By Douglas Martin, The New York Times, January 29, 2012
|Jonathan K. Idema in Kabul, Afghanistan, |
in 2004 (credit, Ahmad Massood, Reuters)
Jonathan K. Idema, a convicted con man who gained notoriety in post-invasion Afghanistan as a swaggering hunter of terrorists, then ignominy when he was imprisoned for taking Afghans hostage and torturing them, died Jan. 21 at his home in Bacalar, Mexico. He was 55.
Penny Alesi, a former girlfriend, said the cause was AIDS. A State Department spokesman confirmed the death.
Mr. Idema was a fast-talking, sunglasses-wearing, AK-47-toting fortune hunter and a flamboyant figure in Kabul, the capital, in the early 2000s. He flaunted his experience as a member of the Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets. and let on that he was in cahoots with American and Afghan intelligence officials as he pursued the big rewards offered for leaders of Al Qaeda. He cultivated the news media, often with tall tales.
He provided broadcasters with videotape of supposed terrorist training camps; was interviewed as a covert operative by National Public Radio and Fox News; and insinuated himself into a book by the author Robin Moore, “The Hunt for Bin Laden.” Few knew he had served three years in federal prison in the 1990s on 58 counts of fraud. That information came out in 2004 when he was tried in Afghanistan for imprisoning and torturing eight men in a private jail that he and his civilian colleagues ran in the hope of getting information about terrorists and bounty money. (They wore uniforms with the American flag on the sleeves and called themselves Task Force Saber 7.) The case was widely compared to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
His defense was that he had been working for the American and Afghan governments. Both denied it, although at the trial American military officials acknowledged taking his calls and once interrogating a suspect he had captured before releasing him.
“Perhaps if he did something successful, the government would pay attention to him,” a Western diplomat said to The New York Times.
Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Mr. Idema was pardoned by President Hamid Karzai after 3. He said he did not know Mr. Karzai’s reasons, nor why he had been given an apartment-style cell in prison with satellite television, Persian carpets and specially prepared meals.
Jonathan Keith Idema’s eventful life began May 30, 1956, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and ended in Mexico in a town on the Yucatan Peninsula, where he called himself Black Jack, ran a charter boat, was said to hold orgies and flew a pirate flag over his house.
He sued people constantly. One was Steven Spielberg. Mr. Idema contended that he was the basis of the George Clooney character, a Special Forces operative, in the 1997 movie “The Peacemaker,” produced by Mr. Spielberg’s company, DreamWorks. The claim was dismissed, and Mr. Idema was ordered to pay $267,079 in legal fees.
His father said Mr. Idema had been an Eagle Scout. He himself said the direction of his life was set when he saw the 1968 John Wayne movie “The Green Berets,” loosely based on a book by Mr. Moore. Mr. Idema joined the Green Berets after enlisting in the Army at 18. The Vietnam War was ending, and he saw no combat, though he later claimed he did.
He was honorably discharged but not allowed to re-enlist, according to testimony in a 1994 trial. An Army evaluation made public at the trial had described him as “unmotivated, unprofessional, immature.”
During the 1980s he did security work in Haiti and Thailand. He said he sometimes took his dog, Sarge, who parachuted out of airplanes with him and sniffed for bombs.
Back at home, he was arrested as many as 36 times in the 1980s and 1990s on various charges, including possession of stolen property and assault with a firearm. He was never convicted.
In 1991 he went to Lithuania to train local police officers. There, he contended, he discovered a black market in backpack-size nuclear weapons, though many weapons experts consider the existence of such weapons unlikely. He nevertheless contributed to a “60 Minutes” segment on the issue. When the F.B.I. asked him to reveal his Lithuanian sources, he refused. His refusal, he later claimed, prompted a federal prosecution against him for business fraud.
That business was making products for paintball combat games. He was convicted of purchasing materials using faked credit references.
Mr. Idema went to Afghanistan in November 2001 to make a documentary for National Geographic on humanitarian efforts there, but he soon abandoned the project and turned to bounty hunting and fighting. He began calling himself Jack and telling journalists he was an adviser to the Northern Alliance, the Afghan group then trying to oust the ruling Taliban. He became a regular on conservative talk radio in the United States.
In 2002, he provided what he said were Qaeda training videos to “60 Minutes II,” which broadcast them. Rolling Stone magazine quoted Dan Rather as saying that Mr. Idema was “an adventurer with a conscience.”
He had a temper. He once fired a shot within six inches of the head of a reporter for The Dallas Morning News. He threatened to punch the broadcast journalist Geraldo Rivera.
Mr. Idema made big, unprovable boasts. One was that he had discovered handwritten Qaeda plans to assassinate President Bill Clinton at a Malaysian summit meeting in 1998. Mr. Clinton did not attend, but Vice President Al Gore did. No attack was attempted.
Interested in his exploits, Mr. Moore, who had Parkinson’s disease, enlisted Mr. Idema to help write the 2003 book “Task Force Dagger: The Hunt for Bin Laden.” Mr. Idema ended up writing and rewriting chapters, mostly to glorify the “Jack” character — himself. Mr. Moore later disavowed the changes.
After his release from the Afghan prison, Mr. Idema did not return to the United States. Ms. Alesi, his former girlfriend, said he feared being prosecuted there for any number of things. Instead he went to Dubai and then England before moving to Mexico.