‘First Casualty’ tells story of secret CIA mission in Afghanistan

The U.S. military launched Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001. The first boots on the ground in Afghanistan belonged to a team of CIA officers. “Team Alpha” quietly dropped behind enemy lines on October 17, 2001. One of them was the first American to pay the ultimate price for Afghan and American freedom.

DOZENS of Al-Qaeda prisoners had been brought out of the cellar of the Pink House, blinking in the sun, by the time the two CIA officers arrived at Qala-i Jangi — “the Fort of War.”

The captives had been placed in two lines, kneeling or sitting in the dust and parched grass to the west of the Pink House. Their upper arms had been tied behind them, like chicken wings, with their turbans.

David Tyson, an Uzbek linguist and CIA case officer based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and Mike Spann, a former Marine Corps officer and CIA paramilitary were eager to get to work. These were the first Al-Qaeda fighters to be questioned since 9/11, less than three months before. They were members of Team Alpha, the eight men of the CIA who 39 days earlier had become the first Americans behind enemy lines after the most devastating terrorist attack in their country’s history.

Most of the prisoners were bearded, their hair long and unruly after their turbans had been removed, and they hailed from across the globe. Of the more than 400 captives who had been forced into the cellar the night before, all were males of fighting age, with no boys or old men among them. Many wore a taqiyah, or Muslim prayer cap, to cover their head.

Some rocked back and forth; others were motionless. It would soon become apparent to Tyson that they shared no common language — and, though undoubtedly Al-Qaeda rather than Taliban, it was clear they had not fought as a unit. None of them was Afghan, and this foreign field appeared to mark the end of their jihad. Only the occasional wail or protestation could be heard above the larks singing in the morning sunshine. An uneasy calm had enveloped the fort.

This was a chance for the CIA to gain intelligence on Osama bin Laden’s operations, perhaps even prevent another attack on the U.S. homeland. Tyson, aged 40, wore a gray Uzbek guppi over pale green pants and black boots. A former academic who had specialized in Central Asian Studies, he had been in the CIA for four years. Tyson had no rifle, but the 9mm Browning Hi-Power pistol he had brought from Tashkent was strapped to his thigh beneath the guppi. With his scrubby beard and mix of clothing, he was a hybrid of Afghan and American.

There was little doubt where Spann was from. Aged 32 and his hair lightly dusted with gray, he had grown a thin mustache, and over his black Columbia fleece was a rifle strap, attaching his AKMS to his back loosely so he could quickly swing it to his shoulder. On the waist of his jeans was his 9mm Glock 17. Some three dozen armed guards — mostly Uzbeks — were placed along the crenellated center wall that divided the fort, the edge of the greenery fringing the open space, and the roofs of the Pink House and two buildings next to it.

After returning from the fort the previous night, Tyson had conferred with Hank Crumpton, commanding the war from CIA headquarters in northern Virginia, via satellite phone. Crumpton agreed that it was essential to talk to them, identify any captives from the West, and separate commanders from foot soldiers. The first day in the fort would be an initial sift. “Do what you need to do,” Crumpton instructed.

As with every Team Alpha operation since they had arrived in the mountains south of Mazar-i Sharif on October 17, the details of this assignment were left to the CIA officers at the scene. In turn, Team Alpha relied on Dostum. Their lives had been in his hands from the night they landed in darkness in two Black Hawk helicopters that had transported them from K2 — Karshi-Khanabad — a secret base in Uzbekistan; that was the nature of the mission.

With only eleven CIA officers in three locations spread across northern Afghanistan, the CIA lacked the manpower to deal with both security arrangements and intelligence collection. The Agency was in the country to disrupt and gain intelligence on Al-Qaeda. Every day in­volved risk and placing trust in Afghan allies of uncertain reliability.

Tyson and Spann walked up and down the lines to identify which prisoners they should talk to. Dirty and disheveled, most of the captives had worn the same clothes for weeks, and they reeked. Spann focused on those who spoke English. One prisoner caught Spann’s attention. He had pale skin and was lanky, narrow-shouldered, and young, but with a dark, heavy beard; his straight, floppy hair was parted on the left and fell over his face.

Like most of the captives, he had no shoes, but he walked as if it pained his dainty feet. To Tyson, his mannerisms seemed effeminate; this was not a person who had led a tough life. Spann homed in on the man’s commando sweater — a military-style navy-blue pullover with shoulder patches. “He’s got a British sweater,” Spann said, walking over to the prisoner. “Hey, you — you right here with your head down. Look at me. I know you speak English. Look at me. Where did you get the British military sweater?” The prisoner kept his head bowed.

Almost alone among the captives, this man would not engage with the Americans in any way. Most of them talked, even if only to lie or curry favor. But this detainee would not even return a glance. An Iraqi prisoner said he was an Irishman. Spann asked him: “Do you know the people here you’re working with are terrorists and killed other Muslims? There were several hundred Muslims killed in the bombing in New York City. Is that what the Koran teaches?” Spann would not live to know it, but “the Irishman” had trained in an Al-Qaeda camp and had met with Osama bin Laden. He was a 20-year-old Californian called John Walker Lindh.

Two hours after their arrival, the two CIA men were nearing the end of their initial business. In a matter of perhaps thirty minutes they would be calling Crumpton to brief him on the mammoth task ahead: interrogating the captives properly, which would necessitate flying in additional CIA teams and transferring the prisoners to a more permanent facility. “This is way out of our league,” thought Tyson.

