True Spies, Episode 115: Team Alpha Part II, First Casualty
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Vanessa Kirby, and this is True Spies: Team Alpha Part II, First Casualty. In the last episode of True Spies, journalist Toby Harnden and former CIA officer David Tyson explained how - on the 24th of November 2001 - something was brewing at the fortress Qala-i-Jangi.
DAVID TYSON: There were two explosions. I think two suicide bombers blew themselves up. And at the time, it was not clear what they were doing because we had not had - up to that point - any suicide bombers take any of that action. So it was not clear what was going on, but it was clear that we had no business there on the evening of 24 November.
NARRATOR: David and his colleague had driven out to the fort to meet their Afghan allies and interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners but the explosions, and the ominousness of the scene, sent them back. Now, the next morning, they’re heading back in. If you haven’t heard the last episode, go take a listen now. We’d hate to spoil the ending. But just to recap: David Tyson was one of eight members of Team Alpha, a group of CIA officers sent to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With their help, the city of Mazar-i-Sharif had been liberated from the Taliban. But even though the city had fallen, it became clear to David and his colleagues that a crisis had not been averted. Villages that were majority Pashtun - the primary ethnic group of the Taliban - that had once been safe to enter, were now no longer danger-free. Prisoners were being held captive and bartered. While President Bush and the Pentagon were celebrating a victory, the view from Afghanistan looked much less rosy. But even when you’re a CIA officer working in the far reaches of the globe, the globe keeps spinning. Life back home carries on. And every so often, David’s colleague Mike Spann would get a reminder, when he dialed home to Virginia to speak with his wife, Shannon.
TOBY HARNDEN: Throughout Team Alpha's time in Afghanistan, Shannon and Mike would speak whenever they could via satellite phone. Shannon was another CIA officer, so she was also following events from CIA headquarters. She would go in sometimes - and she had colleagues who were able to tell her more than most spouses would be told about what was going on - so she knew what Mike was doing.
NARRATOR: Toby is the journalist who became fascinated with Team Alpha after seeing a video of David running for his life. After the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, as Team Alpha were preparing for their next task, Shannon Spann was getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving.
TOBY HARNDEN: Shannon was in Yosemite in a cabin where she'd gone with her parents and sisters every Thanksgiving since she'd been a child. Mike said that Team Alpha was due to be relieved in early December, so he'd be back for Christmas. They talked about getting bikes for Mike's daughters, and they talked about having a period of calm and stability at home that they'd been unable to have, certainly since 9/11 and even before that. But it was a difficult phone call for Shannon. She couldn't quite put her finger on exactly what it was, but it was some sense of foreboding. And when the call ended and she put the phone down, she burst into tears, and she couldn't quite understand why.
NARRATOR: Back in the United States, intelligence reports warned of another attack on US soil. Five Americans were killed and 17 more were infected by letters delivered by the US Postal Service that had been laced with a dangerous chemical commonly known as anthrax. Some feared that another 9/11 was around the corner. And on the ground in Afghanistan, Team Alpha was keen to stop an attack before it could happen.
TOBY HARNDEN: After the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, the next big battle - the Taliban's expected last stand in northern Afghanistan - was in Kunduz, which was about 100 miles to the east of Mazar-i-Sharif. Before what was expected to be a big battle in Kunduz, Dostum met with Mullah Fazal and Mullah Noori, who are two top Taliban commanders in northern Afghanistan.
NARRATOR: Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mullah Fazal led the negotiations. Dostum had been an unlikely but indispensable ally to the United States. Fazal was not the guy you wanted to tango with.
TOBY HARNDEN: Mullah Fazal had a reputation of being a fearless slayer of Hazaras who'd been taking part in ethnic cleansing, the burning of Hazara villages. He was feared and loathed by every non-Pashtun in Northern Afghanistan but the Afghan way of war is to negotiate surrenders, even with your sworn enemy, and that would often also involve sometimes switching sides.
NARRATOR: Remember: even Dostum himself tended to switch sides when it was advantageous. Fazal might have been despised, but he also presented an opportunity. If the Northern Alliance leaders could negotiate a surrender, they could potentially avoid the bloody battle that lay ahead in Kunduz.
