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.”
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Idema called a friend, National Geographic television producer Gary Scurka, asking him if he wanted to document some humanitarian work he was planning in Afghanistan. Things started going wrong almost from the start of the project. In October 2001, Scurka and Idema set off for Afghanistan via Uzbekistan, where they were detained for not having visas. Scurka recalled that Idema worked his contacts in the U.S. government and “American officials got us out of detention.” The pair then traveled to neighboring Tajikistan, where they hooked up with thirty-two-year-old cameraman and director Neil Barrett, a laid-back Englishman whose first impressions of Idema weren’t favorable. “This is the guy who is going to take us into Afghanistan?” Barrett remembered thinking. He added, “One of his first comments to me was: Did I have an exit strategy? And I’m thinking, ‘I have walked into a fucking movie.'”
Idema and the National Geographic team crossed the Tajik border into northern Afghanistan, where they were planning to make a documentary about Ed Artis, a fifty-six-year-old Californian who runs a private charity, Knights-bridge International, which specializes in delivering relief to some of the world’s most dangerous places. Artis quickly came to loathe Idema. Even though Idema was ostensibly there to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Afghans, Artis said Idema had another agenda: to provide Northern Alliance fighters with military supplies, which jeopardized Artis’ efforts to deliver desperately needed aid to thousands of Afghan civilians. “He’s the dumbest fuck I’ve ever met,” said Artis. (Idema and Artis are now tied up in litigation.)
On the fourth day of filming, Barrett and Scurka were near the front lines between the Northern Alliance and Taliban positions on a hill that began taking incoming Taliban fire. Scurka recalled that he heard “the crack of artillery, and a telltale whistle got very noticeable. Then the shell hit. For a split second I thought my leg was blown off.”
Scurka was evacuated back to the United States, which put an end to Idema’s role in the documentary project since Artis refused to be part of any film that involved him. And so Idema’s first foray into Afghanistan ended up being a fiasco, but even his detractors will concede that Idema is not a man who is easily deterred. Several weeks later, in December 2001, Idema showed up at the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, where bin Laden and hundreds of other members of Al Qaeda were holed up in mountain hideouts. It was at Tora Bora that Idema began making a number of contacts with journalists, who were pleasantly surprised to find a Special Forces-type dude who would actually talk to the media.
But it was Idema’s longstanding relationship with Robin Moore, the author of titles ranging from The Green Berets to The French Connection, which would burnish his image as an authority on the Afghan war. Moore’s 2003 best-seller, The Hunt for bin Laden, described by the Washington Post as “fast-paced and immensely entertaining,” portrayed Idema as he sees himself: an American icon.
Idema, who had arrived in Afghanistan calling himself Keith and was now going by Jack, was both an important source for the book and provided many of the photographs used to illustrate it, including his photo on the cover. In the book’s acknowledgments, Moore even thanks “an anonymous Green Beret” for “day-and-night rewrites in the final months.” The anonymous Green Beret is, of course, Idema.
In one passage, as the war against the Taliban is winding down in the winter of 2001, Idema is back at his favorite spot, the rooftop of Kabul’s Mustafa hotel, which he has christened “Jack’s Tora Bora Cafe.” In a sentimental mood, fortified by vodka, Idema thinks back over the war:
“God I hate it when a war ends.”… His teary eyes glassed over from the booze… In January, Jack uncovered an Al Qaeda plot to kill President Clinton. In March, standing in the middle of a Kabul street armed with a Russian assault rifle and 600 rounds of ammunition, Jack held off Islamic fundamentalists for four hours as they tried to take eighteen foreign citizens hostage.
Despite the fact that Idema said all this is true, there are no independent news accounts that support these vivid exploits. But one scrape that Idema is known to have been a part of is missing from Moore’s book. Here is how Tod Robberson, of the Dallas Morning News, described it in his newspaper: “This reporter was five feet away from Mr. Idema on April 20, 2002, when he drew a pistol during an argument and fired a bullet that went through a couch and lodged in a wall behind me … missing my heart by about eight inches.” When I asked Idema whether he had indeed shot in Robberson’s direction, he didn’t deny it, insisting that, “He wasn’t even close. Trust me, he was on the other side of the room.” Another American journalist, who was present at the incident, confirmed the details of Robberson’s account.
