Report: US sent Navy SEALs to rescue American hostage in Afghanistan

Mark Frerichs, a contractor from Illinois, poses in Iraq in this undated photo obtained from Twitter that he would include with his resume when job hunting. Frerichs was abducted in Afghanistan in January. Early efforts to locate him have been shrouded in mystery, and his disappearance has been the subject of minimal public discussion by the U.S. government.
Mark Frerichs, a contractor from Illinois, poses in Iraq in this undated photo obtained from Twitter that he would include with his resume when job hunting. Frerichs was abducted in Afghanistan in January. Early efforts to locate him have been shrouded in mystery, and his disappearance has been the subject of minimal public discussion by the U.S. government.

U.S. Navy SEALs raided an Afghan village earlier this year and arrested several extremist militants as part of a top-secret mission to rescue an abducted American contractor, according to an exclusive report by The Associated Press.

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Mark R. Frerichs, a Navy veteran and commercial contractor from Lombard, Illinois, was kidnapped in Khost, Afghanistan, in January under mysterious circumstances, according to the report. Frerichs is still being held hostage in Afghanistan, and while his abduction had been widely reported since early February, details of the government’s feverish efforts to find him had not been known before now.

Frerichs, 57, worked as a civil engineer in conflict zones around the Mideast for at least 10 years, and has traveled to the region since 2012, according to previous reports, which pointed out he did not work for the government.

He was in an underdeveloped region of southeastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan when he was taken.

No group has claimed responsibility for his kidnapping, but U.S. intelligence officials reportedly tracked cellphone communications to a hideout being used by suspected members of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, the AP reported.

The suspected Haqqani members were questioned about Frerichs’ whereabouts and ultimately turned over to the Afghan government, according to the senior U.S. government official, the AP reported.

Government’s response

The Trump administration has been mostly silent about the case, although a few U.S. officials have spoken out about it during the last month.

The rescue effort is ongoing and is being coordinated through the FBI-led, multiagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which 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.”

The Pentagon and U.S. Special Operations Command declined to comment about the raid, the AP reported.

The State Department only said it was aware of the situation.

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

The current situation 

News of the rescue operation comes as violence and political infighting in Kabul threaten to scuttle a Taliban peace deal with 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 political rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The Trump administration said it would cut $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan.

Washington has urged Kabul to release Taliban prisoners, which is part of the peace agreement, arguing the detainees were at risk of spreading the coronavirus.

But 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.

‘We don’t leave people behind’

Frerichs family members told The Associated Press that they are holding on to hope that a deal can be made for his safe return.

“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?”

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.”

About the operation 

The search area for Frerichs began in Khost and extended south to the province of Kandahar, according to a senior U.S. government official and a second official at the Defense Department, the AP reported.

Members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, more familiarly known as SEAL Team Six, who were involved in the Frerichs effort, had spent late January working to recover the bodies of two American service members who died when their aircraft crash-landed in Ghazni in central Afghanistan, according to the two U.S. officials.

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The bitter winter weather that limited overhead surveillance of the airplane wreckage by U.S. military drones also worked against officials during the later SEAL 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, said the senior U.S. government official, who has direct knowledge of the raid.

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 Defense Department source with knowledge of the raid, who also requested anonymity, said the SEAL platoon was not met with any Taliban resistance and that once at the compound, they detained several alleged Haqqani militants and uncovered a weapons cache.

It’s not known if the weapons cache was destroyed at the scene or given to Afghan security forces.

History of the Haqqani network 

The Haqqani network was once a CIA-backed force that fought against Soviet attempts to establish a satellite state in Afghanistan, according to Newsweek. It later became one of the most formidable insurgent groups that the United States faces within the country and has been behind other kidnappings that target U.S. and other foreign nationals.

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The Haqqanis have strong links to North Waziristan, a tribal region in Pakistan, south of Afghanistan's Khost province, the AP reported.

The Obama administration designated the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012 for its ties with the Taliban and the group’s attacks on U.S. military and civilian personnel. Though the Haqqanis are known to carry out assassinations and kidnappings for ransom, Taliban leadership has not acknowledged Frerichs' capture.

— James Laporta and Eric Tucker were the principal writers of this report for The Associated Press. Compiled and edited by ArLuther Lee for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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