Idema’s career as a media personality reached its peak during the final breathless weeks of the run-up to the war in Iraq. Much of the information he provided during that period echoed the Bush administration’s hotly contested rationale for war. He told MSNBC that the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda was “common knowledge” on the ground in Afghanistan, and claimed in an interview with WNYC radio’s Leonard Lopate that “Iraq has been involved in supporting Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with money, with equipment, with technology, with weapons of mass destruction.” He told other wide-eyed journalists that there was ample evidence linking “Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to Al Qaeda and to the attacks on September 11,” and professed to have firsthand knowledge of nuclear weapons being smuggled from Russia to all three members of the “axis of evil” — Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Few in the media questioned Idema’s claims, much to the alarm of some who knew him.
“The media saw this outfitted, gregarious, apparently knowing guy, and they didn’t check him out,” says Ed Artis, chairman and founder of the humanitarian organization Knightsbridge International, who met Idema in Afghanistan in late 2001 and later tried to warn the government and media organizations that Idema was misrepresenting himself. “They ran story after story that furthered the cachet of a self-serving, self-aggrandizing criminal.”
Idema’s U.S. office is tucked inside a hulking brick warehouse in Fayetteville, North Carolina home to Fort Bragg, America’s largest military base and command center for the U.S. Army Special Operations. There’s little to distinguish the building from its industrial surrounding except the dark-tinted windows, and the red “Restricted Access” plaque that clings to the front door. Inside, the cavernous space is cluttered with evidence of Idema’s Afghan mission: crumpled boxes of medical supplies, a lime-green presentation board bearing an organizational chart for Al Qaeda, a massive topographical map of Afghanistan. Movie posters of scowling, leather-clad action heroes plaster the surrounding walls, including a particularly large one from Men in Black over Idema’s desk. It shows two movie stars clutching super-sized guns and reads, “Protecting the Earth from the Scum of the Universe.”
The décor reflects Idema’s decades-long quest to fashion himself an action hero. He joined the Army in 1975 and qualified for the Special Forces, but his performance was often lacking. In an evaluation report dated July 7, 1977, Captain John D. Carlson described him as “without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man that I have ever known.” In 1978 he transferred to a reserve unit where he served until 1981, when he was relieved of his duties, in part for his “irrationality” and “tendency toward violence.” His military records indicate that he never saw combat.
After leaving active-duty service, Idema ran a series of businesses related to special operations — including a counterterrorism training school and a traveling special-operations exposition — in partnership with another former Green Beret, Thomas Bumback. During this period, which spanned the 1980s and early ’90s, he claims to have been involved in a series of “black ops,” or secret military missions.
He was also compiling a long arrest record on charges including bad checks, assault, possession of stolen property, and discharging a firearm into a dwelling. Then, in 1994, Idema was tried and convicted of defrauding fifty-eight companies of about $260,000, according to The Fayetteville Observer. He served three years in prison. It was while awaiting sentencing that Idema launched his first media offensive, trying to sell a story about nuclear material being smuggled out of Russia. Gary Scurka, an investigative journalist and recipient of numerous prestigious awards, eventually produced a 60 Minutes piece based, at least in part, on information Idema had provided.
Over the next decade, Idema continued to court the media with help from a faithful cadre of friends — among them Scurka, the best-selling author Robin Moore, and Edward Caraballo, the cameraman who would later be imprisoned with Idema in Afghanistan. He met with little success, though, until September 11, 2001, when a shell-shocked public, desperate to make sense of the senseless, began groping for information. Idema gladly obliged.
On September 12, 2001, Idema appeared on KTTV, Los Angeles’s Fox affiliate, which billed him as a “counterterrorism adviser.” He told audiences that three Canadian jetliners might have been hijacked, along with the four U.S. planes. By late October, Idema was in Afghanistan, telling associates that he planned to help two humanitarian groups — Partners International Foundation and Knightsbridge International — distribute food to hungry Afghans, and he brought along a National Geographic film crew, headed by Scurka, to make a film about his efforts. (Both aid groups say he misrepresented his plans in order to get them to cooperate.)