The George Clooney of Kabul

Ex-American G.I. is focus of an investigation into freelance bounty hunters drawn to Afghanistan.

Published July 9, 2004 2:26PM (EDT)

When Afghan police burst into the large suburban house in Kabul, they were not expecting to see three men strapped to the ceiling and hanging by their feet.

This was supposedly an import business, after all.

But as they released the men, and five other captives who were also in the house, officers realised they had stumbled upon a private jail where Afghan prisoners were being locked up and tortured.

Yesterday, Afghan security forces and the US military admitted they appeared to have uncovered a freelance counterterrorism mission by bounty hunters, who may have been lured to the country by the prospect of earning multimillion-dollar rewards.

At the heart of their investigation is a former American special forces soldier, Jonathan Keith "Jack" Idema, who is alleged to have run the private jail and was being questioned last night.

Mr Idema, who is said to be always heavily armed, is far from the only ex-military man to be making a living in Kabul, which has an atmosphere redolent of The Third Man, Graham Greene's thriller about postwar Vienna.

Many of the private security guards attached to embassies and commercial companies have military histories, either real or imagined. Typically, they can be seen in dark glasses and camouflage gear, sub-machine guns slung over their shoulders as they ride through the city. They are often to be seen at the Mustafa hotel, one of the few bars that sell alcohol to ex-pats, who gather for the hotel's popular roof-top barbecues.

Mr Idema, it emerged yesterday, has a colourful past. A volatile former Green Beret with a criminal record in the US, he describes himself as a security adviser. He also claims that he is the person on whom George Clooney's part in the Hollywood film The Peacemaker was based.

While there has been no official explanation of what sort of operation he was running, there are large rewards on offer for the capture of al-Qaida members in Afghanistan, which has led to a boom in the private security business.

The biggest reward of all  $25m  remains on offer for information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden.

Mr Idema knows all about him, having collaborated with Robin Moore, the author of the book The Hunt for Bin Laden, a gung-ho account, published last year, of the so-far unsuccessful pursuit of the al-Qaida leader.

Officials revealed that when Mr Idema and two other Americans were arrested, they were all armed and dressed in US military-style uniforms.

An Afghan official told the Associated Press that the prisoners were "hanging upside down" in the house in the quiet suburb of Kart-i-Parwen, and had been beaten.

The American military appear to have suspected that Mr Idema was involved in something nefarious. Since last week, they have been quietly briefing journalists about him, stressing that he has no connection with the US forces.

And following the arrest, a public statement was issued by the US military saying that he had "allegedly represented himself as an American government and/or military official  The public should be aware that Idema does not represent the American government and we do not employ him."

Mr Idema has a chequered history not untypical of some of the ex-military personnel who have been drawn to Kabul. Although the US military authorities would not confirm his record yesterday, he is said to have been a member of the special forces between 1975 and 1992.

After leaving the forces, he ran a military equipment firm in the US.

He was convicted of wire fraud and other offences in connection with that business in the 90s.

One rightwing news website in the US suggests that he was only charged after he refused to cooperate with the FBI and the CIA over information which he claimed he had about weapons-grade nuclear material being sold in Russia to foreign terrorist groups.

This information, gathered when he was in Lithuania, is the source of a legal action that Mr Idema launched against Steven Spielberg's film company DreamWorks SKG.

In 2000, he issued a writ against DreamWorks, claiming its 1997 film The Peacemaker, which starred George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, was based on his story.

The film is about a maverick American colonel, played by Clooney, who tracks down a Russian nuclear smuggling team.

He claimed damages of $130m. The case is ongoing.

In the meantime, he had become something of a media security pundit, popping up on television programmes to comment on security matters.

During the war in Afghanistan in 2001, Mr Idema and a number of other former US military members linked up with the Northern Alliance rebel group, who were fighting the Taliban. He offered his services to the media and appeared on American television news programmes after having supposedly found al-Qaida training camp footage in Kabul.

When Fox News showed the footage, Mr Idema launched another civil action, seeking $2m damages for supposedly showing the footage without his permission.

He also threatened to punch Geraldo Rivera, the controversial Fox News commentator, who, Mr Idema claimed, had messed up the operations of the Northern Alliance by irresponsible reporting.

Mr Idema, who has a reputation in Kabul for volatility, is also the source of much internet gossip on sites used by ex-members of the US special forces, not all of whom would describe themselves as admirers.

Now Mr Idema remains in the custody of Afghanistan's intelligence officials. In a country where the legal framework barely exists, his stay could be even longer than that of his detainees.

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