Vigilante: 'We would have had bin Laden'
If convicted, Idema faces up to 20 years in prison.
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- An American on trial for reportedly torturing Afghan terror suspects in a private jail said Saturday in his first interview from custody that he was hot on the heels of Osama bin Laden and other militant leaders when he was arrested July 5.
Jonathan Idema 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 reportedly bilking 60 companies out of more than $200,000 in goods.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Idema came to Afghanistan 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 said 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 persuaded 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-Qaida 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.
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