The hard, strange life of “Tora Bora Jack”

By Nicholas Nehamas

The war on terror has produced few characters more bizarre than the American mercenary Jonathan Keith Idema, who died of complications from AIDS this January in Mexico after serving three years in an Afghan jail for torture and other crimes.

Idema lights one up before his verdict in 2004. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood)

Idema, a one-time Green Beret, arrived in Kabul two months after September 11th, 2001 He carried with him a letter from the US Embassy in Uzbekistan licensing him as an “official contractor,” though one with no stated official mission. At various points Idema fought with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and claimed to work for National Geographic and for a humanitarian non-profit called Knightsbridge International, which employed many former soldiers. Idema was believed by some to have ties to the CIA and U.S. Army Special Forces. Rolling Stone quoted an American army captain as saying: “[He] works on counterterrorism out of New York for guys way, way, way above my pay-grade . . . Basically these guys are rolling up [al Qaeda] like it’s nobody’s business.”

Charming, photogenic and a relentless self-promoter, “Tora Bora Jack” cultivated a dashing image and soon became a celebrity in Kabul and a successful pundit on American TV, presenting himself as a patriot, national security expert and vocal advocate for the Iraq War.

He did this despite serious doubts about his credibility. Many journalists in Afghanistan considered Idema violent and unstable (though a few said his behavior was not outrageous for a mercenary in a war-zone). And in the 1990’s Idema served three years in U.S. prison for fraud. At his trial, one former commanding officer called him “without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man I have ever known.”

Yet Idema was a highly motivated soldier of fortune, dispensing vigilante justice at a freelance prison outside of Kabul. On three separate occasions, he tricked NATO soldiers into helping his team conduct raids against possible Taliban figures. One of the people he tortured was Maulawi Siddiqullah, a judge on the Afghan Supreme Court, but also a reported former Taliban member.

Idema’s fall from grace was sudden. In July 2004, Afghan police—angry at the abduction of Siddiqullah—raided Idema’s private jail and found several prisoners hanging from the ceiling by their feet. The men said they had been beaten, burned with cigarettes, and scalded with boiling water. By this point Idema’s relationship with the U.S., whatever it once was, had been completely severed. Days before he was apprehended, the military put out wanted ads for his arrest and the Pentagon publicly denied it was working with him.

During his trial in Afghanistan, Idema insisted the U.S. and Afghan governments had sponsored his activities from the beginning. His claims weren’t completely implausible. Idema produced taped conversations between him and DoD officials, including the staff of the controversial, anti-Muslim General William Boykin, giving his claims a sheen of believability. Idema also had video of a prominent minister in the Afghan cabinet embracing him and promising the American the use of his personal security forces. Finally, after several denials, the Pentagon admitted to accepting a single detainee captured and interrogated by Idema. Even so, the presiding judge refused to admit this evidence into court and convicted Idema and six others (including an award-winning American journalist) of torture.

It remains unclear whether Idema was a phony, writes the BBC’s Kabul correspondent, who described the legal proceedings as “farce” and questioned the quality of the court interpreter’s translations. Some suggested Idema was set up and given an unfair trial.

Idema spent his time in prison occupying a surprisingly cushy jail cell, so nice that at one point he was held hostage by jealous Afghan prisoners. Afghan President Hamid Karzai pardoned Idema three years into his ten-year sentence.

Once free, Idema’s legacy did not improve. He knowingly infected a girlfriend with AIDS. He became a tool for terror, albeit unwittingly, when al Qaeda obtained video of him torturing Afghans and used it in recruiting tapes from 2008 and 2009. In Mexico, local media reported that he hosted orgies for fun (link in Spanish) at his house on the Yucatan peninsula.

For all his misdeeds, Idema wasn’t universally condemned: “Because I’m an Afghan Muslim, I forgive all these things,” said Sidiqullah, the kidnapped judge, to the AP in 2007. “I’m not his enemy, he’s not [mine].”

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