Photo: Social Media

Taliban’s Pablo Escobar: Who is Haji Bashir Noorzai?

On September 19, 2022, Haji Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban ally and convicted druglord, was released in a prisoner swap when the Taliban effectively convinced the US through negotiations in Doha, Qatar.

Noorzai, described by US officials as the “Pablo Escobar of heroin trafficking in Asia”, was returning home after 17 years of imprisonment in a US jail where he was serving a life sentence for drug charges. As he set foot at Kabul airport, a jubilant reception awaited him, with the Taliban’s media wing standing to record the event for a documentary.

At the airport, he received nothing short of a hero’s welcome when embraced by top Taliban figures including the Deputy Prime Ministers, the Minister of Defense, the Head of the Intelligence Agency, and a delegation of Ministers from different ministries. 

For many, it raised unanswered questions: Who is Bashir Noorzai? How does a man without official ties to the Taliban win such respect and display such influence? 

Noorzai’s story is a microcosm of Afghanistan’s recent history, capturing the fluctuating alliances, complex power dynamics, and relentless pursuit of survival features of the country’s past several decades.

Early Years, Jihad, and the Rise of the Taliban

Noorzai hails from the tribal area of the Maiwand District in the southern province of Kandahar. A member of the Noorzai clan, part of the prominent Durrani Pashtun tribe, he would later witness the birth of the first Taliban movements, which emerged to challenge the Mujahideen factions for control over Afghanistan.

In his youth, Noorzai took up arms as a Mujahideen commander during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s. After the Mujahideen triumphed over the Soviet-supported government of Mohammad Najibullah in the early 1990s, a 30-year-old Noorzai briefly assumed the role of Kandahar’s governor.

When the Soviets withdrew, Noorzai made a substantial sum recovering Stinger missiles for US agents. By 1993, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) identified Noorzai as a heroin drug lord and drug trafficker who had not only inherited his father’s vast land and wealth but also built his drug trade and smuggling network, the Noorzai Organization

Towards the late 1990s, as Noorzai took the reins of his father’s business, he keenly observed the Taliban movement gradually taking power. Noorzai first met the founder of the Taliban Mullah Omar in the 1980s when both fought in the same Mujahideen faction. As an influential leader, he formed a close alliance with Mullah Omar and later seized control of the opium trade in Afghanistan with Taliban support. In return, he supplied the Taliban regime with explosives, weapons, and fighters, as he reinforced his power and influence within the Taliban ranks.

Even so, Noorzai’s role in fueling the Taliban’s rise wasn’t merely limited to providing financial and logistical support. Using his influence and tribal stature, he played an instrumental role in facilitating the Taliban’s rapid growth and sway. As Bette Dam, a Dutch investigative journalist, writes  “He had the money, the power, and the necessary connections for this uprising […] Mullah Omar sat in on the discussions to lend religious legitimacy to the endeavor. Haji Bashar would point to the silent man next to him and say, ‘He’s the leader of the movement.”

As Noorzai’s drug trafficking organization expanded, he swiftly climbed the ranks of the drug cartels, becoming one of Afghanistan’s most powerful druglords. Soon, Noorzai’s drug trafficking network extended from Afghanistan to Europe and the United States. He also forged close ties with Al-Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence, eventually playing a risky yet highly profitable role at the crossroads between the Taliban and the global stage.

Ties with American Forces 

The complex links between Noorzai and various US intelligence trace back several decades earlier. Noorzai’s American saga was formed in the 1980s amid the US-backed Mujahideen war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As Gretchen Peters writes, Noorzai may have doubled as a source for the US DEA in the late 1990s, divulging vital information on Turkish narcotics dealers. At the same time, he played a crucial role in aiding a CIA operative in retrieving Stinger Missiles post the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan.

While Noorzai was fostering these links, American intelligence agencies had their lenses focused on his father, Mohammad Issa Noorzai, a prominent drug lord in the Quetta Smuggler Alliance. Like his son, Mohammed Issa was an influential tribal leader and a thriving heroin smuggler, operating a network of labs in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

When the tragic 9/11 incidents unfolded, Noorzai was in his Quetta residence in Pakistan. He knew that a US retaliatory strike was inevitable which would topple the Taliban regime. Moreover, his intimate connection with Mullah Omar put him under the US radar as a “high-value military target”. Once the US-led intervention was launched leading Mullah Omar to go into hiding, Noorzai was entrusted with the reins of Kandahar and $20 million in Taliban money. When the Taliban was defeated, Noorzai fled to Pakistan.

In late 2001, Noorzai met with US military officials in Kandahar’s border town of Spin Boldak, near the Pakistani town of Chaman, where he was apprehended.

After a six-day detention and interrogation about the whereabouts of Taliban leaders and their operations, he was freed. He then retreated to Pakistan.

In January 2002, in a display of reach and influence, he gifted the Americans with 15 truckloads of weaponry, including approximately 400 anti-aircraft missiles, stashed away by the Taliban in his tribal lands.

His strategy seemed to hit the mark when he met US military and intelligence representatives on five occasions over the subsequent months. His self-proclaimed objective was to “stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and help the Americans negotiate with the moderate members of the Taliban to reconcile with the new government.”

