- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

BANGKOK — American bounty hunter Jonathan “Jack” Keith Idema, who is on trial in a Kabul court on charges of torturing Afghans in his own private jail, arrived in Afghanistan alongside U.S. forces in 2001 and enjoyed threatening to kill journalists.

“That’s what I love about Afghanistan, if you tell someone you are going to kill them, they believe you,” Mr. Idema, a self-described former U.S. Special Forces soldier, said during several exclusive interviews in December 2001 and January 2002 in Kabul.

“If I’m in New York and I tell someone I’m going to kill them, they say, ‘Yeah? Well, I’m going to kill you first.’ But not Afghanistan. Here they believe you.”

The flamboyant, often profane, defendant has been at the center of an international media firestorm since his July 5 arrest. Mr. Idema and two colleagues — Brett Bennett, another former soldier, and cameraman Ed Caraballo — were arrested after a brief shootout in Kabul.

On Aug. 16, the three Americans appeared in court in Kabul to deny charges that they kidnapped and tortured Afghans whom they kept in a private jail. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Mr. Idema told the court he was hunting for terrorists with the knowledge of the U.S. government. The Pentagon denied Mr. Idema worked for them.

A U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Maj. Scott Nelson, said this week that the Pentagon is looking into Mr. Idema’s claims that he had contacted U.S. officials about his operation, but strongly suggested Mr. Idema had concocted the entire exercise.

“He was operating by himself there with the delusion that he was able to do great things for the world,” Maj. Nelson said.

The U.S. military has acknowledged receiving one detainee from Mr. Idema, a man later released after he proved not to be the senior Taliban operative Mr. Idema said he was.

Mr. Idema’s contradictory, combustible personality was already on display in those interviews in the early days of the Afghan campaign.

In the winter of 2001-02, the short, stocky Mr. Idema liked to dye his salt-and-pepper hair black and show off his pistol and his Kalashnikov assault rifle, which he occasionally fired using bullets capable of piercing body armor.

He traveled with a handful of young, armed Afghan men whom he ordered about, often shoving wads of cash into their hands and waving a big hunting knife at them while laughing with maniacal glee.

In one truly terrifying display, Mr. Idema threatened to murder an American reporter working for Stars and Stripes newspaper after the journalist revealed that Mr. Idema served time in a U.S. prison several years earlier for a “white-collar crime.”

“I just might have to kill you!” an irate Mr. Idema shouted at the reporter during a December 2001 party while other foreign correspondents quickly exited the room, leaving the two men to argue amid frosted cake and drinks.

“You don’t believe me? Test me. Just test me. But get out of here now before I do.”

The shaken journalist was hosting the party in a house he rented, and politely reminded Mr. Idema that this was his house.

“You think this house is yours?” Mr. Idema yelled at him, adding more expletives and threats until the journalist left the room.

As a result of Mr. Idema’s menacing behavior, most journalists avoided him, dismissing him as a troublemaker who liked to brandish weapons and “play soldier” amid the anarchy of war.

Mr. Idema, however, insisted he was acting to protect innocent Afghans from being exploited and abused, either by the U.S. invasion force or by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and its allies in the ousted Taliban regime.

When asked in an interview whom he really worked for, Mr. Idema grinned and said: “I work for God and country.” After much coaxing, he displayed a resume that he kept on his laptop which listed military badges he said he had earned, including “parachute wings” citations from El Salvador, Thailand, Germany and Nicaragua.

His resume including listings for “11 years in the United States Army Special Forces, 18 years in Special Operations,” and “military adviser in Nicaragua and South Africa” in 1978.

Over the next two decades, again according to the resume, Mr. Idema’s various jobs included: training SWAT teams for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.; advising U.S. diplomatic guards during an attempted coup in Haiti; teaching presidential son Ron Reagan Jr. how to handle firearms; and serving as “director of training for the U.S. Park Service and Park Police for the Statue of Liberty re-dedication ceremonies” in 1986.

His biography stopped in 1991.

Asked about the 1990s, Mr. Idema replied, “For over 10 years, I’ve been ‘black,’” implying secret missions he could not divulge.

In Afghanistan, he called himself “a civilian adviser to the Northern Alliance” of Afghans who were helping U.S.-led forces topple the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies.

“I am a [former] Green Beret,” no longer on active military service, he said. “My original purpose here was to help humanitarian aid efforts to both the Northern Alliance and the Afghan people.”

He claimed to have sent a report to the Defense Department which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also read, describing problems with U.S. food aid during the first months of the war.

He boasted that armed Afghans recently threatened him on a road near the eastern city of Jalalabad, until he shouted that he was an American and bluffed that if anyone hurt him, a retaliatory U.S. air strike would obliterate the place.

Laughing as he recalled the incident, Mr. Idema said the Afghans suddenly became gracious and allowed him to continue his journey.

In January 2002, he said, his personal Northern Alliance “intelligence assets” discovered videotapes showing al Qaeda operatives teaching foreign fighters how to kidnap, bomb and assassinate people.

The Pentagon tried to block his attempts to sell copies of the seven-hour-long videotapes to television broadcasters, Mr. Idema complained. But he eventually sold the videotapes and still photographs for thousands of dollars to television networks and an international photo agency.

Asked to show a reporter where the al Qaeda tape was filmed, Mr. Idema initially demanded $100 for access to the secret site. But he eventually dropped the request and led the way to a bomb-littered compound in Mir Bacheh Kowt village, 15 miles north of Kabul.

The heavily damaged buildings formerly housed a school. But the site was littered with unused rockets, land mines, bullets and other ammunition scattered on the floor in dangerous heaps.

The videotapes showed foreign men at the compound, disguised as janitors and golfers, acting out strategies to seize and kill hostages.

A fake janitor, for example, was filmed sweeping in front of a building while office workers entered and exited. After a while, the janitor moved his broom cart into the foyer and, sweeping and keeping his head down, slowly climbed the stairs to sweep an upper hallway.

At a key moment, the janitor dropped his broom and pulled weapons out of his broom cart, blasting preselected targets and chasing people into groups so they could be taken onto the roof as hostages while other terrorists emerged from their sleeper positions.

“When the hostage thing started, [the janitor] went and pulled out a handgun,” Mr. Idema explained during the tour of the training camp.

He was proud about getting the videotapes, and delighted to cash in on the TV and photo rights.

“It just goes to prove a point: One guy, operating by himself independently with the indigenous population, can gain more intelligence than 5,000 guys in a room watching satellites,” he said.

Mr. Idema’s notorious mood swings, meanwhile, continued.

At a party in Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, Mr. Idema heard a CNN employee belittle his analysis of the Afghan war and denounce Mr. Idema as “some old guy” who knew nothing.

“I will break your legs, I will break your arms,” Mr. Idema suddenly raged, moving in on the CNN employee who became wide-eyed and distressed when he realized Mr. Idema’s fury.

After the CNN representative nervously apologized, the confrontation dissolved into jokes, but Mr. Idema’s performance proved he could intimidate people.

But his real goal in Afghanistan, he said, was to “build a security force [in Kabul] with a whole bunch of former Special Forces guys,” to help the Afghan government train Afghans so they could be bodyguards and commandos in a new, democratic Afghanistan.

“We will start with 100 [Afghan trainees] and we’ll try to get it up to 500,” he said.

“They will be to protect journalists, protect aid workers, protect foreign dignitaries and protect their own dignitaries. It won’t be private. It will be Afghan government.”

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