This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
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.”
ABC, MSNBC, NBC, and the BBC subsequently paid thousands of dollars to air the training-camp footage, according to Idema’s bank records. These records, interviews with Idema’s associates and Idema’s own emails, suggest that money from media activities, including the tapes, helped fund his 2004 operations in Afghanistan.
Along the way, Idema gave varying accounts of how he got the tapes. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Eric Campbell that he bought them from one of his intelligence assets after a series of “back-alley meetings at midnight.” In contrast, he told NBC’s Today show that he and a group of Northern Alliance fighters “took over” Mir Bacha Kot, then went to the house of the camp’s commander, where they found some of the tapes. They then hunted down “soldiers” (presumably Al Qaeda recruits) to get the others.
Tracy-Paul Warrington, former deputy commander of a Special Forces counterterrorism team and a civilian intelligence analyst for the Defense Department, believes there’s a good reason Idema’s story changed. “In a nutshell, the videotapes are forgeries,” he says. He explains that the tactics shown in the tapes (such as the way the trainees handle their weapons) were developed in the 1970s but abandoned shortly thereafter, and are not used by modern-day Al Qaeda troops. Also, Warrington points out that the tapes depict mostly raids, whereas “Al Qaeda almost exclusively uses bombs.” Finally, Idema claimed in most accounts to have found the tapes around Mir Bacha Kot, an area that Warrington contends was already under coalition control and had been thoroughly searched by coalition forces. “This man who was convicted of fraud says he finds these tapes where nobody else found them,” says Warrington. “That should have set some alarm bells off.”