American Bounty Hunter Jonathan ''Jack'' Idema
American Bounty Hunter Jonathan "Jack" Idema
by Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- American bounty hunter Jonathan "Jack" Idema, who was put on trial in Kabul for allegedly torturing Afghans, arrived in Afghanistan alongside U.S. invasion 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 fucking believe you," Idema 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 motherfucker? Well, I'm going to kill you first.' But not Afghanistan. Here they believe you."
On Aug. 16, Idema and two other Americans appeared on trial in Kabul denying allegations that they tortured Afghans they kept in a private jail.
Idema told the court he hunted alleged terrorists with the knowledge of the U.S. government. Washington and the Pentagon denied Idema worked for them after he was arrested in July.
In the winter of 2001-2002, the short, stocky 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 who he ordered about, often shoving wads of cash into their hands and waving a big hunting knife at them while theatrically laughing with maniacal glee.
But in a truly terrifying display, Idema threatened to murder an American reporter representing the Stars and Stripes newspaper after the journalist revealed that Idema served time in a U.S. jail several years earlier "for a white-collar crime."
"I just might have to fucking kill you!" an irate Idema shouted at the reporter during a December 2001 party while other foreign correspondents quickly exited the dining room, leaving the two men to argue amid frosted cake and drinks.
"You don't believe me? Test me. Just test me. But get the fuck out of here now before I do."
The shaken Stars and Stripes journalist was hosting the party in a house he rented, and politely reminded Idema that this was his house.
"You think this house is yours?" Idema yelled at him, adding more expletives and threats until the journalist left the room.
Several days later, the Stars and Stripes reporter said to anyone who asked about the confrontation: "Look his name up on Internet, and the story of him in jail will come up. His name is spelt I-D-E-M-A."
As a result of his menacing behavior, most foreign journalists avoided Idema and told each other he was an unreliable trouble-maker who liked to brandish weapons and "play soldier" amid the anarchy of war.
Idema, however, insisted he was acting to protect innocent Afghans from being exploited and abused by all sides, so they would not suffer either from the U.S. invasion nor from the ousted Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
When asked who he really worked for, Idema grinned and told me: "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 "El Salvadoran Master Parachute Wings", "Royal Thai Army Combat Parachute Wings", "Kuwaiti Police Commander Badge", "German Senior Parachute Wings" and "Nicaraguan Senior Parachute Wings."
His resume also listed: "11 years in the United States Army Special Forces, 18 years in Special Operations", and "military adviser in Nicaragua and South Africa" in 1978.
In 1979, he was "primary SWAT instructor for New York State Police Olympic SWAT Team, Lake Placid."
His resume claimed he was "primary weapons and tactics instructor for British S.A.S. commandos during operation Honeygift" in 1980, and, in 1984, "Chief Instructor/Adviser for the U.S. AID Diplomatic Protection Guard during the Haitian coup attempt."
In 1984, he was also "chief tactics and firearms instructor for Ron Reagan, Jr.," -- the son of the former U.S. president.
In 1986, he was "director of training for the United States National Park Service and Park Police for the Statue of Liberty re-dedication ceremonies [including] SWAT, counter-terrorism and explosives training."
Idema named a slew of courses he completed at Fort Dix in New Jersey, Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Drum in New York and Fort Devens in Massachusetts.
But his biography stopped in 1991.
Asked about the 1990s, 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 America 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 U.S. Defense Department which Secretary of State Colin Powell also read, describing problems with U.S. food aid during the first months of the war.
He also 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 told the re-told the tale, 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 techniques appeared to borrow from U.S., British and Israeli commando tactics, he said.
The Pentagon tried to block his attempts to sell copies of the seven-hour-long videotapes to TV broadcasters, Idema complained. But he eventually sold the videotapes, and photographs from it, for thousands of dollars to television networks and an international photo agency.
After watching the videotapes in Kabul, I asked Idema to take me to the former al Qaeda training camp where they were filmed.
He initially demanded I pay him 100 U.S. dollars for access to the secret site, but he eventually provided me a free tour of the bomb-littered al Qaeda compound in Mir Bacheh Kowt village, 15 miles north of Kabul.
The heavily damaged buildings were formerly a children's school, but were now littered with unused rockets, landmines, 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 fake 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 pre-selected 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, he [the janitor] went and pulled out a hand gun," Idema explained during the tour of the training camp.
To remind me of the action on the videotapes, Idema then pulled out a black pistol and charged forward, as if pushing a bunch of hostages.
In other scenes videotaped at the school, dozens of men of various races and ethnic origin fired Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades while attacking a fake audience of VIPs at a mock golf tournament and a convoy of vehicles.
"Arabic interpreters, and also Afghans, who viewed the tapes were able to identify the different dialects and we know for a fact there were Kuwaiti, Iranian, Iraqi and Libyan guys here," Idema said.
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.
Idema's infamous mood swings, meanwhile, continued.
At a party in Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, Idema heard a CNN employee belittle his analysis of the Afghan war and denounce Idema as "some old guy" who knew nothing.
"I will break your fucking legs, I will break your fucking arms, and then I will..." Idema suddenly raged, escalating his threats and moving in on the CNN employee who became wide-eyed and distressed when he realized Idema's fury.
After venting and receiving nervous apologies from the CNN man, their confrontation dissolved into jokes, but Idema's performance proved he could easily intimidate people.
But his real goal, he said, was to "build a security force [in Kabul] with a whole bunch of [U.S.] former special forces guys," to help the Afghan government train Afghans in "professional soldiers' skills" 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. "It will be to protect journalists, protect aid workers, protect foreign dignitaries and protect their own [Afghan] dignitaries. It won't be private. It will be Afghan government. It will partially under the control of the Ministry of Defense and partly under the control of the Ministry of Interior."
Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/