Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

The strange tale of Tora Bora Jack

Jonathan Keith Idema stands trial in Kabul in 2004, accused of running a private prison and torture chamber


Jonathan Keith Idema stands trial in Kabul in 2004, accused of running a private prison and torture chamber

The bar at the Mustafa Hotel in Kabul hosted The Jack Show several nights a week. Journalists, aid workers and foreign officials would listen to Jack Idema’s colourful anecdotes half amazed, half incredulous. Over glasses of ‘Jack’s Tora Bora Sunset’ – vodka with pomegranate juice, yours for ten bucks – the crowd heard how Idema was instrumental in tackling Baader-Meinhof in Germany, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, and Hezbollah and Hamas in various Arab countries. He had trained military forces in Thailand, South Africa, Laos and Lithuania (where he uncovered a major terror plot); worked with authorities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and protected American interests in Haiti and Russia. He was in Berlin when the Wall fell, and he was in Moscow when the USSR crumbled. And that was just his covering letter.

Jonathan Keith “Jack” Idema  – he adopted ‘Jack’ as he hated the name Jonathan, although he often went with Keith – wasn’t only in Afghanistan to entertain boozehounds. He was apparently closing in on Osama Bin Laden and the $25m prize for the Al-Qaeda leader’s capture. He was also, he claimed, an advisor for the Northern Alliance, the organisation that had been battling the Taliban since the mid-’90s. And he insisted he was a Green Beret who reported directly to the office of Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of State.

There were other stories. He told people he’d been a superstar of the US military, having received perfect scores in tests at every level. He’d been hired to train Ronald Reagan’s son how to use firearms. He had a loyal dog, Sarge, who would parachute out of helicopters and successfully sniff out bombs (he was saving Sarge’s DNA to have the dog cloned after its death). He was a master samurai who uploaded videos of his sword mastery to YouTube (some can still be viewed). He’d tracked down Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s number two, and Mullah Omar, head of the Taliban. He’d sued Steven Spielberg for stealing his story for his George Clooney-led thriller ‘The Peacemaker’ (Idema lost the case). He was excessively litigious, in fact, suing almost everybody who dared question elements of his background, but never paying up when he lost. His life was a toxic mix of fantasy, fraud and brutality, characterised by a dangerous disregard for anybody but himself. A collection of photographs and certificates suggested Idema had travelled and had indeed seen action, but even these rare glimmers of truth seem stranger than fiction.

“He was in Berlin when the Wall fell and he was in Moscow when the USSR crumbled. And that was just his covering letter”

His penchant for stories, scoops and revelations, especially when microphones were present, seemed at odds with the highly sensitive nature of the assignments he said he was involved in. But when his alleged takeover of an Al-Qaeda camp on the outskirts of Kabul resulted in the discovery of what he claimed to be a seized video cassette of footage of militants training, he was able to convince CBS and other broadcasters to pay him thousands of dollars for the rights to screen it.

If nothing else, Idema was a gifted conman. Always dressed in black, and rarely seen without sunglasses, he was charming, handsome and an eloquent public speaker. He appeared on US news channels numerous times between 2002 and 2004, and when he temporarily returned home to visit his ailing mother in New York in 2003, he joined newscasters on studio sofas to offer expert analysis of the War on Terror. On one occasion, he talked Katie Couric through his seized Al-Qaeda tapes; scary footage of terrorists-in-training attacking a mock American high school, screaming in English at imaginary American kids. Idema was presented as a hero, but Couric didn’t mention that other media outlets had rejected the cassettes, concerned the footage had been faked. Just who were these terrorists with American accents?

Idema stands trial in Kabul in 2004

“On 5th July 2004, Idema’s vast edifice of deception, bullshit and brutality finally unravelled”

Idema’s status as a real-life Rambo grew when he starred in a bestselling non-fiction book, ‘The Hunt for Bin Laden’, written by veteran military journalist Robin Moore. Despite 50 years of experience in war zones, the septuagenarian writer fell for Idema’s act. He didn’t merely use Idema as his primary source of information in detailing the Green Berets’ battles against the Taliban in Tora Bora in 2001; he gave Idema the final manuscript to be fact-checked. Moore praises “an anonymous Green Beret for day-and-night rewrites in the final months”, but he’d made a mistake.

Idema pounced on the opportunity to turn the myths of Tora Bora Jack into verified fact and the published tome contained barely believable stories of heroism – Idema risking his life for his country, Idema saving the lives of countless Afghan children and Western journalists, and, at one point, Idema single-handedly holding back a group of Al-Qaeda fighters. But on 5th July  2004, Idema’s vast edifice of deception, bullshit and brutality finally unravelled.