Idema’s relations with other members of the media would prove to be more congenial and, occasionally, lucrative. He was the source for hours of Al Qaeda videotapes purportedly discovered by the Northern Alliance, the highlights of which were broadcast by 60 Minutes II in January 2002. The 60 Minutes II story showed Arabs performing paramilitary training in the small Afghan town of Mir Bacha Kot and also featured Idema as an expert on-camera commentator. “I didn’t know what to make of him,” said Dan Rather, the correspondent on the story. “But I rather liked him… He’s an adventurer, but an adventurer with a conscience.”
Last October, New York magazine raised the possibility that the Al Qaeda videotapes Idema supplied to 60 Minutes II were faked, a seemingly plausible scenario given Idema’s previous fraud conviction. But when I visited the town of Mir Bacha Kot, about a half-hour north of Kabul, Deputy Police Chief Mohammed Araf told me that Arabs had indeed used the town as a military base under the Taliban, and the buildings in Mir Bacha Kot match those on the Idema supplied tapes. A journalist from a leading U.S. media organization who evaluated the tapes told me he had no doubt they were authentic but passed on them only because Idema was demanding tens of thousands of dollars for them.
In Afghanistan, Idema was finally doing the things he had always claimed to be doing in Central America during the 1980s: accompanying local guerrilla forces into battle in an exotic land, just like John Wayne in The Green Berets. For much of the year following the 9/11 attacks, he traveled the length and breadth of Afghanistan, establishing ties with military commanders in the Northern Alliance. In March 2002, Susan Glasser, a reporter for the Washington Post, met with Idema at his house in Kabul. Operation Anaconda was then under way in central-eastern Afghanistan, in which several hundred American soldiers and their Afghan allies were trying to encircle Al Qaeda and Taliban forces dug into mountain redoubts. Glasser said Idema showed her an Suv loaded with boxes of what he said were medical supplies that he was going to deliver to the Afghan forces. The supplies were all marked Fort Bragg, the North Carolina headquarters of Special Forces, seeming to suggest that Idema still had some kind of tie to the Green Berets.
In summer 2002, Idema returned to the States after his mother died unexpectedly, Viktoria Running Wolf remembered her husband wasn’t happy to be leaving Afghanistan. “He had found a new niche in life and it showed on his face,” she said. “He was the most bitter human being when he came home that I have ever met.”
Idema began planning his return to Afghanistan during the winter of 2003. His old Afghan sources had tipped him off to active terrorist cells in Kabul. On this trip, Idema would be accompanied by Ed Caraballo, a forty-three-year-old director and cameraman from the Bronx, who got his start directing TV-Cbgb, a cable show about the East Village punk scene in the early Eighties, and who later went on to establish a solid career in the news business. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper told me that when he was a correspondent at ABC News in the late Nineties, “I continually hired Ed because he was the best camera man that I ever worked with.”
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.”
These conversations indicate that Idema’s terrorist-hunting operation was known of at high levels in the Pentagon. But Idema did not have written authorization from either government for his activities, and in the end that would prove to be his undoing. As Mohammed Nahim Dawari, the prosecutor in the Idema case, explained to me, “Idema presented himself like a film star. He tried to deceive Afghan officials. He used the ID of the U.S. government to pretend he was an American soldier. If Idema wanted to come on a mission in Afghanistan, then he needed proper authorization from the U.S. government. If he had the proper authorization, then we would not have arrested him.”
On September 15th, 2004, Judge Bakhtiari sentenced Bennett and Idema to ten years each. Idema’s wife told me that when she heard the news, “I just fell to the floor. I just fell to the floor drunk. For two days straight.” Caraballo was sentenced to eight years. His punitive sentence was especially perplexing. “All Eddie did was document what Idema was doing,” said Robert Fogelnast, his lawyer. “Eddie got an all-access backstage pass to the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. The American government has chosen to bury Eddie Caraballo alive.” Puzzlingly, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York organization that is supposed to advocate for mistreated journalists around the world, has done nothing to protest Caraballo’s sentence.
In an effort to try and clear up some of the mysteries surrounding the Idema case, I interviewed Afghan Supreme Court Justice Siddiqullah, the most prominent of Idema’s former prisoners. Siddiqullah, a jovial, heavily bearded forty-nine-year-old cleric, was wearing Islamic dress and a white turban shot through with gold filigree when I met with him in the spacious downtown Kabul office where he resolves tribal disputes. He described the morning last June when Idema arrested him. At 6:30 A.M. there was a bang at his front door, he said. The judge then stood up and mimed out how somebody “acting like James Bond”-Idema, of course-came into the house waving a weapon, shouting, “Hands up! Hands up!” Also taken into custody were two of Siddiqullah’s brothers as well as four other relatives and a family retainer – the eight prisoners who would be discovered by Afghan authorities when they later busted Idema’s jail. Siddiqullah told me, “The first night, around midnight, I heard the screams of four people. They then poured very cold water on me. I tried to keep myself from screaming, but couldn’t. Then they played loud, strange music. Then they prevented me from going to the bathroom; a terrible situation. I was hooded for twelve days.”