Noorzai’s mediation led Mullah Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil to surrender to American troops in February 2002. But the US decision to ship Muttawakil off to the infamous prison at Guantánamo Bay instead of incorporating him into the Afghan administration infuriated Noorzai. He felt betrayed.

Noorzai was soon to face a similar taste when he managed to convince Haji Birqet Khan, a former Mujahideen fighter and Taliban ally, out of hiding in Pakistan to engage with the Americans. However, US drones targeted Birqet’s residence killing him and two of his grandchildren. The US claimed that Birqet was planning to strike American forces, which Noorzai denied. Fearful for his safety after these incidents, Noorzai retreated to Pakistan and disappeared from sight.

In early 2004, Ahmad Wali Karzai, brother of former President Hamid Karzai and an influential political figure, and Saitullah Khan Babar, a former officer in Pakistan’s military intelligence service and a close friend, persuaded Noorzai to reopen communication channels with the US. Later, Noorzai accepted a deal from US intelligence. 

The Intrigue, Apprehension, and Conviction

In April 2004, Noorzai went to Dubai to meet two US agents at a luxurious hotel who introduced themselves as “Mike” representing the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the other “Brian” from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Over the next five months, they interrogated Noorzai for hours to extract information on various concerns, among them, the “powder business” as Noorzai termed it. Through several meetings, the agents investigated Noorzai about the proportion of narcotics revenues being funneled to Al-Qaeda. 

By June 2004, he had been marked under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act as among the world’s top 10 drug kingpins. The DEA asserted that the Noorzai Organization had effectively moved $50 million worth of heroin, via Pakistan and Eastern Europe, eventually permeating the streets of New York City. Noorzai rejected all these allegations.

By August 2004, the agents proposed that Noorzai be moved to the US for further investigation. However, Noorzai put a condition to such an agreement that he should not be detained by US intelligence. 

In April 2005, Noorzai found himself in a suite at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Lower Manhattan, blocks away from the World Trade Center. Noorzai isolated himself in the hotel for several days trying to escape regular investigations by the US intelligence who were seeking critical information on the hiding places of Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden, and the state of opium and heroin production in the tribal areas under Noorzai’s control.

Noorzai tried to downplay US intelligence by asserting himself as a potential asset in combatting the resurgent Taliban in his home country. But he was misguided. When he was planning to return to Pakistan, an agent from the DEA arrested him under a sealed indictment issued months earlier on drug charges. He was detained, tried, and ultimately convicted. In 2009, Noorzai was sentenced to a lifetime in prison.

The Taliban’s Bargaining Chip

In early 2019, Mullah Akhund Baradar, co-founder and now the first deputy prime minister of the Taliban, asked the US for a prisoner exchange in a bid to release Noorzai. In response, Zalmay Khalilzad, then the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, echoed the proposal as a strategic move to further negotiations with the Taliban.

However, despite Khalilzad’s persistent efforts that culminated in initial considerations by the Trump administration to set Noorzai free, the US officials could not unanimously agree to release Noorzai, mainly due to Noorzai’s crucial involvement in drug trafficking and his considerable tribal sway.

In a secret diplomatic maneuver, Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid, son of Mullah Omar and the current Taliban’s Minister of Defense, reportedly traveled to Doha in July 2022. His mission was to further the negotiation of the release of Noorzai with US representatives proposing a swap deal, Noorzai for Mark Frerichs, an American national held captive by the Taliban since his abduction in 2020.

It was a deal the US finally agreed upon as a result of lengthy negotiations and on September 19, more than a year after the Taliban took over, the US freed Noorzai in a prisoner swap that saw the release of Mark Frerichs. Noorzai returned to Afghanistan the same day.  

What’s the Next for Noorzai?

In April 202, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhunzada, issued a decree to ban the cultivation and production of opium poppy in Afghanistan. Recently, satellite imagery provided by ALCIS suggests a 99% decline in poppy farming across Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand province which has been the center for opium cultivation. The significant shift in cultivation patterns was also supported by ground reports from the BBC, illustrating a considerable decrease in opium production.

However, questions hover over the fates of notorious drug kingpins and key financial backers of the Taliban, such as Noorzai, whose fortunes have been amassed from the illicit drug and opium trade.

A former official from the Ministry of Counter Narcotics on condition of anonymity stated that the diminished opium output has not weakened the drug lords’ position associated with the Taliban. On the contrary, it has granted them increased leverage, safety, and more avenues for operation. 

Moreover, a recent report by the UN Security Council monitoring team suggests that it is too early to judge the impact of the decree by the Taliban in April 2022 banning poppy cultivation. Despite the ban, prices of the drug have increased, key Taliban individuals remain closely involved in drug production and trafficking, and various Taliban factions are involved in a power struggle over control of the drug trade through affiliates, people like Noorzai.

This scenario, while giving a bargaining chip for the Taliban in their negotiation with the international community, also provides a more secure environment for their associated druglords to carry out operations without closely monitoring international counter-narcotic agencies. 

Noorzai’s life demonstrates his profound understanding of tribal systems and drug mafia operations in the country. He understands that visibility within these realms only invites more enemies and risks. Hence, he prefers orchestrating matters from the shadows, where he finds increased security and opportunity. Operating away from the limelight allows him greater freedom, less scrutiny, and fewer watchful eyes on his drug-related activities and movements.