TOBY HARNDEN: Dostum and Fazal negotiated for hours and, at the end of their negotiations, they announced that there had been a deal. But it was always extremely murky exactly what this deal would entail. The Americans were adamant that no al-Qaeda forces or foreign fighters would be allowed to escape the area. The American government believed that this should be an Afghan deal for all its murkiness and ambiguity but American forces were not there to fight this war for the Afghans. They were there to advise but it needed an Afghan solution. And so, the deal between Dostum and Fazal was that Taliban forces would surrender - and that's what Dostum believed had been agreed - and that they would give up their fight and that would be the end of it.
NARRATOR: The Americans were now stationed in Qala-i-Jangi, the fortress in the west of Mazar-i-Sharif, along with their indigenous allies. It was a symbolic piece of real estate and one that had seen quite a few tenants over the course of its history.
TOBY HARNDEN: Qala-i-Jangi, which translates roughly as House of War, was this medieval-looking fort. It looks like something out of the Arabian Nights, just dominating the landscape, and it's an incredibly imposing place that every commander in Mazar-i-Sharif would always make his headquarters. And so once Mazar-i-Sharif fell and the Taliban abandoned Qala-i-Jangi, it was the natural initial base for the Americans to set up. In that, in the southern compound, was an old Soviet-built schoolhouse known as the Pink House. In the Pink House, there was a cellar that had been fortified to store weapons. It was like a bunker.
NARRATOR: At the time, the Pink House held something else, too: hundreds and hundreds of prisoners.
DAVID TYSON: On 24 November, we had received word that a large number of al-Qaeda prisoners had surrendered and would be coming to the city. So when we got word about the prisoners coming back, the skeleton crew at Mazar, we just understood that we would have to deal with these prisoners, along with our Afghan allies. And given the fact that they were al-Qaeda members, it was clear to us that we needed to go out and figure out who these guys were, gather the basic intelligence as to their identity and their documents and so forth, and start the process of doing what we do best: collect intelligence.
NARRATOR: A significant opportunity for Team Alpha - if, perhaps, a sizable task.
DAVID TYSON: Mike and I were basically the only two Agency officers in Mazar at the time. There were a couple of others, but they were moving about doing other things. People have always asked, “Well, how did you deal with this and what did you think?” And so forth. Well, I just saw it and Mike just saw it as another day. So on 25 November, we went out in the early morning, and, by that time, it was a little more clear that this was a big deal in the sense that we indeed had 400-500 al-Qaeda prisoners. And this was the first time since 9/11 that such a number of al-Qaeda forces were in our hands, so to speak, and that we would have access to them. And I don't mean us just our team, but I'm talking about the US government writ large. And I'll never forget that Mike was extremely eager to go, extremely eager to get out there.
NARRATOR: These men were different from the other prisoners David had interrogated before. For one thing, he gathered, they had all given an oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda and its founder, Osama bin Laden. They were also all foreigners.
DAVID TYSON: What we understood very quickly is that we did not have the wherewithal to gather the information that we needed to gather. It was just us two, Mike and myself.
NARRATOR: The rest of the eight-man team needed to work elsewhere that day. They had discussed whether American military backup might be needed at the fort that day, but ultimately, it was up to Dostum’s men to provide security for the CIA men. Because of his skills as a linguist, David shouldered much of the burden of speaking with prisoners.
DAVID TYSON: Mike did not speak a foreign language. And we had great Afghan helpers, Afghans who were more-or-less trained intelligence personnel as well, but we didn't have the manpower and the ability to record the information. We're just writing things down in notebooks. and so it quickly became clear to all of us that we would need to be spending days and have other kinds of help.
NARRATOR: ‘Other kinds of help' meaning a doctor, for example. Many of those prisoners had wounds that were badly in need of treatment, wounds that would lead to infection, or worse, without timely attention. So by mid-morning on the 25th of November, it was clear that David and Mike were out of their depth. They’d need additional support to handle all of the prisoners in their midst.
TOBY HARNDEN: Shortly after 11 am, most of the prisoners were out. There were perhaps 18 or so still in the cellar. And Sayed Kamal had said to David that he thought that there were ethnic Uzbeks who were still in the cellar, and some of them were hardcore senior guys.
