WASHINGTON — In the days following the capture of an American contractor in Afghanistan earlier this year, Navy commandos raided a village and detained suspected members of a Taliban-linked militant network, The Associated Press has learned.
U.S. intelligence agents also tried to track the cellphones of the man and his captors, but the trail went cold, and there has been little public discussion by the U.S. government of Mark R. Frerichs’ case even as American negotiators arranged prisoner exchanges as part of their efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban.
Little is known about the circumstances surrounding the abduction of the contractor from Illinois. But the previously unreported operation, described by multiple U.S. officials over the past month, sheds new light on the American government’s efforts to locate him soon after he vanished and to collect intelligence aimed at his recovery. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the mission.
The new details emerge as violence and political infighting in Kabul threaten to scuttle the peace deal between the Taliban and the U.S. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced frustrations after a failed attempt to mediate a power struggle between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.
Frerichs’ father, Art, said in a statement that though he has faith in President Donald Trump and Pompeo, “I just need them to tell their people negotiating with the Taliban that America won’t lift a finger until my son comes home. He’s a veteran. This is America. We don’t leave people behind.”
Though no formal demands are known to have been made, U.S. intelligence officials believe Frerichs was captured by members of the Haqqani network, a militant group that is aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and that was designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.
Though the Haqqanis are known to carry out assassinations and kidnappings for ransom, Taliban leadership has not acknowledged Frerichs’ capture.
“The first 96 hours is crucial,” a senior U.S. government official briefed on the case told the AP on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “If they’re not recovered in the first few days, it becomes harder every minute after.”
The search area for Frerichs began in Khost and extended south to the province of Kandahar, according to the senior U.S. government official and a second official at the Defence Department.
Bitter winter weather worked against the SEALs’ operation on the night of Feb. 3. Periods of poor-to-nonexistent visibility ultimately delayed a planned intelligence-gathering operation on a known Taliban location, the senior U.S. government official said.
At the time of Frerichs’ abduction in late January, the SEALs involved in the rescue effort had been working to recover the bodies of two American service members who died when their aircraft crash-landed in Ghazni in central Afghanistan, an operation that had also been complicated by the weather.
Once the weather cleared, the SEALs loaded onto helicopters and flew to the undisclosed location. The senior official declined to disclose the exact location of the province for operational security reasons.
The senior U.S. government official and the Defence Department official with knowledge of the raid, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the SEAL platoon was not met with Taliban resistance and that once at the compound, the platoon detained several alleged Haqqani militants and uncovered a weapons cache.
The suspected Haqqani members were questioned about Frerichs’ whereabouts and were ultimately turned over to the Afghan government, according to the senior U.S. government official.
On Feb. 4, American intelligence officials received a report that Frerichs had possibly been moved to Quetta, Pakistan, a historical safe haven for the Taliban, the two officials said. But the information was deemed not credible enough to warrant a special operations mission, according to the senior U.S. government official.
The report also conflicted with signals intelligence — information gathered from electronic signals broadcast from devices like portable radios and cellphones — that U.S. officials had at the time.
U.S. intelligence officials continued to receive location pings from the suspected cellphones of Frerichs and his captors, but the trail went cold on Feb. 5, according to the senior U.S. government and Defence Department officials.
“Operationally, the reason why time is critical in a kidnapping is because you can close the distance quicker, ideally immediately or by utilizing sources,” said the senior U.S. government official. “This is not the case right now. He could be two houses down from where he was taken and we would not know.”
LaPorta reported from Delray Beach, Fla. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.
Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.
James Laporta And Eric Tucker, The Associated Press