When the Kabul police raided his rented villa they found a makeshift prison and rudimentary torture chamber. Three of the eight men being held – Afghan males who had been pulled, seemingly at random, off the street – were hanging upside-down from the ceiling. They had taken beatings, waterboardings and mock-executions from Idema and his motley crew of freelance terrorist hunters calling themselves Task Force Sabre 7. Wearing the American flag on their uniforms, they filmed their violent interrogations and sent them to contacts in the US. There was a leak, and a White House still dealing with the fallout of Abu Ghraib decided these rogue operatives needed to be dealt with. They had already put up posters describing Idema as “armed and dangerous”, but now they needed him removed from the picture.

Idema insisted his interrogations had been sanctioned by the highest levels of the US government. The Pentagon initially denied they had anything to do with him, but a few weeks later made a humiliating admission – they had once taken in for questioning a terror suspect Idema had presented to them (he was released without charges). More disturbingly, it was revealed that Nato forces had been hoodwinked into providing military support to Task Force Sabre 7 on at least three raids. As Idema’s trial approached, high-ranking officials asked the unavoidable question: how was a convicted felon with psychopathic tendencies able to get away with it?

“Jack Idema was without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man I have ever known” – Capt John D Carlson, US Special Forces supervisor

Jonathan Keith Idema, born in 1956 in Poughkeepsie, New York, claimed a brilliant military record including extensive experience of combat. The reality is far less impressive, although there is (rather damning) evidence that he served in the Special Forces. Upon leaving the military, Idema entered the paintball business. It wasn’t a well-known activity in the early ’80s and paintballers still regard him as one of the sport’s early pioneers, manufacturing high-quality combat vests under the Idema Combat Systems label. Indeed, in the days following the announcement of his death, the paintball internet forums were full of typically outlandish Idema anecdotes.

One post describes how Idema organised paintball tournaments called the Sargies, named after his beloved fighter dog. At one of these contests, a UK-based paintball magazine editor published a photo of Sarge defecating alongside an amusing caption. Idema allegedly sent men round to his house and threatened to have him killed unless he published an apology. Another forum user recounts one of Jack’s stories involving a run-in with a group of Hell’s Angels that ends with Idema opening fire and killing several of them. Even more disturbing – and even more likely to have been a product of somebody’s imagination – is the story of an incident in Guatemala in which Idema was apparently duped into blowing up a busload of children. Many people remember Idema’s involvement in epic punch-ups and costly lawsuits: there were a lot of both.

The law eventually caught up with Idema Combat Systems. In 1994, Jack was convicted in a North Carolina court of defrauding 58 companies out of around $250,000. He had also been wanted for around 30 other crimes in the state, including assaulting a woman, impersonating a law enforcement officer, assault with a deadly weapon and reckless driving. Sentenced to four years in prison, Idema insisted he’d been stitched up by a vengeful FBI. His argument was that in 1992 he had discovered an enormous black market in backpack-sized nuclear weapons leaving Russia through Lithuania. He says he briefed senior US officials on the potential for these weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists; the FBI wanted access to his sources in Lithuania, and he refused because he thought the bureau was riddled with Russian spies. Imprisonment in North Carolina, he claimed, was the American government’s revenge for his non-co-operation.

Idema stands trial in Kabul in 2004

This argument was laid out in a $600,000 documentary he made with his friend Gary Scurka, ‘Any Lesser Man: The Keith Idema Story’ (with a plot subsequently stolen by Steven Spielberg, Idema alleged). When Idema made his first trip to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he took Scurka with him to document his humanitarian work. He claimed to have saved dozens of children’s lives after the Nahrin earthquake in March 2002, and also that he was working with Knightsbridge, an American aid organisation. However, the director of Knightsbridge, Ed Artis, told New York magazine that upon his arrival in the country Idema had announced that he wanted to “kill every fucking Afghan he saw”. Artis subsequently wrote to the US forces warning them Idema was “a very dangerous person by virtue of his carelessness and stupidity” who “needed to be removed from the area”. It would be some time before they acted upon his warning.

It didn’t take long for Idema to become notorious among Kabul’s foreign contingent. The Independent reported that he had organised a convoy to Tora Bora and offered foreign journalists a place on the trip: “Those who went were robbed at gunpoint a quarter of the way through the journey by their ‘guards’ and made their way, bedraggled, back to Kabul. Jack professed to be outraged.”

Another Kabul-based journalist, Richard S Ehrlich, wrote that Idema had threatened to murder an American reporter who had the audacity to mention his fraud conviction in North Carolina. Ehrlich also wrote that Idema had allegedly threatened to break the arms and legs of a CNN reporter who criticised his analysis of the war. The Sunday Times’s Christina Lamb recalled the American’s boasts that he saved hundreds of Afghan lives with his Special Forces medical training, but added that she frequently witnessed him participating in senseless bar brawls. Tom Rodderson, a journalist at the Dallas Morning News, could personally vouch for the terrorist-hunter’s volatility – Idema shot at him at close range and only narrowly missed. “He was angry because I interrupted him during a discussion,” Rodderson says.