NARRATOR: David trusted Sayed Kamal to know - he was Dostum’s intelligence chief. Kamal warned that some of the prisoners had dangerous weapons and that some of them likely felt betrayed that Fazal had handed them over.
TOBY HARNDEN: But just as David and Mike were preparing to finish for the morning, the last prisoners were being brought out.
DAVID TYSON: I was at the time taking prisoners and isolating them so that I could speak to them in private. And that was a distance away from where Mike was. And during that process, when we understood that there were about 30 to 40 prisoners left for us to talk to and take pictures of, shouts, screams, explosions, and gunfire began in the building, which was very, very close to where Mike was located at the time.
NARRATOR: David is in the middle of questioning the hundreds of prisoners at the fortress Qala-iiJangi when suddenly there’s a flurry of activity in the distance. Gunshots. Explosions. Screams. It’s an uprising.
TOBY HARNDEN: What had happened was that a number of those last prisoners had ascended the metal stairs from the cellar into the Pink House and overcame the guards. Now, some prisoners hadn't been searched properly. Some of them had grenades and weapons on them. And they were able to overcome the guards, seize weapons from the guards, kill them, and rush out into the southern compound.
NARRATOR: Which is where they encountered Mike.
TOBY HARNDEN: Mike swung around toward where this commotion was happening. His Kalashnikov was on his back, and he pulled it round into the firing position and shot dead some of the prisoners that were rushing toward him, who were intent on staging an uprising. As he did, some of the prisoners were rushing him from behind. And so, all of a sudden, he had people jumping on his back and trying to pull him to the ground. He pulled out his Glock pistol and shot some of them. But he disappeared basically between a pile of bodies of these prisoners who were trying to wrestle his weapons from him.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile, David is far from the action, trying to piece together what’s taken place.
DAVID TYSON: I quickly understood something was going on but I did not know at the time what to do. And I remember grabbing or taking my pistol out of my holster and just standing there, observing and staring at it - at the area where all this was coming from - which is about 150 meters from my location. And that's when everything started. So I had this couple of seconds of not really knowing what was going on, obviously, and not knowing as well what to do. But that feeling of confusion quickly dissipated when I heard Mike's voice yelling my name. And he did so twice, three times. And I heard that. And as soon as I heard that, I moved, started to run toward Mike.
NARRATOR: As David ran, he realized he’d begun to perceive his surroundings differently.
DAVID TYSON: I want to stress [these] were not normal decisions that one makes every day. I was very quickly transported to a different plane where things that I did were automatic, if you will. I was not thinking normally but that was something that I almost immediately felt, that things had changed fundamentally for me mentally. I was in a place where I'd never been before or since. And immediately understood that something was very, very strange.
NARRATOR: For David, time has warped, moments pass like hours. But it’s only been a matter of seconds since Mike disappeared under the pile of bodies. David is still making his way in the direction of his voice.
DAVID TYSON: During this process as I'm running - or I don't know if I'm running but I'm moving very quickly with a sense of purpose, I might be jogging - I have my pistol drawn and a young man runs toward me. He's at a distance at first, but quickly becoming closer. And I look at the kid's face, and I say 'kid,' because he was in his 20s, probably a young man. And I think to myself, “I've seen this kid before. Why is he over here? Why is he running towards me?” And then, on top of that, he's holding what he has in his hand out. And as I focus on the hand, I see he has a pistol. I see that he's shooting the pistol at me. When I realized he was shooting at me, it was like… irking me. It was an irksome irritation. Like, why do you want to do this?
NARRATOR: The whole experience is, for David, a rather curious set of events. It’s not so much terrifying, enraging, or invigorating, as it is puzzling. Fascinating, even.
DAVID TYSON: Things were happening in a slow-motion way. But I was thinking very, very quickly, and I was thinking not only thoughts like this, like, “Here's this kid, what's he doing?” But also superfluous thoughts like, “Man, this is odd. This is strange. What's going on here? I feel like I'm floating. I can't hear anything. What's going on? This is crazy.” I talk to myself and then I make comments to myself about how strange this is. But in that process with the kid, I remember telling myself: “Shoot that guy.” And that's what I did. I shot him twice and he crumbled to the ground and I jumped over him and continued to Mike.
