Edward Follis (left) and Hajji Juma Khan. Photo courtesy of Edward Follis
Before balloons of smack reach the pockets of users in Liverpool or Berlin or Oslo, 80 percent of the world's heroin passes through the hands of a very rich group of Afghan opium traders. By financing the Taliban—which still has a lot of influence over much of the country, especially in the south—these men operate with near impunity, preserving the opium poppy as the lifeblood of Afghanistan's economy.
Naturally, these enigmatic opium traders are targeted by the DEA, intelligence agencies, and the military. Between 2006 and 2008, undercover DEA man Edward Follis spent two years hanging out with Hajji Juma Khan, then one of the world's biggest opium merchants and a billionaire Taliban financier. Follis was briefed to gain Juma Khan's trust, tap him for info, and then take him out of action.
The Dark Art: My Undercover Life in Global Narco-Terrorism is a memoir of Follis's experiences chasing down opium traders and infiltrating drug gangs across the world. Amid all the action in his book, however, the time Follis spent targeting Juma Khan stands out the most, mostly because his target eventually became a close friend.
I called Follis, who describes himself as "an Irish boy from St. Louis," to tell me more about the brotherly relationship he developed with the powerful opium king, a man he would ultimately have to screw over.
A counter narcotics team burning a heroin stash house in Afghanistan
VICE: Juma Khan was a powerful opium trader and clearly not stupid. How did you cajole yourself into his world?
Edward Follis: We were introduced through a mutual confidant as people who could help each other. I was upfront about who I was—the head of the DEA in Kabul—but I suggested to him that I was a pliable man with whom he could work, a relationship he could benefit from. I told him I was very aware of his competitors, and they were of great interest to me. He saw me as a value-added figure in his empire. He could feed me information about his rivals. In turn, I implied the US would focus on targeting his competition. Although, all the time, it was Juma Khan who was the real target.
We first met in his favorite Persian restaurant, an upmarket place called Shiraz. He dwarfed me. He was in his fifties, six-foot-five tall, and weighed about 26 stone [350 pounds]. I remember he had trouble fitting through doors. Apart from his size, he looked like any other Afghan businessman. He was dressed in simple clothes: a battered pinstriped jacket over a salwar kameez. He constantly played with a string of prayer beads. He was a huge eater, and as I found out, he would often devour about 20 kebabs at each sitting, while I'd nibble on one or two. He was extremely personable and charming.
So this wasn't a brief encounter?
It's common courtesy in business in central Asia that you do not pursue your goals immediately. There has to be, for want of a better word, "foreplay" before a business relationship can be formed. It took time to reach an implicit understanding. I had to maintain the courtship for two years, much longer than usual, as he had to trust me and we needed to build evidence for the indictment over his links to the Taliban. Luckily for us, as his business machine worked so well, he had time on his hands. We spent a lot of time together.
I'm intrigued to know what an American DEA agent and an Afghan opium trafficker talk about over dinner.
He didn't want to talk about the opium trade at first. Most of what we discussed was about our families, our lives, and our fates. He had 14 wives and 29 children. We talked a lot about religion. He was a very religious man. He knew the Qur'an off by heart and had been on seven hajjis. He sometimes took me to the mosque to pray, although I prayed to God and he prayed to Allah. We watched The Passion of the Christ together. One thing he could not understand about Christianity was why God had to put his son through so much suffering.
He was certainly not a fundamentalist. He sympathized with the US over 9/11. He told me it was wrong and that Bin Laden—whom he knew—should never have been allowed to carry out the attack. His heart went out to the innocents who died.
What kind of man was he?
He's almost exactly the same age as me: I was enlisting in the Marine Corps when he was in the trenches fighting Russians laying waste to his land. He was a magnificent businessman who grew up in poverty. He survived the Soviet occupation, civil wars, the Taliban, al Qaeda—he survived them all and profited the entire time to build his empire.
He was a leader, but not a dictatorial leader. He had dignity; people had a lot of respect for the way he handled his competitors, enemies, and his friends. I never heard a disparaging word out of his mouth about anybody. He didn't have to commit violence to maintain control over his turf.
