Biden comments on American hostage in Afghanistan released in prisoner swap

It required "difficult decisions," he said, which he did not take "lightly."

September 19, 2022, 2:05 PM

Mark Frerichs -- the last-known American hostage being held by the Taliban -- has been released in a prisoner exchange, President Joe Biden confirmed in a statement on Monday.

"His release is the culmination of years of tireless work by dedicated public servants across our government and other partner governments, and I want to thank them for all that effort," Biden said.

Frerichs was in Doha, Qatar, and in the care of the U.S. government, according to senior administration officials, who noted that that after an initial assessment he appeared to be in "stable health" and would be offered a "range of support" to acclimate back to regular life.

The Taliban first confirmed at a press conference in Kabul on Monday that Frerichs, from Lombard, Illinois, was released in a prisoner swap for a senior Taliban detainee and notorious drug lord, Bashir Noorzai. The senior administration officials said Noorzai had been held in a federal prison in the United States but not at Guantanamo Bay as had been reported.

Despite Noorzai's history as a prolific drug trafficker, the officials said they had consulted experts who assured them his return to Afghanistan would not pose an increased threat to Americans or significantly impact the country's drug trade.

Still, Biden acknowledged, "Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark's freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly."

The officials confirmed Frerichs' freedom was the result of "months of tough negotiations" with the Taliban, during which it became apparent that the release of Noorzai was "the key" to securing his safe return. The decision was made to authorize Noorzai's release in June, they said, but it took time to work out the details of the exchange and once they were confident they had found a narrow window where they could carry out the swap, they moved "extraordinarily quickly."

PHOTO: This undated photo provided to AP shows Mark Frerichs, a U.S. veteran and civilian contractor held more than 2 years in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
This undated photo provided to AP shows Mark Frerichs, a U.S. veteran and civilian contractor held more than 2 years in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
Charlene Cakora via AP

Frerichs, a 60-year-old U.S. Navy veteran and contractor who had been "in Afghanistan for over a decade working on a variety of civil engineering projects," was abducted in Kabul in January 2020 after being lured to what he thought was a new business meeting -- but which turned out to be a horrific ruse, family members and officials have said. He's been held in Afghanistan for 31 months.

"I spoke with Mark's sister today to share the good news and express how happy I am for Mark's family," Biden said.

Charlene Cakora, Frerichs' sister, has long made desperate pleas to Biden on behalf of her brother's release.

"I don't think anybody can come home with their head held high until every stone has been turned," she told ABC in an exclusive interview in June 2021, when the U.S. military completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan and Frerichs was the man left behind.

On Monday, Cakora said that despite "some folks arguing against the deal that brought Mark home," her brother was back alive because "President Biden took action." She also credited Illinois Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin for his successful return.

"We are grateful to President Biden, Secretary Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Senators Duckworth and Durbin for their efforts to free Mark. Senator Duckworth got personally involved -- advocating tirelessly within our government to get him home," Cakora said.

"President Biden did what was right. He saved the life of an innocent American veteran."

"I'm thrilled that his family, who have long been Mark's champions, will get to reunite with him. I applaud President Biden, who I spoke with personally about the need to get Mark home, for taking the steps necessary to prove that we do not leave Americans behind," Duckworth said in a statement on Monday. Durbin also thanked Biden and expressed relief over the fact that "the tragic and cruel use of [Frerichs] as a hostage has finally come to an end."

During a United Nations General Assembly event on Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed Frerichs' freedom, extending gratitude to the department's Special Presidental Envoy for Hostage Affairs, Roger Carstens, whom he said he was now with Frerichs in Doha.

"I want the families of Americans who are being arbitrarily detained and held hostage anywhere in the world to know that our commitment to them, bringing their loved ones home is resolute and we will relentlessly continue to focus on doing just that," said Blinken. "We'll bring the same determination and focus to those efforts as we brought the efforts to bring Mark Frerichs out of captivity and home to his loved ones."

Frerichs' release comes on the heels of Biden's meetings Friday with family members of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan -- Americans detained in Russia. In his statement, Biden pledged his administration would continue to "prioritize the safe return of all Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad."

"We will not stop until they are reunited with their families," Biden said in his statement. "We have much more work to do in many other cases, but Mark's release demonstrates our enduring commitment. Like our work to free Americans held in Burma, Haiti, Russia, Venezuela, and elsewhere, it is our duty to do all we can to bring our people home."

Asked whether these kinds of exchanges could encourage foreign governments to hold Americans as leverage, the senior Biden officials pointed to the executive order President Biden signed in July aimed at deterring the practice and said the administration would continue to stress to the Taliban that they could not wrongfully detain Americans.

For the families of those still considered wrongfully detained, the officials said Frerichs' release should be a hopeful sign: "A very good day like today proves that success is possible."

ABC News' Molly Nagle and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.

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