By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
The case against Mohammed began when the illiterate Afghan farmer appeared in 2006 at an air base in Jalalabad -- where Drug Enforcement Administration agents helping to fight the country's illegal drug trade were stationed -- with a tip that the Taliban planned to launch a rocket attack on the base.
The farmer, who later testified in Washington under the pseudonym Jaweed, told jurors he decided to help because he was tired of the violence. "I didn't want our country to be destroyed and our foreign friends to be harassed or bothered," he said.
Jaweed, the father of six children, lived in a compound of mud houses in the village of Garatek in eastern Afghanistan, not far from the U.S. air base at Jalalabad. He and his relatives grew cotton, wheat and corn. When a major drought struck a few years ago, they moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, where Jaweed took a job at a vegetable market.
In early 2006, he said, he was summoned to the home of a Taliban leader in Peshawar who had fled Afghanistan in late 2001 during the war with the United States and anti-Taliban Afghan forces.
The leader, who knew Jaweed from their village and that he was poor and needed cash, gave the farmer a risky assignment: return to Afghanistan and find Mohammed, another Taliban member and village elder. Together, the leader said, Jaweed and Mohammed would obtain rockets and attack the U.S. air base.
Fearing for his life, Jaweed returned to Garatek. But rather than join the insurgency, he approached a trusted Afghan police chief. After hearing Jaweed's story, the chief took him to the air base to meet DEA agent Jeffrey Higgins, who persuaded Jaweed to wear a recorder and meet with Mohammed to learn more about the pending attack.
"He was working under extremely dangerous circumstances," Higgins testified.
Complicating matters, Jaweed, whose compound has electricity for only two hours a day, had never seen a tape-recorder before and had trouble using it.
In one of their first encounters that August, Jaweed and Mohammed discussed the Taliban's rocket attack. The farmer promised to buy the rockets, but investigators soon decided that was a bad idea because the weapons might slip out of their hands during a sting.
So they switched to drugs because they knew Mohammed was a former opium farmer with connections to the drug trade. Within days, Jaweed brokered a deal with Mohammed to obtain opium for a "friend." Like an experienced informant trying to penetrate a D.C. drug gang, Jaweed laid the trap by offering Mohammed cash.
"There will be a commission in it for you, if you can find the opium for him," he told Mohammed one August morning, according to the transcripts.
"God willing, I will give you the opium," Mohammed replied. "I have the source and will find good stuff for him."
With money supplied by the DEA, they met and haggled with dealers at a bustling bazaar, located near the county police station.
A few days later, wearing a hidden video camera, Jaweed walked into the dealer's house and sat on the floor. The camera recorded the drug dealers as they chatted with Mohammed and argued about the opium and its purity. After paying the dealers the equivalent of $2,750 in Pakistani currency, Jaweed and Mohammed left -- with 11 kilograms of opium packed in burlap sacks that they slung over their shoulders for the long walk home.
To ensure they could build a case under U.S. drug laws, the DEA agents pressed Jaweed to tell Mohammed that the narcotics were destined for the United States. Jaweed told Mohammed that his friend "is sending the powder to the United States and France, mostly to American cities. . . . The opium is going abroad and all other powders are going abroad."
"Good, may God turn all the infidels into dead corpses," Mohammed replied, adding, "Whether it is by opium or by shooting, this is our common goal."
Within weeks, Jaweed was arranging another deal. This time for heroin.
In October 2006, Mohammed gave Jaweed just under two kilograms of heroin, a transaction captured on Jaweed's hidden camera. Mohammed sat on a rug in his austere house next to his 4-year-old son and methodically inspected two hefty bags of heroin before handing them over to Jaweed for $6,000.
Mohammed was planning to use a commission on the sale and future deals, prosecutors said, to support the Taliban and its "terrorist activity." He told Jaweed he was going to buy a car, for example, to aid the transportation of weapons, prosecutors said.
Within days, Mohammed was arrested at a police checkpoint and flown to the United States. In May, the jury deliberated about two hours before convicting Mohammed on both counts. It was the first such conviction under the narco-terrorism statute, which was passed by Congress in 2006 to make it easier to prosecute terrorism-related drug offenses.
Jaweed was hailed as a hero in court papers filed by prosecutors because he "stood up at great risk to himself and family to do the right thing." The judge yesterday called him "courageous."
For his help, Jaweed received $8,000 from the DEA. But he and his family will never be able to return to their old lives and village. Early this year, prosecutors said, the family compound was hit by grenades and machine-gun fire.