Justice Department official:
“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. Today’s sentence definitively puts an end to Noorzai’s long criminal career.”
Noorzai’s arrest and incarceration didn’t even make a dent in his business. Day to day operations were already being run by an assortment of nephews, and Bashir had ensured they each had clear boundaries. In the absence of internecine conflict, the drug smuggling empire chugged along, making money for Noorzai’s family and the Taliban.
After spending 14 years in prison, Noorzai was released and repatriated to Afghanistan in a prisoner swap with the new Taliban government. His release secured the freedom of Mark Freichs, an American civil engineer who was kidnapped in Afghanistan while working on construction projects.
Mike and Brian
Mike and Brian did not work for the DIA and FBI, respectively. They were part of a tiny private intelligence firm called Rosetta Research and Consulting. Founded in 2003 by Michael Jost, a former Treasury Department researcher, the 3-man consulting firm was focused on helping 9/11 victims track terrorist money flows across the world. As part of their mission, they built a working relationship with a wide variety of intelligence officials in the United States.
Mike and Brian had met Noorzai intending to learn about the Taliban's use of hawala networks for routing funds across the world, but sometime between the second and fourth meeting with Noorzai, Jost was informed of the sealed indictment against the Afghan. He was then pressured by US officials in Washington to hand him over, and even though Mike and Brian worried that doing something like that would land their sources in Afghanistan and Pakistan in trouble, the firm quickly realised they didn't really have a choice.
Rosetta hoped, however, that helping the United States apprehend Noorzai would net them a $2 million reward. Instead, their interactions with an FBI agent and payments they had made to an Afghan diplomat made them subjects of an investigation by the DOJ, driving the firm to bankruptcy.
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