Ted Rall of the Village Voice tells a revealing story about the time he bumped into Idema in the lobby of a hotel in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Idema angrily demanded that Rall should write about how the Pentagon was refusing to give medical aid to US allies in Afghanistan. “Naturally I required proof,” wrote Rall, “but all he did was talk. A lot of bluster, much of it threats about how his Special Forces buddies would track me down and murder me and my family if I ever crossed him. The morning I headed for the border, Jack handed me a floppy disc. “Give this to anyone and you WILL die in pain,” he promised. I carried it to Afghanistan with me. Kept it dry as I forded rivers. Kept it away from the pernicious Afghan dust. Got it back safe and sound to Tajikistan, then Turkey, then New York. Where I popped it into my Mac. And a friend’s PC. It was blank.”

In BBC raw footage of the Kabul trial, Jack Idema, surrounded by microphones, cameras and Dictaphones, is in his element. Without any sign of nerves, he tells the assembled journalists that he has been stitched up by the American government, that he was in touch with the Pentagon up to five times a day and that he had the paperwork to prove it. Despite these confident assertions he was sentenced to ten years in Pul-e Charkhi, a run-down, overcrowded prison where thousands of Afghans were tortured and killed during Communist rule.

Also sentenced for his role in the holding and torturing of civilians was Ed Carabello, a New Yorker who claimed he was an embedded journalist doing a job, reporting on the work of a person he believed was working for the US government. It isn’t known whether Brent Bennett, the other member of Task Force Sabre 7 to be sentenced, had been conned by Idema into believing they were acting under the authority of the Pentagon.

Idema in Green Beret uniform

For the vast majority of prisoners, many of whom wanted the new American arrivals dead, Pul-e Charkhi was a living hell. But Idema was given a large suite with internet access, a TV, DVDs, carpeted floors and a pet dog. When in 2006 a group of Al-Qaeda-affiliated inmates attempted to murder Idema (his notoriety in the Muslim world was assured after his torture tapes appeared in Al-Qaeda propaganda videos), several guards and prisoners were killed in the subsequent riots. In a rare moment of self-awareness, Idema conceded that brave Afghan guards had given their lives to save his.

When Idema was pardoned by Afghan president Hamid Karzai after serving less than a third of his sentence, he refused to leave the safety of his comfortable HQ. He was, after all, a man who had made many enemies in Afghanistan. He didn’t know who might be waiting outside the gates for him.

“I have superhuman blood. This isn’t meant to happen” – Jack Idema in mid-January 2012, as recounted by ex-girlfriend Penny Alesi

Nobody seems to know how Idema reached Bacalar on the Mexican coast. There are unconfirmed reports that he tried and failed to establish a drug-smuggling operation based in Dubai, but the first time he publicly resurfaced after his release from prison was in the summer of 2010 in Bacalar. He was now calling himself Black Jack, and modelled himself on Jack Sparrow from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. He had grown a large beard and liked to wear Arab-style garments at home (perhaps due to a rumoured conversion to Islam). Local newspapers reported that Idema had barricaded himself in his building, trying to fend off police who wanted to question him over allegations he had raped and forcibly detained his former partner, Penny Alesi.

Ms Alesi, who under such circumstances may not be the most reliable of witnesses, is nevertheless the only source of information on Idema’s life in Mexico. It’s known that he ran a small business, Blue Lagoon Boat Tours, which took tourists out to sea. It’s also known that he was in a serious car accident in September 2009 from which he never entirely recovered. Alesi claims that the police wanted to question him regarding the transporting and selling of cocaine for Mexican drug cartels.

“Idema would listen to Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’ and the ‘Apocalypse Now’ soundtrack on a loop for hours at a time”

According to Alesi’s writings and photographs, which have appeared on various blogs and forums frequented by both friends and enemies of her ex-boyfriend,  Idema’s life in Mexico was extremely seedy. He held round-the-clock orgies at which he would have unprotected sex with men, women and transexuals, knowingly, she claims, infecting them with the HIV virus. He had managed to forge medical reports so he could show off his clean bill of health, and often spoke about his “superblood” which made him immune from illness.

There were, she has written, “men always around him dealing weapons and drugs”. He was hooked on heroin, alcohol and painkillers, she says, and he was paranoid and delusional, convinced people were trying to kill him. Their house was full of surveillance cameras, alarms, guns and swords. He would listen to Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’ and the ‘Apocalypse Now’ soundtrack on a loop for several hours at a time.

Alesi, who left Mexico in the summer of 2010, claims she had a telephone conversation with  Idema two weeks before his death. Despite his weakness, he had been able to escape from hospital so he could die at home, but he was now alone. In a frail voice, he begged Alesi for her forgiveness. She was the only person who had ever been loyal to him, he said, and he was desperate for her to return to Mexico. He cried down the phone, unable to understand why his superhuman blood was failing him.

On 21st January, Arturo Olivares Mendiola, an official in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, confirmed that Jonathan Keith Idema had died of an Aids-related illness at the age of 55. No friends or family, he added, were willing to claim his body.

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme