The World

Alleged U.S. Vigilante a Man of Mystery

Jonathan Keith Idema is held in Afghanistan accused of imprisoning innocents. The former soldier is no stranger to fame, or the courtroom.

July 19, 2004|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Americans in combat fatigues kicked in the door at the home of the Afghan high court's chief judge, fired warning shots into the walls, trussed up the jurist and seven other men and whisked them off to jail.

There, one of the captives said, the men were doused with cold water, deprived of food and grilled about terrorism.

This was no ordinary raid, though. The men who nabbed the suspects are also in jail, accused of impersonating American operatives and imprisoning innocent people at a private jail during an illegal vigilante campaign in Afghanistan.

Their leader is Jonathan Keith Idema, who goes by "Jack." He is a well-known figure from the 2001 Afghan war and something of an international man of mystery. A convicted felon, former Special Forces soldier and plaintiff against Fox News and Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks company, Idema contended that he and his team of Americans and Afghans were closing in on Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Among those arrested with him by Afghan police two weeks ago was a former television news cameraman who was in Afghanistan to record Idema's exploits.

Idema's attorney said his client had been handing over suspected terrorists to American Special Forces for months, and strongly denied that any of the suspects held by Idema's team were abused. In a Kabul courtroom Sunday, Idema said the Pentagon was aware of his activities.

He demanded that a cameraman stop filming him because, he said, Bin Laden had put a bounty on his head.

The judge handling the case said five of the original Afghan prisoners, including the chief judge, were still being held "to get some additional information" and would be released soon, Associated Press reported.

The case comes as the U.S. tries to overcome prison scandals in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American military is investigating the deaths of three prisoners at Afghan detention facilities, and rumors of abuse ripple throughout Afghanistan. The most recent rumor, denied by the U.S. military and Afghan government but widely repeated throughout Kabul by angry residents, is that American soldiers raped five Afghan men working as translators.

The U.S. government has distanced itself from Idema, 48, saying he was operating on his own. And after announcing his arrest and saying that all the Afghans taken in the raid would be freed, the Afghan government has largely been silent about the matter.

It all confuses Ansarullah Said, office administrator for the chief judge of the Afghan high court, who has spent the last several weeks trying to figure out why jurist Siddiq Ullah was arrested and is still being held.

"We don't know why these unknown American people come to Afghanistan. Who are they?" Said asked. "What do they want? Most of the Afghan people are very unhappy about this."

The situation also baffles many of Idema's local allies from the 2001 war against the Taliban, warlords influential in the new Afghan government who fought alongside the former soldier and assumed that he worked for American intelligence services.

Gul Haider, who battled beside Idema three years ago and is now a power broker in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said the American had regularly stopped by his compound here for glasses of tea. "His only words were, 'Where is Al Qaeda?' " Haider said. "He told me he arrested a group of Al Qaeda people, but I never asked where he put them."

Idema is no stranger to the limelight, or a courtroom. The Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native served three years in a Special Forces unit before leaving to start a military and paintball supply company. Federal authorities charged that he defrauded his suppliers to keep the business going, and according to news reports, Idema was convicted of wire fraud and in 1994 was sentenced to four years in prison.

Timothy Connolly, then U.S. assistant secretary of Defense, asked the judge for leniency on Idema's behalf, according to the former soldier's current attorney, John Tiffany, and news accounts. But Idema served three years in prison.

Tiffany contends that Idema was framed by federal agents envious of his intelligence connections and his time tracking smuggled nuclear arms in Lithuania. (It was that chapter in his life that led to the former soldier's ongoing suit against DreamWorks for allegedly basing its 1997 nuclear thriller starring George Clooney, "The Peacemaker," on Idema's investigations.)

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Idema tried to reenlist, according to his attorney. When the military appeared to be dragging its feet, Idema set out for Afghanistan on his own to offer his services to the Northern Alliance, an Afghan coalition allied with the U.S. in the 2001 war.

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