NARRATOR: The feeling that time has slowed down is one that’s common to people in crisis situations. Faced with such an extreme threat, the body and mind go into overdrive, doing everything they can to keep a person alive and, in David’s case, to keep Mike alive as well.
DAVID TYSON: When I did reach where Mike was, there were four men on top of him. And I remember very clearly shooting each one of them twice, one at a time, and then backward again a second time. And one of the men had Mike's rifle in his hands and was - as I remember - trying to get that rifle or secure that rifle, if you will. I don't know if the rifle was on, if Mike had it in his hands, or if it was somewhere else. But this man was pulling at the rifle. And so when I shot the men, I grabbed Mike's rifle. And in this process and I don't know which came first or second, I saw Mike's body there, and I began to kick him very hard in the leg, yelling his name at the same time, fully understanding that I could not hear myself yell his name and wondering again, constantly, “Why this was happening? Why couldn't I hear my voice yell Mike's name?” And as I kicked him very, very hard in the leg several times yelling his name and then I saw that he had been shot in the head. And I didn't bend down. I didn't do anything else. I moved, I moved onward.
NARRATOR: Remember the video that Toby saw, years later? Of David running for his life, clutching a pistol in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other? That was the moment David was living now, as he bolted toward the northern compound, hoping to survive long enough to make it to the headquarters building.
TOBY HARNDEN: He's seen his comrade killed. He has nearly been killed himself. Miraculous escape. He's killed many, many, probably dozens of al-Qaeda fighters and he's still not safe.
NARRATOR: David is surrounded by men, al-Qaeda recruits, who want to kill him. Remember, they’re prisoners. Many of them still have their hands tied behind their backs. But that doesn’t stop them from throwing themselves at David, trying to knock him down.
DAVID TYSON: Caused me so much consternation, if you will. And I'll use that word because I think that's the best way to describe it. I was just agitated by these guys and upset that they were trying to kill me - as if they shouldn't be doing this because I had nothing against them. I didn't want to shoot them but they were coming at me so I was feeling like I had to.
NARRATOR: David picked up an AK-47 loaded with its final rounds of ammunition. When he felt a thud against his back, he turned round to see a prisoner, his hands tied, ramming his head against him. David fired at the man.
DAVID TYSON: It's not like, “Do you want to do this? Do you want to do that?” Or, “Is this good or is this bad?” Or, “Are you afraid or not?” There's no fear. There's no courage. There's no bravery. There's nothing. You're just doing this thing on a different plane. And then a couple of the guys later on - and I'm talking a few seconds later - I had this one encounter with a man who had a rifle and he was shooting his rifle at me. And we were very, very close to each other. And he was behind a tree trunk and a wall, sort of jumping out, shooting at me, and then hiding again. I was shooting at him three or four times and I remember understanding at the time that this was ridiculous. This was utterly ridiculous to be doing this because I was going to get killed or he was going to get killed. And it served no purpose. And I'm not saying that's what I thought, but I certainly understood this was crazy. It reminded me of playing cops and robbers as a kid, something that was just so odd and bizarre.
NARRATOR: At one point, he pulled a wounded Northern Alliance member over to the side of a vehicle, out of harm’s way. He has no memory of this. He was told about it later. But he probably saved that man’s life.
DAVID TYSON: Finally, after I think it's pretty clear now about 18 minutes, 17 to 18 minutes, I made my way to another part of this fortress where I came into a safe zone, relative safety. So I had escaped.
NARRATOR: That’s when things started moving at normal speed again. And that’s when David began to process everything he’d just been through.
DAVID TYSON: When I got up to this area of safety, relative safety, I squatted down and I remember very clearly now and then just saying, "What the hell just happened?" And just breathing. And shaking a little bit. And I had my rifle. And just looking around saying, “Okay, you're really here. You're not anywhere else. This is real. This just happened. And now let's get on with it.”