He saw himself as the emperor of his tribe. He was a strong, proud man in the community and he valued that. His face beamed when he talked about his people, his family, and his underlings. He loved being praised—he glowed with it—and he was generous. I never paid for a meal, and even though it was haram, he would make sure waiters served me up some Johnnie Walker Black at the end of a meal.
You said in the book that you felt like brothers. You even flew him out to see a cancer specialist in Washington, DC, to get him checked out.
To be honest, the time I spent with HJK was a source of solace for me, away from all the spooks and the embassy staff in Kabul. I was more at ease with HJK compared with with my colleagues at the embassy. Some of the spooks didn't trust me—they accused me of knowing rocket attacks were being planned on the embassy, but failing to alert them.
It was a kind of intimate relationship. One day I noticed he had a growth on his chest. I thought it might be cancerous as I had previously had a melanoma cut out, and showed him my scars. I offered him treatment in DC and we went, although it was a false alarm. I was helping a friend, but also it was a way of building trust. At that time we did not have enough information from him to arrest him, so he was returned to Afghanistan.
How productive was your friendship in terms of your undercover DEA work?
His power base was in the Balochistan region of Afghanistan near the Iranian border, although his network and inordinate wealth spread across central Asia to Dubai and Pakistan, where he had property and businesses.
He had close friends and relatives in the highest ranks of the Karzai government. His was a "total enterprise"—from the poppies at the farm gate, processing in clandestine labs, wholesale dealers at bazaars, importing precursors to process from morphine base, trans shipment across Iran to Turkey. He was a major player in the global heroin trade and our aim was to cut off the supply of money from opium kingpins like him to the Taliban and terrorists such as al Qaeda. He was an unofficial spy in the end. He gave us useful information that we passed onto the military.
And then you had to shop him.
In 2008 I offered him the carrot that was needed to get him out of Afghanistan; it was too dangerous to arrest him there. I told him I had been promoted to a counter drug mission in Iran, and we would mutually assist each other over there—he would boost my cred in unchartered waters, and he'd benefit from having people in high places to smooth his path shipping heroin across Iran.
We arranged to meet to discuss this in Jakarta in Indonesia, although in truth we would rendition him and fly him to the US. At the airport, when he arrived off the plane, he picked me up like rag doll and kissed me on the cheek. He was arrested before being flown to the US, where he's been in jail charged with funding terrorism since 2008. He will never see the light of day again. His attorneys decided against a trial because HJK is more concerned for the welfare of his family than the survival of his business empire.
Did you feel guilty at turning in a man you had grown to respect so much?
Well, there was an ulterior motive to getting him out of Afghanistan. I saved his life. He was on what we call the "kinetic list," a list of people to be targeted by a drone attack. His time was coming soon, and I decided to take away his comfortable, contented life in order to save it.
I had many emotions at the airport. I spotted him after his arrest and our eyes met. He had an expression of disbelief, and I felt ashamed. I ran behind a pillar and hid behind it. I didn't want to look back at him—I felt like a little boy. But if I didn't feel this way about a target, I'm not human; and if I'm not human, I'll never be able to carve my way into their soul and convince them to do my will.
What I had to keep remembering was that the Taliban and al Qaeda are developing weapons using money provided by people like HJK. That kept me going. Tackling the financial network behind the terrorists is the bottom line.
Will you ever see him again?
I can't visit him. If I did it would precipitate resentment—I took him from an unbelievable existence where he was the king, and I convinced him to give everything up. My wife knows I've had restless nights about this, and yeah, it messes with me. I've not had a chance to explain to him about the drone attack. One day it will go to trial, and I will see him there.
I still have the Kmart cell phone I used to call him on; it's right here in front of me. He always picked up. Even though he had 20 phones, he always carried it with him and answered it.
The Dark Art: My Undercover Life in Global Narco-Terrorism by Edward Follis is published in the UK by Scribe Publications.
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