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The fog and dog of war
By David Isenberg

The continuing saga of Jonathan Keith "Jack" Idema, bounty hunter and vigilante extraordinaire in a theatrical sort of way, lurched from the merely absurd, and occasionally farcical, to the surreal this week as his trial got under way in Afghanistan.

Idema is the ringleader of a trio of Americans arrested in Kabul for conducting a self-appointed, freelance so-called counter-terrorism mission that included holding eight Afghans in a private jail. He faces charges of kidnapping, imprisoning and torturing Afghans.

The two other Americans are Edward Caraballo, a cameraman who was making a documentary, and Brett Bennett, another former soldier. Four Afghans employed by Idema are also on trial.

Ironically, Caraballo was part of a TV movie team that has been struggling since 1994 to tell and sell Idema's life story. The project's working title was "Loose Cannon: The Keith Idema Story".

Idema is a, barely, former Green Beret. After three years' service more than 20 years ago he was ordered never to re-enlist again. He claims to have links with Afghan militia forces. He first appeared in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001 when US and allied Afghan forces routed the Taliban. He made a living offering his services to Western television networks, including a videotape showing a purported al-Qaeda training facility near Kabul, and later prominently featured in a top-selling, albeit highly sensational and somewhat ludicrous, book by Robin Moore called The Hunt for bin Laden.

Idema has been called colorful, but that does not begin to do him justice. Bloggers such as Flogging the Simian who have followed his career closely note that his past achievements, to name just a few, include claiming proof of an Iraq-al Qaeda connection; miraculously finding evidence that al-Qaeda was planning to assassinate then US president Bill Clinton; and running, with his girlfriend, a business called "Special Operations Exposition & Trade Show Inc", for which he was convicted of defrauding companies of about US$270,000 worth of merchandise. The two of them set up a series of false companies to get credit in order to get supplies to send to their customers. Idema served prison time for that, which seems appropriate considering he now faces up to 20 years' imprisonment in Afghanistan.

Calling Idema a glory hound understates the case. His need for publicity seems almost pathological. He has assiduously courted attention from the news media and has appeared in interviews on major networks, including CBS's 60 Minutes II and Fox News, and was even a news analyst for the latter for a time. He also received a 2001 National Press Club award for online journalism.

Now meet Robert Young Pelton, an adventurer who makes it a habit of going where most people fear to tread, ie, war and conflict zones. Pelton is the author of the well-known travel guide World's Most Dangerous Places and host of a show by the same name on the Discovery network. He is also the author of an upcoming book on private military contractors, due out next year from Crown Books.

In his travels Pelton has been in Afghanistan many times, for both National Geographic and CNN, and is familiar with the saga of Idema. He has reason to be.

After US forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001, Pelton scored the first interview with wanna-be jihadi Johnny Walker Lindh. Subsequently, Lindh's lawyers tried to convince the US court where Lindh was tried that Pelton was a government agent.

According to Pelton, National Geographic TV was supposed to send him into Afghanistan, but aborted the gig when Gary Scurka, the producer, was wounded. But it appears that Idema claimed the TV crew was actually "contracting officers from the Defense Department".

Pelton says Idema entered the country because of the National Geographic gig and spent months trying to convince people he was a government spy. In an e-mail from his California home, Pelton wrote, "And to make it sillier ... I was shooting a doco [documentary] on looking for [Osama] bin laden with the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and Task Force 121 in the tribal areas and Idema was shooting a doco of him playing whack a mole with Pashtuns in Kabul looking for bin laden."

This week, Pelton said he has obtained a document dated November 2, 2001. It is a letter from the US Embassy in Tashkent to the Uzbek Foreign Affairs Office to obtain a four-year multiple-entry visa on behalf of three individuals. One is Idema, the other is National Geographic cameraman Scurka, and the other is a non-governmental-organization staffer and former US military person.

Idema and Scurka were working for the National Geographic Television Division and had flown to Uzbekistan without visas. Idema lied to the embassy and it phoned an active military person who vouched for Idema, probably not knowing that Idema had lied about the real purpose of their trip (claiming that he wanted to make a documentary).

In an e-mail that Pelton sent from his home he notes that the important thing is this letter from the US Embassy, which describes them as "contracting officers from the Defense Department who arrived to the Republic of Uzbekistan for an official trip".

Pelton says Idema then used those letters and what appears to be falsified or modified military ID to convince the Afghan commanders and other people of his official status.

So the Pentagon is right when it says it had not sanctioned the activities of Idema and his colleagues. It appears it was the State Department that sanctioned him by providing a visa, even if it was obtained by his lying.

Pelton wrote, "I can tell you that the DoD [Department of Defense] and the people I associate with have known about Idema and have been looking to apprehend him for at least three-and-half years."

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms-control and national-security issues. The views expressed are his own.

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Aug 21, 2004



Trigger-happy and troublesome

US now linked to 'vigilantes' in Afghanistan
(Jul 24, '04)

 

 

 
   
         
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