NARRATOR: Imagine you’ve just lived through the most harrowing experience of your life. You’ve fatally shot many people in order to defend yourself. You’ve made your way across a treacherous battlefield and you’ve finally arrived in safety. And yet - the battle that nearly killed you rages on. No time to sit back and rest on your laurels. Your mission still isn’t complete. I’ll let Toby fill you in on what happened next.
TOBY HARNDEN: These al-Qaeda members were there to fight to the death. And there were shipping containers inside the fort that contained a lot of weapons, which the prisoners were able to get hold of, and they fought back tenaciously. So November the 26th, on that morning, the Americans tried to end the whole thing by dropping a 2,000-pound bomb on the Pink House, There was a mistake by a pilot of one of the F-18s overhead. And that 2,000-pound bomb actually was dropped onto the northeast tower of the fort, which was a friendly position. Wounded five Americans, flipped over a Northern Alliance tank, and killed a number of Northern Alliance fighters.
NARRATOR: After that, it was deemed too dangerous for the Americans to drop weapons on the fort. This war would now be fought by Dostum and the rest of the Northern Alliance; their US allies would take a backseat. David and Mike had been the only ones questioning prisoners in Mazar-i-Sharif on the 25th of November. Now, Team Alpha’s mission - for all seven of its surviving members - was to recover the body of Mike Spann. But that meant David, having endured so much already, had to return to the fortress. He’d been the last one to see Mike. He had the best chance of helping the team locate his body.
DAVID TYSON: I was extremely reluctant to go back. I was scared in a way that I had never been afraid before, to the point of shaking, violent shaking. I had not been sleeping at all through this process and I was coaxed into going back by my teammates because I spoke the language. I knew where Mike's body was, and so forth. And each day that I went back I was - for lack of a better word - scared shitless.
NARRATOR: I mean… Can you blame the guy? David had just endured the most traumatic experience of his life and for three days after, Team Alpha still had to return to the site.
DAVID TYSON: Each day I went back and they told me, “Let's go up here, and let's do this.” And I'd say, “No, no, I'll sit down here. I'll wait down here.” And you hear the bullets whiz over your head or it's not that dangerous from a certain standpoint. But I was still scared. I remember very clearly crouching one day next to a tank. We also had the Afghans who had tanks and they brought one of these old Soviet tanks. And I remember crouching next to it and hearing this rattling noise and just looking over to my arm and seeing my hand my rifle beating into this tank tread because I was shaking so much.
TOBY HARNDEN: It was the morning of November the 28th, early in the morning, the Northern Alliance fighters had done a sweep through the Southern compounds and all the al-Qaeda fighters. They were back inside the Pink House cellar. And the southern compound more broadly was under the control of the Northern Alliance, and it was strewn with bodies.
NARRATOR: The Northern Alliance had used a tank to clear the area. Then they conducted a search near the place where David had last seen Mike.
TOBY HARNDEN: And Commander Faqir, who was one of the commanders that David had fought with in the mountains came to David and said, “Was Mike wearing cowboys?”
NARRATOR: Cowboys. That was the term that Afghans used for blue jeans. Sure enough, Mike had been wearing a pair during the uprising on November the 25th.
TOBY HARNDEN: So a group of Afghans picks up the body, which was very close to where David had last seen Mike, just next to the Pink House, and brought the body through the gateway into the northern compound. [It turned out he had] two gunshot wounds to the head, which had been what had killed him. One of the Green Berets, Mario Vigil, who's a master sergeant. He'd carried a flag into Kuwait in, during the Gulf War in 1991 and had brought the flag with him. And so Mike's body was draped in this American flag and Team Alpha members carried him out of the northern compound and into a van that was waiting, and they drove the body back to the Turkish school in Mazar-i-Sharif.
NARRATOR: Mike Spann had become the very first American casualty of the war in Afghanistan - about 2,400 more would soon follow. And many, many non-Americans would die, too, as a result of the war on terror, a war that would soon spiral outward, beyond Afghanistan, to claim an estimated 900,000 lives. That number includes thousands of civilians and thousands of children. And the conflict continues to take its toll. But what happened later was not something Team Alpha foresaw in those first days and months after 9/11. Once their colleague was confirmed dead at Qala-i-Jangi, their mission had ended.
