NEW YORK — By his own account, former Afghan tribal leader Bashir Noorzai resisted the Soviet Union's invasion of his country three decades ago, then put down his weapons when U.S. forces showed up following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Afghanistan is in anarchy," the one-time Taliban ally recalls telling his tribesmen. "Americans are establishing our future government."
Rather than thank him, Noorzai claims the U.S. government betrayed him: In 2005, he was branded a most-wanted drug kingpin, lured to New York and arrested.
Noorzai faces trial beginning Monday on charges he smuggled $50 million worth of heroin into the United States — part of a current parade of prosecutions in New York City involving reputed drug lords from abroad.
In the past 18 months, four alleged large-scale traffickers from Mexico — one the mayor of a town in the state of Puebla — have been extradited to the city to face federal charges of smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine into the United States.
A former Dominican Republic army captain, extradited in 2005, is being tried in an alleged plot to smuggle tons of cocaine into the United States from Colombia and Venezuela.
And last month Juan Carlos Rameriz Abadia — identified as a leader of the notorious Norte del Valle cartel in Colombia — was extradited. He pleaded not guilty in federal court to charges he played a key role in another multibillion-dollar cocaine trafficking scheme.
The cases reflect improved cooperation by overseas authorities and a renewed effort by U.S. authorities "to marshal all our resources to dismantle the world's largest drug trafficking organizations from top to bottom," said John Gilbride, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office.
The DEA says the assault on the drug world's elite has had an effect on the streets of New York and other cities, where cocaine prices are up and purity is down.
Defendant's movie script-worthy past
Federal authorities consider Noorzai one of the bigger catches in the war on drugs. But the defendant, who has three wives and eight children, also stands out for his movie script-worthy history, some of it described in a sworn statement filed by the defense.
Noorzai was born in 1963 in Maiwand, Afghanistan, and raised by his grandfather, chief of the Noorzai tribe — a million people in southern and western Afghanistan and in Pakistan's Baluchistan province.
When his grandfather retired, he was succeeded by one of Noorzai's uncles, who vanished when Communists took power in 1978 and confiscated the family's land. A year later, the family fled to Pakistan after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and began arresting and killing tribal leaders.
In 1981, at age 18, Noorzai and his armed tribesmen joined a jihad against the Soviets and the Communist government. When the Soviets withdrew in the late 1980s, he claimed he had been paid by the CIA to help retrieve Stinger missiles it had supplied to the rebel forces.
But with the country in chaos, he decided in 1996 to support the Taliban.
"In my view at the time, and in the view of many Afghanis who were tired of the many years of violence and war, the Taliban were not corrupt and they did not steal from people and abuse their power in this way," he said.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Noorzai — then chief of the tribe — decided to help establish a U.S.-supported government in Afghanistan, his defense says. He met with U.S. military representatives and instructed his followers to collect and store all weaponry and munitions, his lawyers say. In January 2002, Noorzai claims, he turned over 3,000 arms, including 400 anti-aircraft missiles, to U.S. forces.
In September 2004, U.S. agents summoned Noorzai to Dubai and told him they needed his help identifying sources of funding supporting terrorism. He says they asked him about his contacts with the Taliban as well as reports that he had ties to both Osama bin Laden and the region's opium trade — allegations he denied.
"I told the agents I had not worked in the narcotics business," he said.
The agents invited Noorzai to the United States to meet with people in Washington for further discussions. He was questioned for 11 days in a Manhattan hotel and then was arrested.
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