KABUL, Afghanistan – An American on trial for allegedly torturing Afghan terror suspects in a private jail claimed Saturday in his first interview from custody that he was hot on the heels of Usama bin Laden (search) and other militant leaders when he was arrested on July 5.
Jonathan Idema (search) told The Associated Press he had official sanction from Afghans and Americans to hunt down terrorists and said he has been prevented from showing the evidence in court. Prosecutors say Idema was waging a private war, and he faces up to 20 years in a crumbling Afghan prison if convicted.
"We would have had [renegade Afghan warlord Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar in 14 days or less. We would have had bin Laden in less than 30 days" had he and his team not been arrested, said Idema, a colorful former U.S. Army soldier who spent three years in jail in the 1980s for allegedly bilking 60 companies out of more than $200,000 in goods.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Idema came to Afghanistan (search) and was featured in several books about the war and the search for bin Laden. He has also worked with several western TV networks. He said he came to Afghanistan again earlier this year because he felt U.S. anti-terror efforts were failing.
At least four Afghan intelligence officials sat in on the 75-minute interview in a sparsely decorated room on the top floor of a building at the National Security Directorate — Afghanistan's chief intelligence agency.
Though none interceded, Idema made frequent references to not being able to speak freely in their presence. He claimed he was badly beaten repeatedly by his jailers, though he had no visible cuts or bruises.
"Everything I was accused of doing [to the Afghan prisoners] got done to me," said the Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-native, sitting in a T-shirt, black pants and brown combat boots on a couch between two of the officials. He was not handcuffed.
As he has done during his trial in a Kabul court, he wore dark sunglasses throughout the interview and refused a request to be photographed.
Idema accused the FBI of orchestrating his arrest, saying the agency was trying to cover up its own incompetence in hunting for terrorists.
But the U.S. government has described Idema as a vigilante working on his own. An Afghan government spokesman told AP that Idema had met with two top Afghan politicians. But there was no confirmation his mission was approved by either U.S. or Afghan officials.
After initially denying any knowledge of Idema's activities, the U.S. military announced in July that it had received a prisoner from the American and held him for more than a month at Bagram Air Base before deciding that he was not the man Idema said he was. A military spokesman said the military did not realize Idema was working on his own at the time.
Idema also convinced NATO peacekeepers to help his group on three raids in the capital of Kabul. The security force said experts found traces of explosives in two houses raided by Idema and his colleagues.
Idema, Americans Brent Bennett and Edward Caraballo, and four Afghans stand accused of torturing about a dozen prisoners in their private jail. The Afghan prisoners, including a senior judge and six of his family members, have been released. Idema hinted there were other operatives in his counter-terror crew that had not yet been arrested.
The trial is set to resume Monday.
Idema denied the torture charges.
"Nobody was hung upside down. Nobody was burned with cigarette butts ... nobody was beaten, nobody was tortured, nobody had boiling water poured on them," he said. "Did we interrogate people? Absolutely. Did we keep them up with sleep deprivation? Absolutely."
Idema said that earlier this year he sent information to the FBI's Counter-Terrorism Watch command center, including the address of a hide-out then being used by bin Laden. He said he passed the information along while he was living in Fort Bragg, N.C., in January or February.
He said he got his information from three Afghan agents working for him in the field, but he would not say how the agents communicated with him in America.
"I gave [the FBI] bin Laden's exact address right outside Peshawar," a northwestern Pakistani city, he said. "I gave them the grid coordinates, the street and house number and everything. They got there five days after he left. It's like, what are you doing? Do you not want to catch bin Laden?" He said the FBI later confirmed bin Laden had been at the house.
FBI spokesman Bill Carter said Saturday the agency couldn't respond to the allegations.
"He was arrested by Afghan authorities and there is an ongoing trial which precludes us from commenting on any matters concerning Mr. Idema at this time," Carter said.
Most intelligence officials believe bin Laden is holed up in the mountainous tribal region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Peshawar is the nearest major city to that region.
Idema said he also passed along the location and satellite phone number of Ayman al-Zawahri, the alleged Al Qaeda No. 2, but the FBI again failed to act. He said the incident occurred earlier this year and that his frustration prompted him to come to Afghanistan himself in April.
Idema repeated claims that he had also uncovered a plot to send 36 Al Qaeda agents into the United States, kill Afghan President Hamid Karzai and attack the main U.S. base at Bagram with a high tech explosive that he said is not detectable by bomb-sniffing dogs.
"This is too unbelievable for me to make up," he said.
Idema claimed that higher ups in the FBI were slow in acting on his intelligence, embarrassed that his Afghan sources were giving him better information than they were getting, and angry that he would not reveal their names.
"This [his arrest] was not driven by the Northern Alliance, this was not driven by the Afghans. If the Afghans had their way, this never would have happened. This was driven solely by the American FBI. Solely. Because they didn't want to be embarrassed," Idema said.
Idema reiterated claims he had approval of top Pentagon officials, including officials in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office.
He also said senior Afghan officials including Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim and former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni were also aware of his operation.
Idema said he has documents to prove his claims, but has so far been prevented from showing them in court. He also complained that his access to documents seized during his arrest has been limited. The documents were handed over to the U.S. Embassy in July, and returned to Idema only Tuesday. He said many were missing. U.S. Embassy spokesman Roy Glover had no comment.
The chief prosecutor in the case, Mohammed Nahim Dawari, acknowledged Saturday that Idema had met with senior Afghan officials like Qanooni and Fahim, but he said that was not evidence that they knew what he was up to.
"They received him because he was a foreigner," Dawari said.
Qanooni and Fahim were not immediately available for comment, but a brother of Qanooni, Mohammed Hibrahim, told AP he was present at a meeting between Qanooni and Idema. He said Idema identified himself as a U.S. special forces operative.
Qanooni and Fahim were prominent in the Northern Alliance, which helped the United States sweep aside the Taliban in 2001. Idema was in Afghanistan during the war and says he has documents that prove he fought with the Northern Alliance and continues to be an adviser.
Dawari, the prosecutor, said he believed Idema's motives were good, but that his methods were "extreme."
"I believe he was against terror and against Al Qaeda," Dawari said. "But the methods he used were not good ... What he did was wrong and he should be punished."