Afghan Farmer's Undercover Work Helps Convict Taliban Member in U.S. Court
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
The Afghan farmer didn't even know how to work the recording device tucked in his vest pocket when he approached a member of the Taliban who was plotting to launch a rocket attack on a U.S. air base. But if he was nervous about helping the Americans, the farmer didn't show it.
"What is the target?" he asked as the two men stood in a field on the outskirts of their Afghan village, according to transcripts of the recordings. "Do they want to shoot the foreigners or the local people?"
"The Americans are infidels, and Jihad is allowed against them," replied Khan Mohammed, the Taliban associate. "If we have to fire toward the airport, we will do it, and if not the airport, wherever else they are stationed."
The farmer, who was working for U.S. federal agents stationed in Afghanistan, secretly recorded Mohammed more than 10 times using a digital audio device and a tiny video camera shielded in his traditional vest. The focus of the investigation was at first on rockets but soon changed to opium and heroin, lucrative narcotics that U.S. officials say help finance the Taliban's insurgency.
The farmer's undercover work eventually led to Mohammed's arrest in October 2006 by Afghan police working with the federal agents. With the cooperation of the Afghan government, he was brought to the United States in late 2007.
Convicted in May of drug trafficking and engaging in narco-terrorism after a five-day trial, Mohammed was sentenced to life in prison yesterday by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in Washington. The judge said Mohammed, the first known Afghan Taliban member convicted in a U.S. courtroom, deserved a stiff sentence because he was a serious drug dealer and a terrorist bent on killing Americans in any way he could.
In recent years, authorities have brought five prosecutions in U.S. courts against Afghan drug dealers, and they say such cases are a critical component of their strategy to sever the flow of drug-tainted cash to the Taliban. As part of that effort, U.S. officials have been pushing the Afghan government to cut down poppy fields and have been trying to reform the nation's justice system, eliminate corruption and encourage the production of food crops. Bowing to U.S. pressure, NATO has also expanded its counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan to include drug trafficking.
Such efforts face a daunting challenge. Although opium production is down 19 percent this year, largely because of a severe drought, Afghan farmers continue to grow opium poppies on 388,000 acres. The country supplies about 90 percent of the world's heroin, though only about 10 percent of the U.S. demand for the drug, according to United Nations and U.S. government estimates.
U.S. officials say curbing opium production is key to stabilizing the country. The Taliban, which had once outlawed poppy growing, has become a key source of protection for many opium growers and collected as much as $400 million last year in levies on those farmers, according to the United Nations. The Taliban uses that cash to buy weapons, clothing and food to sustain its insurgency, government officials and outside experts say.
Justice Department prosecutor Matthew Stiglitz said in court yesterday that Mohammed's "significance ultimately rests with the symbiotic confluence of two worlds: drugs and terrorism. Without him or men like him, there is no effective insurgency in Afghanistan."
Mohammed's attorneys, public defenders assigned to represent him, said he was just a middleman trying to help a friend buy drugs, not a terrorist.
The Justice Department declined to discuss the case or to talk more broadly about its counternarcotics cases originating in Afghanistan. But a review of hundreds of pages of trial testimony, court documents and other records provides a rare look into the challenges facing authorities as they push to bring such cases in U.S. courts.