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John Breslin on a court case that throws a spotlight on the murky world of international espionage and shady deals struck in Afghanistan.
IF anyone wanted a single person to blame for the heroin available in pretty much every major town in Ireland, then Haji Bashir Noorzai might be the man.
At least that’s according to US prosecutors, who have blamed the Afghan tribal leader of flooding their country and Europe with the drug.
Noorzai, the leader of a million strong tribe in the Kandahar region, goes on trial today on charges of being the mastermind behind the smuggling of tens of millions worth of the lethal drug into the US.
But his trial in New York will be anything but the straightforward indictment of an alleged major drug dealer. It will throw light on the murky world of international espionage and post 9-11 — a plot truly worthy of a James Bond film.
Court documents filed by his defence lawyer, and seen by the Irish Examiner, reveal details of how US authorities operated in the years after the September 11 attacks. In its rush to gather information believed vital to the war on terror, it is alleged the Bush administration at the highest level signed off on a project that would involve doing the most shady deals with very shady individuals.
As with so may other aspects of this war, the different agencies in the US had competing agendas, Noorzai’s defence team will argue forcibly in court. So Noorzai ends up all at once a warlord, an ally in the war on terror — and one of the most prodigious and wanted drug dealers in the world.
But his capture back in 2005, he has spent almost three years in jail awaiting trial, and his indictment also reveal details of the privatisation of the spy business.
There was the somewhat unfortunately named “the Kill”, a “key informant list” drawn up to target those who might help interfere with the funding of terrorist activities. A private company was employed to bring at least some of them in.
Noorzai, the very rich leader of a major tribe in the Kandahar region in the south of Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan, was on the list, according to his lawyer Ivan Fisher. The 45-year-old spent much of his time in Quetta, Pakistan with his three wives and thirteen children but also had homes in Afghanistan and United Arab Emirates.
As a young man, he led a band of US-backed fighters against the Soviets during the USSR’s occupation of the country. After the Soviet forces left, Noorzai continued to work with the Central Intelligence Agency, according to his defence lawyer, at one point helping to track down Stinger missiles for the Americans.
In 1996, he disarmed his forces and threw the substantial weight of his forces behind the Taliban, which had just taken over Kabul.
After September 11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, Noorzai agreed to work with the US, handing over weapons stored by the Taliban in the region, according to Mr Fisher.
But while some in the US government saw Koorzai as a useful ally, others, including within the Drug Enforcement Agency, saw only a man controlling a vast drug trade that exploded with the fall of the Taliban.
One report suggests the raw ingredients that would eventually lead to heroin with a value of $60m (€38m) being sold on the streets of western cities was being shipped out of the area every eight weeks.
In June 2004, Noorzai was named as one of the world’s largest drug lords, the Afghan equivalent of Colombia’s Pablo Escobar.
Yet two months later, the same man was sitting in a hotel room in Dubai with two Americans who claimed to be working for the US government. He was being invited to come to America to share his knowledge of the financing and other aspects of terrorist groups
The two individuals attempting to persuade him to come to America are known only as Mike and Brian, employees of a private contract company charged by the US government with finding and bringing in individuals on the “Kill List”. Noorzai was a key target.
Mr Fisher, Noorzai’s lawyer, claims the company, Rosetta Research and Consulting, was set up in 2003 to find and sell information about terrorist groups to private and public entities.
“In this regard, Rosetta sought and obtained millions of dollars of investments from various individuals and entities and developed relationships with individuals in the FBI and the Department of Defense, including then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz,” papers filed with the New York federal court claim.
In essence, the spy business was, at least in part, being privatised. It is alleged the company spent hundreds of thousands of government cash paying off — bribery, say the defence — go-betweens prior to setting up the meeting.
At that meeting in Dubai in August 2004, Mike and Brian assured Noorzai he would only be in America for a couple of weeks. “It’s like a little vacation,” they told him, while promising he would not be arrested.
It is the defence’s case that while Mike and Brian were telling Noorzai they worked for the FBI and the Department of Defence, the DEA was planning to have the Afghan arrested after he arrived in the US.
High level discussions involving the private company and members of the administration took place prior to his arrival in the US, it is claimed.
When he arrived in New York in April 2005, he was debriefed for 11 days, then arrested and charged with importing $50m of heroin into New York.
He had been secretly indicted by a grand jury in January of that year.
Rosetta, set up by a former member of the Bush administration, no longer exists. In its short history, it appears the Noorzai job was one of its only projects.
The US government’s case is that Noorzai was one of the world’s biggest drug dealers — and those who offered him a short little holiday were never authorised to do so.
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