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The Shadow Warrior: Jack Idema

How did a convicted con man and former Special Forces soldier end up in an Afghanistan prison? A true story from the dark side of the War on Terror

January 30, 2012 4:00 PM ET
jack idema
Jack Idema is escorted to a Kabul courtroom by an Afghan police officer.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

This story is from the May 19, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.

Pul-e-Charkhi Prison, a vast crumbling Afghan fortress twenty miles outside of Kabul, is not an easy place for an American to wind up. Its dank cellblocks house scores of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. Pul-e-Charkhi is also home to Jack Idema, a former U.S. Special Forces sergeant, who, in one of the more bizarre twists in the War on Terror, was arrested in Kabul last year and charged by Afghan authorities with running his own prison – a sort of freelance Abu Ghraib – where he was accused of torturing eight Afghan men he said were terrorists.

Only in the freewheeling atmosphere of post-Taliban Kabul could an American civilian like Idema swagger around town at the head of an armed, uniformed force on a mission to hunt down terrorists. Three years after the rout of the Taliban, the city is enjoying an unprecedented boom, yet it remains consumed by fears of terrorist attacks. The hulks of burned-out planes that once littered Kabul airport have finally been cleared away, but de-mining teams regularly sweep the runways. A couple of miles from the airport you enter a city where speeding Suvs driven by menacing gun-toting bodyguards weave through epic traffic jams. Building sites rise seemingly on every corner, construction that is partly fueled by Afghanistan's substantial heroin economy; embassies and Western-owned enterprises are sheltered behind enormous blast barriers and miles of razor wire.

Kabul's pleasantly edgy vibe has attracted its fair share of war junkies and mysterious guys in dark shades who aren't about to tell you what they do for a living. Ground zero for this crowd is the Mustafa hotel, a dingy joint where drinks are served by giggling Thai women from the massage parlor conveniently located inside the hotel. The king of the Mustafa scene, until his arrest last July, was Jack Idema, who first arrived in Kabul in fall 2001, shortly after the defeat of the Taliban.

Idema told those who were curious that he was doing humanitarian work or that he was a security consultant for journalists covering the war against the Taliban or that he was a special adviser to the Northern Alliance. If he really wanted to impress you, he might also tell you what his ultimate goal was: to be the guy who captured Osama bin Laden. Before his arrest, Idema was regarded around Kabul as something of a blowhard. It was only after he was detained that Idema's criminal history and chronic litigiousness, which included abetting wire fraud and unsuccessfully suing film director Steven Spielberg, became widely known, as did his penchant for threatening journalists and, on one occasion, shooting in their vicinity. It was perhaps inevitable that Idema, a convicted felon, was going to get into some kind of trouble in Afghanistan. And so he did, in a story that has unfolded like a movie written by a twenty-first-century Graham Greene, powered by a dark Middle-Eastern techno soundtrack by Deep Dish.

Idema straddled the civilian and military worlds in Afghanistan, a balancing act that attracted little comment until his arrest. That's because in today's U.S. military, functions that were once handled by the uniformed services have increasingly been taken over by civilians. In Afghanistan, American contractors do everything from guarding local bigwigs, including President Hamid Karzai, to conducting Al Qaeda interrogations.

Cruising around town in his SUV with his wraparound shades, AK-47, beard and almost-but-not-quite U.S. military uniform, Idema was able to convince a surprisingly large number of people in Kabul that he was a supersleuth terrorist hunter with connections to the most secretive units in the American military. The strangest thing of all is that Idema, a convicted con man who served four years in federal prison in the mid-Nineties, is telling the truth when he says that his terrorist-hunting operation in Kabul was known both at high levels of the Afghan government and within the murky world of U.S. military intelligence. What's more, he may indeed have disrupted a plot to assassinate officials in the Afghan government and carry out bombings in Kabul.

Jonathan K. Idema was born in 1956 in upstate New York, the only son of adoring and prosperous parents. As a child, Idema saw the John Wayne Vietnam War movie The Green Berets and immediately decided to drop his dream of becoming a veterinarian in favor of becoming a Special Forces soldier.

