NEW YORK – A reputed Afghan drug lord who authorities say operated with the protection of the Taliban has been captured and faces charges that he tried to smuggle more than $50 million worth of heroin into the United States, authorities said.
Bashir Noorzai, who is on the U.S. list of most-wanted drug kingpins, was ordered held without bail at an initial court appearance in Manhattan.
If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The full circumstances of Noorzai’s capture were not made public. Prosecutor Boyd Johnson told a judge that U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents arrested the defendant Saturday in New York, but he did not elaborate.
Noorzai, 44, remained silent during the hearing. He was given a court-appointed attorney who declined to comment outside court.
Prosecutors say the smuggling attempt involved about 1,100 pounds of heroin.
U.S. Attorney David Kelley said that between 1990 and 2004, the defendant and his organization “provided weapons and manpower to the Taliban.
“In exchange, the Taliban allowed Noorzai’s business to flourish,” he said.
The Taliban protected Noorzai’s opium crops, his heroin laboratories in Afghanistan and Pakistan and his drug transportation routes out of Afghanistan, prosecutors said.
Last year, the White House added Noorzai and nine other people and organizations to the list of most-wanted drug lords. The White House gave Noorzai’s name as Haji Bashir Noorzai.
The Taliban militia ruled Afghanistan until it was toppled by the United States in late 2001. But Taliban-led militants still are operating along Afghanistan’s mountainous eastern border with Pakistan.
Kelley refused to comment on reports that the defendant has ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network.
Gen. Zaher Akbar, head of a U.S.-funded Afghan police unit charged with destroying Afghanistan’s opium crops, said Afghan authorities “appreciate the arrest of drug smugglers anywhere in the world as long as there is proof against them and they are not just released the next day.”