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The Shadow Warrior: Jack Idema

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Caraballo told me that he had been planning to make a documentary about Idema for some time before he set out to Afghanistan in April 2004. "He's definitely a newsworthy subject," Caraballo said, "whether he's an angel of mercy or an angel of death – and perhaps he could be construed as both." Also along for the Kabul trip was an Idema protege. Brent Bennett, a mild mannered twenty-eight-year-old from Northern California who'd been working at Running Wolf's pet resort. Bennett "was completely infatuated with Jack," said Running Wolf. "He wanted so much to have this purpose other than the pet resort and the girls in his life." As Bennett, a former soldier in the 82nd Airborne, explained it, Idema had "done a lot of things I've always wanted to do, and then I asked him if he'd bring me along to Afghanistan... Who wouldn't want to stop terrorists?"

Once in Kabul, Idema rented a two-story house behind a high wall in a quiet residential area. According to an account in the New York Times, inside the house there were two clocks, one showing the time in Kabul and the other the time at Special Forces command in Fort Bragg, while a piece of paper tacked to a wall listed "Missions to Complete," from "Karzai" to "Pick up laundry.

Idema got to work on setting up his terrorist-busting operation. At least one U.S. military official seemed convinced that Idema was doing good work. In a videotape surreptitiously recorded by Caraballo in Kabul in spring 2004, here's what Capt. B.J. Donnelly had to say about Idema: "[He] works on counterterrorism out of New York for guys way, way, way above my pay grade... Basically, these guys are rolling up AQ [Al Qaeda] like it's nobody's business." Idema said he was also assigned a Defense Intelligence Agency liaison in Afghanistan, but a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan did not respond to requests to confirm whether this is true.

As spring turned into summer, Idema was back in his element. In Fayetteville, he was just another working stiff taking out the garbage and helping out the wife. In Kabul, he was running his own paramilitary operation, which he took to calling Task Force Saber 7 and outfitted in uniforms with American flags on the sleeves. Indeed, Idema claimed to have solved the world's biggest mystery: the exact location of Osama bin Laden. In faxes sent last March to officials at the Pentagon, Idema said he had tracked bin Laden down to a specific address in the Hayatabad suburb of Peshawar, Pakistan. But according to Ismail Khan, the highly regarded Peshawar bureau chief of Dawn newspaper, the address that Idema gave the Pentagon officials did not exist.

Idema had more success with a series of raids of suspected terrorist hide-outs in Kabul early last summer. Cmdr. Chris Henderson, a spokesman for Afghanistan's International Security Assistance Force, known as Isaf, told reporters that Idema had called in bomb-disposal teams from Isaf to check houses and vehicles in Kabul on three separate occasions in June. According to Henderson, those bomb teams found traces of explosives in two instances and suspicious electronic components in the third case, seemingly substantiating Idema's claims that some of the Afghans he had arrested were planning terrorist bombings.

It was Idema's decision late last June to arrest Afghan Supreme Court judge Maulawi Siddiqullah that put in motion the chain of events that landed him in jail. He had planned the dawn raid meticulously, worrying that the warren of narrow Kabul streets leading to Siddiqullah's compound might be a death trap. "I'm fucking envisioning Somalia right now," he said. "All I can see is Mogadishu and fucking rockets hitting us from every side." For backup, Idema called in a contingent of German soldiers who were supported by a helicopter buzzing overhead, in a show of overwhelming force. The operation went smoothly, netting Siddiqullah and one of his brothers, who, Idema said was plotting to assassinate Yunus Qanooni, Afghanistan's then-education minister.

While it's clear that a number of U.S. military officials both in Afghanistan and Washington knew about Idema's activities, and even approved of them in a wink-and-a-nod kind of a way. Idema's freelance operation simply became a public embarrassment around the time that he snatched the Supreme Court judge. After the judge's arrest, U.S. officials put out wanted posters for Idema around Kabul, stating that he was "armed and dangerous" and that he was "interfering with military ops." Idema, at this point, was laying low, as he was holding the judge and seven others in his Kabul town house.

Within a few days, local authorities caught up with him and arrested the members of Task Force Saber 7 on July 5th. Idema's wife recalled that she was in her Fayetteville home "having coffee, watching the Today show, and I see my husband's picture on the TV being led out in frigging handcuffs... I'm going, 'Holy shit!'"

After Idema's arrest, Afghan officials told reporters that he'd had only the most casual of contacts with the Afghan government, yet the record shows that he had a wide range of dealings with Afghan cabinet officials, diplomats and army officers. Afghan officials also briefed reporters about the beatings Idema had administered his prisoners, and how he hung them from the ceiling by the feet. These allegations came just a few months after the revelations of the abuses perpetrated by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which gave added traction to the notion that Idema was running a freelance bounty-hunting and torture operation. During his trial, Idema's former prisoners testified that they had been beaten, hooded, given little food and had their heads dunked in a bucket of water to the point that they almost passed out. But none of those witnesses were cross-examined, and Idema and his colleagues denied using anything other than standard, nonviolent interrogation techniques.

On a cloudless October day, I was escorted through the clanging corridors of Pul-e-Charkhi prison for my first meeting with Idema. A month earlier he had been sentenced to ten years in this dingy dungeon. I was led to a prison waiting room and, suddenly, in strolled Idema, uncuffed. I wasn't prepared for how short he is, maybe five nine. He was like a bantamweight boxer, a coiled, nervy guy in shades who started peppering me with hostile questions. Before he would agree to be interviewed, the litigation-happy Idema asked me to sign a document that I would keep copies of the tapes of my interviews, in the event that he might decide to sue Rolling Stone.

