Idema, a stocky man who even in the Afghan hinterlands kept his salt-and-pepper hair died black, quickly adopted a quasi-military look — dark sunglasses, dust-colored fatigues, a black-and-white kaffiyeh draped around his neck. The style reflected his expanding repertoire of roles. Along with the human rights work and the documentary making, he claimed he was offering military advice to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban. Meanwhile, he sold a variety of services to reporters, telling them he was Donald Rumsfeld’s special representative to the Northern Alliance, or insinuating that he was working for the CIA or the Army Special Forces.
By December, Idema was serving as a commentator for Fox News, which paid him $500 per appearance, and charging journalists $1,000 a head for tours to Tora Bora, the sprawling cave complex where U.S. forces were battling Al Qaeda troops. According to reporters, the trips included press conferences with Idema himself. Some of Idema’s media schemes showed extraordinary enterprise. In one case, he reportedly lured a local warlord named Hazrat Ali to the Spin Ghar Hotel in Jalalabad for a press briefing and charged reporters $100 each to attend. It later emerged that he had told Ali that the journalists were Pentagon officials.
It’s not difficult to understand why Idema — a self-proclaimed government operative with a silver tongue, striking looks, and a love of the spotlight — would appeal to reporters who, in late 2001, poured into war-ravaged Afghanistan desperate for stories. The war was being fought largely, by Special Forces soldiers, who call themselves “quiet professionals” and assiduously avoid the press. Lack of information bred a sense of urgency. “The media were in a frenzy,” explains Artis of Knightsbridge International. “They were interviewing each other about what they’d interview someone about if they had someone to interview.” Idema also seems to have capitalized on the U.S. military’s increasing reliance on contractors, and the confusion over who had authority to speak on the government’s behalf.
In addition to courting reporters, Idema sometimes threatened them. Tod Robberson of The Dallas Morning News reported that Idema shot at him “point-blank” during an argument. And some journalists were put off by his violent tendencies and overblown swagger. A group of photographers referred to Idema, who adopted the nickname “Jack” in Afghanistan, as Jack Shit.
After only two months in Afghanistan, Idema claimed to have found what would become the lynchpin of his widening media offensive: seven hours of footage that purportedly shows Al Qaeda training camps in action. Before long, Idema had sold video stills to several publications and enlisted the William Morris Agency to auction off the first-time U.S. broadcast rights. “The intent is to sell the tapes to the highest bidder at terms that are ultimately satisfactory to Mr. Idema,” explained a letter signed by Wayne S. Kabak, chief operating officer of William Morris, and hand-delivered to Fox News’s New York offices on January 9 — one day before the auction was slated to take place. The terms included giving Idema “on-air credit as the person who procured these tapes” and the right to refuse any bid under $150,000.
These conditions, along with Idema’s dark past, gave some networks pause. NBC Nightly News was put off by the hefty price tag and the lack of signs of authenticity, such as a logo from As-Sahab, Al Qaeda’s video production house, which appears on the tapes Al Qaeda releases to the public. “There was no way to verify them,” says Robert Windrem, investigative producer for NBC Nightly News. “It was either you trust Keith Idema or you don’t.”
CNN backed off precisely because it decided Idema could not be trusted. This was after the network’s national security analyst, Ken Robinson, searched Google and LexisNexis and discovered that Idema not only had a criminal record, but also liked to batter his rivals with lawsuits. In addition to turning down the tapes, the network decided to shun Idema as a source. It was the only network to do so.
On January 17, CBS’s 60 Minutes II ran a story about the tapes. Dan Rather traveled to Afghanistan to interview Idema and visit the dusty, bullet-scarred compound called Mir Bacha Kot, where the filming had been done. At a time when workers were still sifting through the gnarled wreckage of the World Trade Center, the story reinforced the prevailing sense of panic. Men in camouflaged tunics and ski masks were shown storming buildings, staging drive-by shootings, and laying siege to golf courses. Sometimes the men laughed as they rehearsed maneuvers, which Rather interpreted as evidence that they approached their grim mission with “glee.” The footage also contained numerous exchanges in English, “a sign,” Rather told viewers, “that they want to take scenes like this to the West.”