I asked the judge why he thought his family had been targeted by Idema, to which he replied, “No clue.” When I asked him if I could meet with any of the other members of his family who had been abused by Idema, he became strangely evasive. Eventually he said that I could come to his home. Once there, he pointed out the bullet holes in the ceiling that Idema’s team had made the morning of the arrests. Siddiqullah then introduced me to his brother Malikyar, whom Idema had said is a terrorist. Siddiqullah told me that Malikyar had been tortured, that his rib was broken and that a cigarette was stubbed out on his hand. But Malikyar behaved in a weirdly hostile manner to me and refused to answer any questions about his treatment by Idema. Then Siddiqullah admitted in an aside that he himself was once affiliated with Hezbi-Islami, the party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a onetime U.S. ally who has been branded one of the most wanted terrorists in Afghanistan. Now I was getting seriously confused, especially when I thought back to Siddiqullah’s earlier suggestion to me that, as far as he was concerned, the whole Idema case could have been resolved if his family were paid 900,000 Afghanis in compensation, about $20,000
My discussions with Siddiqullah added to my growing skepticism about aspects of the case against Idema and his colleagues. I traveled back to Kabul in January to interview the three judges who were hearing the appeals of the members of Task Force Saber 7. Sitting in their office in the Supreme Court, we all huddled around a wood stove that was barely warding off the intense chill of Kabul’s winter. The chief judge, Mohammed Ismail Abid, explained that the whole Idema affair had mushroomed needlessly out of control because of all the attention it had received in the media. “In my opinion, Jack was trying to help against Al Qaeda and terrorism,” said the judge. “We did not want to make this a big case. We wanted to deal with it diplomatically.” It seemed to me that the judges were broadly sympathetic to Task Force Saber 7’s case and were keeping an open mind about the evidence. The judges said that they had recently ordered the release of four Afghans who had been helping Idema, all of whom were employees of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense and one of whom was a major. This admission established that the Afghan government had given some kind of official sanction to Idema’s activities. One of the judges also conceded that one of the people Task Force Saber 7 had detained, a man named Sher Jan, was concealing explosives when he was picked up, an indicator that Idema’s terrorist-busting operation had met with some success. However, one of the judges, who had said nothing during the conversation as he fiddled with his prayer beads, finally turned to me to ask, “I have one question for you: Can Afghans open a private prison in the United States?” The question wasn’t really meant to be answered.
I then went back to Pul-e-Charkhi prison to spend another couple of days with Idema and the others. Their cell had now taken on the comfortable look of a frat-house rec room. Scores of DVDs lined a shelf near a television, and a selection of Christmas cards decorated a table. The comfort of the cell belied the fact that two weeks earlier, the three Americans had been the target of an Al Qaeda-led prison riot that resulted in the deaths of four guards and four prisoners. According to a guard named Torialy, an Iraqi prisoner who went by the name of Bokan recruited three Pakistani prisoners to seize weapons from prison officials in an operation to take out the Americans. “If we didn’t kill them, they would have killed Mr. Jack,” Torialy said. Another guard told me, “Two of them were Osama’s men.” As prison officers traded automatic-weapons fire with the rioting Al Qaeda prisoners, the members of Task Force Saber 7 barricaded themselves in their cell. After a twelve-hour standoff, the four Al Qaeda prisoners were killed, along with the Afghan guards who, Idema said, “died defending our lives.”
Despite the recent efforts by fellow Iraqi and Pakistani prisoners to kill them, the members of Task Force Saber 7 remain cautiously optimistic that the appeals process might eventually spring them from Pul-e-Charkhi. Indeed, in April an appeals court cut Idema’s sentence from ten years to five, Brent Bennett’s from ten to three, and Ed Caraballo’s from eight to two. They are now all appealing their cases to the Afghan Supreme Court. Caraballo told me that whether he gets out of jail soon or at the end of his sentence, he intends to complete his Idema documentary “if the FBI doesn’t find some way to send me to Guantánamo or somehow stop me from making my film.”
When I asked Idema what he planned to do once he was finally released, he said, “Go home and see my wife. Come back… because I have total sense of mission. That’s all I fucking see… One day, I’ll finally get bin Laden in front of a machine gun.”