SEALs tried to locate US citizen taken by Afghan militants

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the days following the January capture of an American contractor in Afghanistan, Navy SEAL 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. 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 went missing and to collect intelligence aimed at his recovery.

A senior U.S. government official and a second Defense Department official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The Pentagon and U.S. Special Operations Command declined to comment on the operation.

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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, 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. officials believe Frerichs was captured by members of the Haqqani network. The militant group is aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and was designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.

The Haqqanis are known to carry out assassinations and kidnappings for ransom, but Taliban leadership has not acknowledged Frerichs’ abduction.

“The first 96 hours is crucial,” the senior U.S. government official briefed on the case told the AP. “If they’re not recovered in the first few days, it becomes harder every minute after.”

In late January, the SEALs that would become involved in Frerichs’ case spent the latter part of the month 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 been complicated by inclement weather.

The weather also delayed the SEAL operation to gather intelligence on Frerichs’ whereabouts. Once the weather cleared, the SEAL team loaded onto helicopters on the night of Feb. 3, and flew to the undisclosed location, said the senior U.S. government official, who has direct knowledge of the raid. The official declined to disclose the exact location of the province for operational security reasons.

The senior U.S. government official and the Defense Department official with knowledge of the raid said 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.

There are no public indications that Frerichs, a Navy veteran, has been part of negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban leadership or that his release is part of any peace deal.

“The Taliban kidnapped my brother in January. In February, the U.S. signed a peace deal with the Taliban. My brother wasn’t part of the deal. Now we are arranging for the Taliban and Afghan government to exchange thousands of prisoners,” Charlene Cakora, one of Frerichs’ sisters, said in a statement provided to the AP. “Why can’t we make an American hostage be one of them?”

The rescue effort is being coordinated through the FBI-led, multiagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell. It said in a statement that it was working with its partners to ensure “that Mark Frerichs and all Americans held hostage abroad are returned home.” It encouraged anyone with information about the case to come forward.

The State Department said it was aware of an American citizen taken captive in Afghanistan.

“The welfare, safety and security of Americans is the Trump administration’s highest priority,” the department said. “The United States will continue to push for the safe return of this and all other U.S citizens through all relevant channels.”

A former U.S. national security official who is advising the Frerichs family called on Washington peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to resolve the situation. “He needs to understand from the top that getting an American hostage home is also part of his job. He is aware of Mark’s presence, but it does not appear yet that he understands that he needs to get him home,” said the former official, who insisted on anonymity to speak candidly because the official sometimes works with the Trump administration.

A representative for Khalilzad did not immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking comment.

U.S. officials believe Frerichs, 57, of Lombard, Illinois, was held for at least some time in Khost, an eastern province along the border with Pakistan and its so-called tribal regions, a mountainous area that has historically been a haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants.

The former national security official said that Frerichs has been in Afghanistan for about a decade working as a contractor on private commercial projects. He was not a contractor for the U.S. government, the former official said.

Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican and Army veteran who led the teams that searched for Bowe Bergdahl after the Army soldier abandoned his post in 2009 and wound up captured by the Taliban, said the Taliban frequently hide American hostages until the militants can move them over the border into Pakistan.

He said peace deal negotiations should have stopped as soon as the U.S. government learned that Frerichs was missing.

“I have real concerns about suggestions that the Taliban are serious about peace, that the Taliban are upholding their end of the deal when — as we speak today — they are holding a former Navy veteran and American citizen hostage that they took, again, during the peace negotiations,” Waltz said in an interview.

The search area for Frerichs began in Khost and extended south to the province of Kandahar, the two officials said.

On Feb. 4, American intelligence officials received a report that Frerichs had possibly been moved to Quetta, Pakistan, a historical haven for the Taliban, the 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 U.S. officials had at the time. Signals intelligence is information gathered from the electronic signals that are broadcast from devices like portable radios and cellphones. The information can be used to track the movements of individuals or eavesdrop on conversations, known in the spy business as low-level voice intercepts.

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 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.”

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LaPorta reported from Delray Beach, Florida. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

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