DAVID TYSON: Mourning Mike is something that didn't happen and is over. It's something that happens frequently for me. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing at all. Mike is part of who I am now, and he's like a shadow lurking over me. And he was a serious guy. He's a marine. He's a patriot. So I sometimes wonder what he's thinking, so to speak. So Mike is never far away, and that's one thing. And then he left a hole in the CIA as well, because it's clear to me - and clear to many other people who know things better than I - that Mike would have been a very senior leader in the Agency had he survived. If there was one place on 25 November 2001 where Mike wanted to be professionally, it was right where he was. Now, he would have - all of us would - preferred to be with our families and so forth. But professionally, there was no other place that Mike wanted to be on 25th November 2001, than where he was that day.
NARRATOR: And, despite the death of one of their own, Team Alpha’s mission had been a success.
TOBY HARNDEN: There was this formula of hundreds of Americans, not the 100,000 that we later had in Afghanistan, but hundreds of Americans working as advisers alongside the indigenous allies of the Northern Alliance against the foreign invaders of al-Qaeda. And that was a formula that worked.
NARRATOR: After a review of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, the CIA awarded David its highest honor, the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, for extraordinary heroism. David went on to serve the Agency for another two decades. He retired in 2020. But of course, that wasn’t the end of this story. You remember how it happened. Crowds clamoring onto the airport tarmac, clinging to cargo planes as they lifted off the runway. Thousands of interpreters left stranded, facing an uncertain future under a vengeful regime. It was history made painfully before our eyes. The United States finally withdrew from Afghanistan, in August of 2021, Toby and David were watching, along with the rest of the world.
TOBY HARNDEN: One of the tragic ironies about Team Alpha's mission and the CIA mission after 911, I think, is that it was so successful so quickly. Despite the success, you could see the seeds of a number of things that would really bedevil the American effort for the next two decades. So difficulties in handling prisoners. Difficulties in coordinating airstrikes. And friendly fire instances. The murkiness of Afghan tribal and ethnic politics, of unreliable allies, of deals that are not everything they seemed. I think it led to a sense of - I don't know whether it's hubris or arrogance, but - a sense of ‘We, America can do anything. We toppled the Taliban in a matter of a few weeks. So let's shoot for the moon here.’
NARRATOR: Afghanistan, the US learned all too late, is not a place that Americans could just drop into and easily understand. As much as their early successes might have made it seem that way. David, who understood the locals better than anyone else on his team, is still quick to credit America’s allies - and careful to point out the other ways they’ve been shortchanged.
DAVID TYSON: A lot of times Americans and other people say, “Wow, that was great what you guys did, that was hard stuff.” And that's all true. But you have to remember, there were Afghans then and now who were fighting this war against the bad guys, against al-Qaeda, and so forth for years and decades. They did put up a fight, especially the men we were fighting with back in 2001. Those who did survive continued to serve in the Afghan government in the military and intelligence structure and continued to fight the enemy until the end.
TOBY HARNDEN: This is something that has so many layers and so many different nuances that an American, a Westerner, can't come to terms with all of this and work it out. But I think rather than listening to those voices from the people who knew the most about Afghanistan in those early days and had experienced those first few weeks - which had ended in success - the policymakers in Washington decided that a much bigger mission could be undertaken and the rest of it became history.
DAVID TYSON: I continue to stay in contact with some Afghans, and it doesn't take a lot of work to understand that those Afghans who were on our side have been left and abandoned fully. And that there's no amnesty for these men and their families. Everything that was promised to them by our government has been abandoned, as the United States does from time to time. We forget. We very quickly forget.
NARRATOR: You can learn more about Team Alpha in Toby Harnden’s new book, First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11, available in print and as an ebook now. I’m Vanessa Kirby.
Toby Harnden (pictured) is a former foreign correspondent for London's Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph and former Royal Navy officer. He is also the author of First Casualty and a winner of the Orwell Prize for Books.
David Tyson is a retired CIA officer who served in Afghanistan after 9/11. He is also an expert in Central Asia who speaks Russian and the Uzbeck languages among his many other skills.