A pair of Afghan doctors had set up a temporary station, twenty or so yards from the Pink House, when they heard the shouts and a muffled grenade explosion, then shots from inside the building. They hit the ground as all hell erupted around them.

Mike Spann, about five yards away from the pair, swung around to face the source of the noise, raising his AKMS rifle to his shoulder. Some of the last eighteen prisoners still inside the Pink House were rushing out, straight at him. The doctors saw Spann shoot two or three of them with his Kalashnikov before a Qatari and others who had been sitting close to the Pink House stood up and jumped on Spann from behind, pushing him to the ground. Spann managed to pull out his Glock pistol and fire one or two shots before he was overwhelmed, disappearing beneath a pile of prisoners desperately trying to seize his weapons.

David Tyson, about forty yards away, was startled by the commotion. Time slowed down as his brain processed what his eyes and ears were telling him. There were muffled explosions inside the Pink House, and shots. A prisoner ran across his field of vision, heading toward the southeast corner of the fort. Weapons were being grabbed from the pile, grenades were exploding, and the area where Spann had been standing was a melee of bodies. Tyson stared at the chaos, still not quite registering that this was a prisoner revolt.

As the gunfire and explosions continued, Tyson drew his Browning pistol and stared at it. “Fuck, I’ve never shot this,” he thought. “Do I know what I’m doing with this?” He had not fired a pistol since his CIA training course four years earlier. He chambered a round and craned his head toward the Pink House. The mass of prisoners to his left seemed also to be trying to work out what was happening. None appeared to be paying attention to him. Everything felt jarringly strange. Tyson was frozen. “I don’t have a plan and I’m not doing anything,” he thought. “I should do something — but what?” Split seconds seemed to elongate into minutes.

The idea of running never crossed Tyson’s mind. As well as time slow­ing, he was conscious of experiencing a physiological transformation: he was losing his hearing and peripheral vision. Everything that was not relevant to his survival and that of his comrade was being screened out. He could see muzzle flashes, but he couldn’t hear shots.

He did hear one thing. Spann was yelling his name: “Dave, Dave, Dave!” It was as if Tyson’s brain had filtered out the background cacophony to allow Spann’s voice through. The yells snapped Tyson back into the moment and gave him purpose and direction — literally. Knowing where Spann was, Tyson began to move toward him, realizing that prisoners were in the way so he would have to head east and then turn left, to the north, to reach him. Probably no more than five seconds had elapsed since the initial shouting.

As Tyson headed toward the Pink House, a young Arab prisoner with a pale face and jet-black hair came running directly at him. Tyson could remember having spoken to the prisoner, who was now scrunching up his eyes and turning his head slightly. “What the fuck is this kid doing?” Tyson asked himself. He rattled off questions and answers, but they seemed to take an eternity to form: “Why is he squinting? Why is his arm up? He has a pistol in his hand. He is shooting at me. Why would he want to kill me?”

Tyson registered that the prisoner was firing the pistol incorrectly, angling it to the side. He was now five yards away and Tyson, zooming in on the threat, could see that it was a Russian pistol, probably a Makarov, and watched an empty cartridge ejecting. The CIA man was jerked out of his trance as his brain processed all this information and reached a conclusion: “Shoot the motherfucker,” he told himself. Tyson stopped, raised his Browning, and shot the man twice — once in the abdomen, once slightly higher. He registered the expression on the prisoner’s face at the moment of death: puzzlement, perhaps faint regret, that he had failed to kill the American.

Tyson resumed running toward the Pink House. He passed the two doctors, who were flat on the ground praying for the tumult to subside. Tyson got to the pile of writhing bodies and could see Spann at the bottom, recognizable by his fleece, jeans, and brown boots. Four prisoners were on top of him, including the Qatari. Tyson used his pistol to shoot each of them once in the torso, finishing with the Qatari, shooting him twice and then each of the others a second time.

Somehow, Tyson managed to grab Spann’s AKMS rifle, which the prisoners seemed to have pulled from his comrade. He then kicked Spann’s legs and feet hard two or three times. “Mike, Mike, Mike!” he shouted. There was no response or movement and there was blood. Spann appeared to be dead, quite possibly killed by bullets from his own Glock after his assailants had wrested the pistol away.

Tyson pushed the AKMS selector all the way down to semiautomatic. Prisoners from the lines in front of the Pink House were now launching themselves at him, shouting, “Allahu akbar!” None of them seemed to be armed, and most still had their arms trussed. He shot at least four at close range — just five to ten feet away — without registering who any of them were.

A calm had descended as he fought for his life. Fear was absent. He had no real decisions to make and faced no dilemmas. Tyson shot every prisoner who came at him as he tried to escape. He had to kill or be killed.

First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11″ is available for purchase now. ©2021 Little, Brown and Company

Toby Harnden is a winner of the Orwell Prize for Books. A former foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and the Daily Telegraph who reported from thirty-three countries, he specializes in terrorism and war. Born in England, Harnden was imprisoned in Zimbabwe, prosecuted in Britain for protecting confidential sources, and vindicated by a $23 million public inquiry in Ireland. A dual British and US citizen, he spent a decade as a Royal Navy officer before becoming a journalist. He holds a First Class degree in modern history from Oxford and is the author of Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh and Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan. Previously based in London, Belfast, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Washington, DC, he lives in Virginia.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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