Idema enlisted in the Army in 1975, when he turned eighteen. He was too late for Vietnam – the last U.S. troops had just pulled out – but he qualified for the Special Forces, an elite unit that trains indigenous fighters in foreign countries. Idema served on active duty for three years as a radio operator and weapons specialist and later in the Reserves, holding the rank of staff sergeant when he was discharged in 1984.

Though Idema's military record reflects qualification as a pistol expert and badges awarded for scuba and parachute training, there are no indications that he ever heard a shot fired in anger while he was in the military. Moreover, a 1994 North Carolina probation report quotes a military evaluator describing Idema as "the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man I have ever known," and a letter of reprimand cited Idema's "gross immaturity characterized by irrationality and a tendency toward violence." The reprimand came after Idema "attempted to physically attack a senior commanding officer."

From this unremarkable military career, Idema has woven the tapestry of an extraordinary life story that, if it is true, makes him one of the giants of unconventional warfare. He said that after he left the Army, he worked as a U.S. military adviser in hot spots such as El Salvador and Honduras during the mid-Eighties and claimed that while he was stationed in Honduras he was part of an American "SMU – Special Mission Unit." Though he won't reveal exactly what this means, he said that secret military records exist – "the ones that they don't want to give anyone" – that would confirm his career as an American covert warrior.

Some of Idema's stories can be verified. During the Eighties, he trained guards to protect U.S. government interests in Haiti, and he worked in some capacity with the Thai military, exploits supported by documents provided to me by his former business partner, Thomas Bumback. During this period, Idema and Bumback ran a company that oversaw a counterterrorism training school, the Counterr Group, in upstate New York, which catered to a wide range of clients, including the then-president's son, Ron Reagan Jr.

While he was running his counter-terrorism school, Idema was also racking up an impressive number of brushes with the law, including a 1982 arrest on a charge of possessing stolen property, a 1986 charge of resisting arrest and assault with intent to physically harm, a 1988 arrest for disorderly conduct and a 1990 arrest for assault involving discharging a firearm. But federal records indicate that there were no convictions in these cases.

In 1991, Idema traveled to Lithuania, which had just split away from the Soviet Union, to train local police forces. There, Idema said he discovered a black market worth millions of dollars in backpack-size nuclear weapons, known as special-atomic-demolition munitions, an ideal weapon for terrorists. David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector who is one the world's leading authorities on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, told me that experts view such stories of a black market in so-called suitcase nukes as "myths." Be that as it may, Idema said he briefed a senior Pentagon official, Timothy Connolly, about suitcase nukes in summer 1992. According to Idema, that then led to a contentious meeting in December 1992 with a senior FBI official, who wanted access to his Lithuanian sources, which Idema refused to provide because he believed the FBI had been penetrated by Russian agents. "That," he said, "started a shit storm of biblical proportions."

In Idema's account, the FBI then set out to destroy him, tarring him with more than fifty counts of wire fraud that put him in federal prison for four years during the mid-Nineties. However, U.S. law enforcement officials actually began investigating Idema in May 1991, more than a year before he supposedly refused to hand over his Lithuanian sources to the FBI. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms noted in a report filed during the course of the investigation that Idema was "known to have a fictitious major's ID from the Army" and was "disbarred from Army contracts on June 18, 1990... after he misrepresented his business as being owned by a [minority]."

Between 1994 and 1997, while Idema was locked up in a series of federal prisons, he entered into an intense correspondence with a woman he had never met, the wonderfully named Viktoria Running Wolf, who would eventually become his wife. Running Wolf, an attractive blond in her early forties living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, told me that when she first met Idema a few months after his release from jail, "I knew right then I was going to have my hands full. I knew it from the time he said hello."

With Running Wolf at his side, Idema started putting his life back together. Both dog lovers, they hit upon the idea of setting up a hotel for pets, The Ultimate Pet Resort, in Fayetteville. And then came the 9/11 attacks – a life-transforming event for Idema. "I had a house and a hot tub, and I had a beautiful wife. I was making good money," he said. "And then they blew the fucking World Trade Center up; my whole life changed. I'm a fucking New Yorker. I'm going to kill every goddamn one of them until I drop dead." His wife supported him in his mission. "A lot of us put yellow ribbons on our cars or flags on our houses," she said. "My husband decided to go over to Afghanistan and hunt the bad guys."

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