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Bankers suspected of helping kidnap gangs prey on Afghan tycoons

Mohammad Shoib / Reuters

A businessman travels with his personal security personnel in Afghanistan's Herat province on Dec. 11.

KABUL -- Afghan construction magnate Haji Asadullah Ghaznawi was dragged from his office with a gun to his head and locked up in a slaughterhouse for almost three weeks.

Ghaznawi was later shocked to discover someone had leaked details of his bank account to the kidnap gang who pulled up in a car in broad daylight in Kabul a year ago and abducted him.

Violent criminals who gain access to confidential information about Afghan millionaires like Ghaznawi have raised alarming questions about the dangers of doing business in one of the world's poorest and most corrupt countries.


"Eight days before I was kidnapped a business partner added one million dollars to my bank account," Ghaznawi said from his luxurious office in the Afghan capital.

"The kidnappers told me that I had $1 million in my bank. How could they know this?," he asked.

The leaks, some businessmen allege, are coming from the very people who are supposed to be protecting Afghans and helping them prosper -- intelligence officials, police and bankers.

Safeguarding Afghanistan's economy is just as important for the troubled South Asian country’s stability as containing the Taliban-led insurgency as NATO combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014.

Wealthy Afghans fearful of a new civil war or a Taliban push to seize power have already been sending vast sums of money to banks in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai and elsewhere, prompting authorities to impose measures to try and stem the flow.

Government officials fear bank account scams and kidnappings could accelerate that process, and potentially bring the fledgling economy to its knees.

Purchased freedom
Ghaznawi spent 17 days in the basement slaughterhouse, worried about his safety and also troubled that criminals now know exactly how much he is worth. A business partner bought his freedom for $820,000.

It is a problem that has Afghan entrepreneurs so worried that many are hiring large teams of armed guards to provide around-the-clock protection.

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Afghanistan's banking sector has seen an influx of cash from foreign aid and steady growth in industry and construction, but it remains weak and open to exploitation by criminals.

Businessmen and top officials from the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry say bank employees are leaking account balances to sophisticated gangs who arrange kidnappings.

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"These kidnap gangs have some good connections, they work as teams, they know who the rich people are," said Shir Baz Kaminzada, president of the Afghan Industrial Union, who runs a lucrative printing and packaging firm and travels in a bullet-proof car.

"Our banks aren't so secure and some bank people, we suspect they're providing information to criminals," he said.

Some businessmen go further and allege rogue officials from Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, are obtaining the financial records of high-rollers. The agency did not respond to interview requests.

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More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

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Lucrative business
Kidnapping is a lucrative business, with ransoms often in excess of $1 million. Many cases go unreported and most are unsolved.

"Among our members, we have many kidnap victims and the problem is mostly solved by paying the ransom without involving police," said Ahmad Tawfiq Dawari, a deputy head at the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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"They hire 10-15 private guards themselves and it's expensive. When security forces do nothing to stop the kidnappers, how can we trust them to protect us?" he asked.

Businessmen place the blame squarely on law enforcement agencies. The chief of the Kabul Criminal Investigation, Mohammad Zahir, insists police are cracking down on the gangs and says the leaks most likely came from employees or relatives.

Kevin Frayer / AP

In southern Afghanistan, the focus of the U.S. war effort, nearly all the Afghan soldiers are foreigners too. Photographer Kevin Frayer shows these soldiers in a series of portraits.

"These kidnappers had private prisons where they tortured victims if they refused to pay, so we started a fight against them and we've brought this problem to its lowest point," Zahir said, reeling off the names of prominent people rescued and kidnapping kingpins who have been arrested.

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"The government supports us and we're not afraid of anyone," he added.

Sitting with an associate in his Kabul office, Ghaznawi gets little comfort from such talk and believes businessmen have a bleak future in Afghanistan. He constantly fears that the kidnappers will return.

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"I wanted to shut down my business but my partners convinced me to continue," he said. "Other businessmen know what I went through, why would they put their money and lives at risk?"

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