Idema was followed in by cameraman Ed Caraballo, an intense, observant, birdlike presence dressed in a traditional shalwar kameez, who fingered a set of prayer beads as he told me that he had recently converted to Islam. Next came Brent Bennett, a shaggy bear of a young man who let Idema do most of the talking. Over the course of three days of interviews with the members of Task Force Saber 7, I came to understand them a little better. Parts of the interview were conducted in the waiting room, until we were moved because prison officials were concerned that we might be attacked by Al Qaeda members jailed on the same cellblock. We were then led down a gloomy corridor lined with heavily bearded prisoners, who all looked like Taliban leader Mullah Omar, to a claustrophobic six-foot-by-six-foot cell that was home to the three Americans.

Despite the privations, Idema seemed to be having a blast in jail, bossing the orderlies around, kibitzing with prison officials and generally treating the maximum-security prison as if it were a neighborhood Starbucks. The first thing that Idema wanted to tell me was that conditions in the jail were very difficult for Caraballo. "Brent and I are soldiers," said Idema. "This is nothing for us. I have to tell you, Ed is fucking horrible. It is really, really bad for Ed. He looks great to you right now, but trust me, he is not coping well." When I talked to Caraballo, however, he seemed philosophical about his fate. "I'm not the first journalist to be incarcerated," he said, "and I won't be the last... The only regret is not being able to see my daughter. She's three."

When I asked Idema who was sponsoring his operation in Afghanistan, an endeavor that required the rental of a house, vehicles, office equipment and payment for his Afghan helpers, he gave the following unhelpful answer: "Figure it out on your own. I've always basically said, 'Fuck off' to that. But I will tell you, there are angels and organizations that believe in what we do."

Central to Idema's worldview is that the FBI has been pursuing a vendetta against him for years, a vendetta that accounts for his conviction on the fraud charges in the mid-Nineties and for his present incarceration in Afghanistan. "The last thing the FBI wanted was me rounding up these terrorists," he said.

Halfway through the second day of my visit, prison officials interrupted the interview to say that they were moving the Americans. We all then loaded into a van and were driven to another part of the prison, where we were taken to Task Force Saber 7's new living quarters: a spacious living-dining room outfitted with a satellite television and carpeted with garish rugs, leading to a separate bedroom and bathroom. Greeting us in the living room was Abdul Salam Bakhshi, Afghanistan's director of the Bureau of Prisons, surrounded by prison officials wearing elaborate uniforms of the type worn by doormen at grand European hotels. Bakhshi then presided over a stilted ceremony handing over the quarters to Task Force Saber 7. Idema choked back tears as he thanked the officials.

The improvements in the living conditions of Idema and his colleagues indicated that Idema continued to enjoy the support of certain high-ranking Afghan officials and also a realization in certain quarters of the Afghan government that justice had not been served in the case. Indeed, the trial of Idema and his colleagues this past summer had played out like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta as directed by Woody Allen. In a courtroom mobbed by the international media, incompetent translators made the proceedings largely incomprehensible to participants, and Idema himself interrupted the trial with loud outbursts and impromptu press conferences. At one point, he even appeared to have converted to Islam, declaring with his hand on the Koran, "There is no God but the one God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God." This seemingly spontaneous conversion was greeted by shouts of Allahu akbar! – God is great! – in the courtroom, a chant led by none other than Supreme Court Justice Siddiqullah, Idema's former prisoner.

As the case made its way through Afghanistan's labyrinthine legal system, more exculpatory information kept coming to light. In July, a U.S. military spokesman admitted that an Afghan prisoner turned over by Idema was detained at Bagram Air Base, outside of Kabul, for several weeks. This admission indicated that U.S. military authorities in Afghanistan were generally aware of Idema's activities. Defense attorneys contend that further exculpatory evidence emerged at a hearing in mid-August when defense lawyer Michael Skibbie played a videotape shot by Caraballo that showed one of Idema's prisoners, under no apparent duress, confessing to a plan to kill Yunus Qanooni, the Afghan education minister. Skibbie also showed a subsequent video of Qanooni congratulating Idema for thwarting the assassination plot and offering him additional Afghan government help to arrest other terrorists. Bizarrely, the judge presiding over the case. Abdel Basit Bakhtiari, then publicly conceded that Idema was indeed saving the lives of important Afghan officials. "You have saved the life of Minister Qanooni, and the people you have arrested were terrorists and Al Qaeda," the judge said. "But what we want you to prove first is the legitimacy of your operation in Afghanistan."

During the trial it was also revealed that the FBI had taken a substantial number of documents and videotapes from Idema's Kabul house after his arrest last July and that the bureau withheld these materials from defense lawyers without explanation for three weeks. In a case that was supposed to be about the need for Afghanistan to uphold its own laws, this was curious, since the FBI has no jurisdiction in the Afghan legal system. Additionally, Caraballo said some videotapes he'd recorded that would have helped Task Force Saber 7's case were erased during the time they were held by the FBI: "Three conversations... [about] the support the Department of Defense has for [Idema], praising him for his good work."

Finally, on the last day of the trial, Idema's lawyer, John Tiffany, played tapes of two conversations between Idema and staffers in the office of Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, a senior Pentagon official, who had recently attracted press scrutiny for delivering speeches in uniform to church groups suggesting that the war on terrorism was really a war against Satan. In one conversation, a Boykin aide is heard telling Idema, "We passed all your information to the Ja [intelligence] staff here and to DIA [the Defense Intelligence Agency]. And we were trying to protect our boss [Boykin] from getting associated with it, because he doesn't need any other scrutiny right now by the press." In another conversation, a Boykin staffer told Idema, "I told General Boykin you called. I gave him the information."

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