HERAT, Afghanistan — Ali Sena Nowruzee’s disappearance was predictable, even in a city largely untouched by the Taliban and often held up as an example of what a peaceful Afghanistan might look like.
As in dozens of other kidnappings targeting Herat’s growing middle class, residents assumed he would be released once his family delivered tens of thousands of dollars in ransom. Instead, the rosy-cheeked third-grader became famous after the discovery of his body on the city’s outskirts.
In death, Ali Sena, 9, has become a symbol for an unlikely crisis in an unlikely place.
In Herat, a modern city far from the battlefields, the epidemic of abductions has raised a troubling question about Afghanistan’s future: What if eradicating the insurgency only creates space for a new generation of criminal networks?
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Last year, nearly 500 people in Herat were arrested on kidnapping charges, compared with about a dozen five years ago, according to Afghan officials. Perpetrators asked for millions in ransom, targeting the families of industrialists, politicians and bankers, who typically remain quiet about the cases and often flee the country after the cases are resolved.
Other relatively peaceful parts of the country, including Kabul and Jalalabad, also have experienced a surge in abductions that weak police forces have been unable to stem, causing top U.S. and Afghan officials to worry about a threat to stability as insidious as any insurgency but with financial, not ideological, objectives.
The trend has been particularly alarming in Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city. Cross-border trade with Iran and Turkmenistan and a thriving marble industry — as well as distance from the insurgency’s southern and eastern strongholds — have aided Herat’s prosperity since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.Herat’s economy, with more than 20 percent annual growth over most of the past decade, has outpaced that of every other Afghan city.
Police investigations have yielded little insight into the character of the kidnapping networks plaguing Herat. There are mixed views about whether they are vast, well-connected enterprises or small-scale operations. Some Afghan officials contend part of the ransoms ends up in the hands of the Taliban, hundreds of miles away. Others say high-level government officials are involved.
The only consensus is that the crime spree has been a blow to growth and security.
“These are crimes that undermine the legitimacy of the government and could even lead to its toppling,” Abdul Raziq Nejrabi, the head of Herat’s national-security tribunal, which deals with kidnapping cases, said of the city and provincial administrations.
Ali Sena vanished in December on his way to school, a short walk from his home in an upper-middle-class residential neighborhood. His father, Naseer Ahmad Nowruzee, 41, who owns construction and money-exchange businesses, called the police and was told to wait — a request for ransom would come soon, as it always did.
“It was our greatest fear come true,” Nowruzee said.
Hours later, a man called to say that Ali Sena would be released for $400,000. Even for a successful Herat businessman, it was an extraordinary sum, more than 500 times the average yearly income in Afghanistan.
It took three weeks for Nowruzee to negotiate the ransom down to $65,000, an amount he could barely afford. In that time, the police traced phone calls and pursued leads in an unsuccessful attempt to identify and locate the kidnappers.
Soon, Nowruzee would learn that the man behind his son’s disappearance was the person he had trusted to protect his family from the growing kidnapping threat, the man Ali Sena called “my uncle,” his bodyguard, Abdul Samir.
In an interview at Herat’s provincial prison, Samir said he was inspired by kidnapping reports he had heard on TV and radio. It seemed like an easy way to make money, he said.
On that day in December, before Ali Sena reached school, Samir told the boy to hop on his motorcycle. Then he raced to a friend’s house, where Ali Sena was kept prisoner for five weeks.
Samir said he had planned to free Ali Sena when Nowruzee delivered the money.
But days after Nowruzee’s associate deposited bags full of $100 bills in an alley specified by kidnappers — after Ali Sena’s mother prepared his favorite meal, in anticipation of his return — there was still no sign of the boy.
There was no sign until early February, when police located the home where he had been kept. One of the kidnappers confessed and told authorities where to dig.
When they found Ali Sena’s body, police saw that he had been bludgeoned. According to forensic tests, he was buried alive. It was a level of violence new to Herat.
Word spread rapidly across Herat. The next day, more than 10,000 people closed their businesses and marched across the city behind Nowruzee, who held his son’s body.
“The death of human rights,” the crowd screamed.
The family refused to bury Ali Sena until the government gave assurance that his killers would be executed.
“We needed to send a message,” Nowruzee said. “This can’t continue happening. The Taliban never permitted this kind of criminal activity.”
A day later, as protests paralyzed the city, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called Nowruzee. He asked: Was there anything the government could do to help?
Nowruzee had only one demand: He wanted his son’s killers to be executed.
“You bury the child,” Karzai said in the conversation, which Nowruzee recorded and shared. (Officials from the presidential palace who insisted on anonymity confirmed that the account was accurate.) “I will issue the decree immediately and will speak with the chief justice.”
Nowruzee accepted the president’s pledge and buried his son.
In early March, a court sentenced Samir and an accomplice to death. Four others involved in the kidnapping were given six to 20 years in prison.
The other defendants said Samir ordered Ali Sena to be killed because otherwise the boy would be able to identify his kidnappers. Samir, in the interview, said another collaborator ordered the killing without his permission.
It appeared that Ali Sena’s death had become a tipping point, an outlet for public anger over an escalating problem that many say has been ignored by the Afghan government and Western forces because of the Taliban’s apparent lack of involvement.
“We worked hard for what we have, and now anyone with money is a target,” said Alhaj Siroos Allaf, deputy chairman of Herat’s Chamber of Commerce. “People are tired of being scared and receiving no help from the government. They are leaving Herat.”
Nowruzee has hired four new bodyguards. But he and his family don’t leave the house unless they have to. His wife, Nafisa Nabizada, is afraid to visit her son’s grave.
“I used to love my city and my country,” she said. “Now I’ve had enough of Afghanistan.”
Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report