NEW YORK, April 25 -- U.S. drug agents have arrested an alleged Afghan heroin dealer accused of funneling weapons and fighters to the Taliban in exchange for protection for his poppy fields in Afghanistan.
Federal authorities charged Bashir Noorzai, one of the U.S. government's most wanted drug kingpins, with two counts of conspiring to import more than $50 million worth of heroin into the United States over the course of 14 years, according to an indictment unsealed on Monday.
Bashir Noorzai is charged with conspiring to import $50 million in heroin.
From 1990 to 2004, Noorzai and the Taliban profited from a "symbiotic relationship," said U.S. Attorney David N. Kelley. Drug Enforcement Administration agents arrested Noorzai on Saturday in New York on an outstanding warrant and indictment. No other arrests were made in the case, and officials would not say why Noorzai was in New York.
"He is the largest heroin trafficker in Asia," said John P. Gilbride, DEA special agent in charge of the New York office. "His laboratories, his fields, his transportation were being provided security by the Taliban."
Noorzai's attorney, David Greenfield, did not return calls for comment.
Last year, the Bush administration named Noorzai one of the country's most wanted drug lords under the 1999 Kingpin Act. Noorzai's operation controlled every aspect of heroin production and distribution, according to the indictment.
Earlier this year, during an International Relations Committee hearing on the Afghan drug trade, Rep. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.) said that Noorzai supplied al Qaeda with $28 million worth of heroin annually. In 2001, U.S. forces attacked and defeated the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan because they had harbored Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network.
"This is the number one financier of Osama bin Laden," said Kirk, who traveled to Afghanistan in January. "Hopefully, Osama bin Laden will miss out on a payment."
Federal prosecutors have not charged Noorzai with supporting terrorism. Kelley declined to comment on Noorzai's possible links to al Qaeda, but he would not rule out bringing additional charges against him.
Under the Taliban, which banned opium cultivation, the heroin supply dropped by 95 percent, according to reports by the United Nations. "Noorzai was allowed to continue trafficking because of his close association with the Taliban," Gilbride said.
U.S. officials said that in 1997 Taliban officers seized a truckload of morphine base belonging to Noorzai. Not long afterward, they returned the shipment to Noorzai with apologies from Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader.
Opium and heroin production has rebounded since the overthrow of the Taliban government. The United Nations estimates that Afghanistan now produces 91 percent of the world's heroin, but it accounts for only 10 percent of the supply in the United States. The bulk of the heroin in the United States comes from South America.
If convicted, Noorzai faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and forfeiture of $50 million in drug proceeds.