Islamabad, Pakistan — A senior Taliban detainee held for years at Guantanamo Bay said Monday he was released and handed over earlier in the day to the Taliban in Kabul, in exchange for an American prisoner held in Afghanistan.
Bashir Noorzai, a notorious drug lord and member of the Taliban, told reporters in Kabul that he spent 17 years and six months in the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and that he was the last Taliban prisoner there.
The Taliban-appointed foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, also spoke at the news conference alongside Noorzai and welcomed the exchange, saying it marked the start of a “new era” in U.S.-Taliban relations.
Muttaqi said the released American was Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran and civilian engineer contractor who was kidnapped in Afghanistan on Jan. 31, 2020. The Lombard, Illinois native was taken after going to a meeting in the Afghan capital to discuss a project.
Frerichs was, pleading for his release so that he can be reunited with his family, according to a recording posted by The New Yorker magazine at the time.
There was no independent confirmation or word from Washington on Frerichs’ release.
“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 at the Kabul presser.
“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,” Muttaqi added.
Frerichs, of Lombard, Illinois, was believed to be held by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, and U.S. officials across two presidential administrations had tried unsuccessfully to get him home. In the video, which marked the first time Frerichs was seen since his abduction, he says it was filmed last November.
Videos of hostages are sometimes released to show proof that they are alive and to facilitate negotiations for a release, though it was not immediately clear if that was the case here. The New Yorker said it obtained the clip from an unidentified individual in Afghanistan.
At that point, the FBI declined to comment on the video’s authenticity, but a sister of Frerichs, Charlene Cakora, issued a statement thanking the Taliban for releasing the video and describing it as “public confirmation of our family’s long-held belief that he is alive after more than two years in captivity.”
In July 2021, she told CBS News she wanted to tell President Biden she knows he’s “well aware of my brother. You know my brother’s situation. … Are you doing every effort that you can to get my brother home, like you would if he were your own brother?”
Cakora told CBS News a day didn’t go by without her imagining the moment she gets word that her brother is coming home.
“When they give me that phone call, and tell me that they found Mark and he’s on a plane, you’re going to go meet with him… I would give him the biggest hug when I see him,” she said. “I don’t think I’d want to let go.”
Since their takeover of Afghanistan in August last year, the Taliban have demanded the United States release Noorzai in exchange for Frerichs amid expectations of such exchanges for U.S. citizens held in Afghanistan.
However, there has been no public sign of Washington moving forward on any sort of prisoner trade or exchange.
The Taliban also posted a brief video Monday on social media showing Noorzai’s arrival at the Kabul airport and his being welcomed by top Taliban officials, including Muttaqi.
At the news 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.”
Noorzai made no mention of his treatment at Guantanamo Bay, the detention center used to house Muslim militants, including al Qaeda fighters, the Taliban and suspects captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
The facility became the focus of worldwide controversy over alleged violations of the legal rights of detainees under the Geneva Conventions and accusations of torture or abusive treatment of detainees by U.S. authorities.
After 9/11, a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban, who had harbored al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and his followers. Bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan in 2011.