CIA Agent Mike Spann: America's Very First Casualty in the War on Terror

12/17/2013 10:49 am ET | Updated Feb 16, 2014

In the summer of 2003 I flew over Iran to the Afghan capital of Kabul. From there I joined a convoy of armed ethnic Uzbeks (pro-American, Northern Alliance Mongols) and traveled over the mighty Hindu Kush mountains to the deserts of the north to live with the Uzbek warlord, Dostum. In 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom, Dostum and 2,000 horse-mounted riders had joined with a Green Beret Special Forces A Team and several CIA operatives to break out of the mountains and defeat the Taliban (there was no Iraqi-style mass invasion of Afghanistan, there were only about 300 US operatives on the ground when the Taliban regime fell). I felt that Dostum, whom I have written about earlier in The Huffington Post, was an unsung hero of the war on the Taliban.

Against all odds, Dostum welcomed me into his world and gave me several weeks of interviews and tours of the deserts and mountains of his Massachusetts-sized domain in the steppes of northern Afghanistan. My experiences ranged from traveling to the site of various battlefields where Dostum and his American Special Force/CIA allies had recently defeated the Taliban, to interviewing scores of Taliban prisoners still being held in Dostum's massive fortress-prison in his home base of Sheberghan.

But perhaps the most unexpected part of my immersion into Dostum's world took place when he took me to a foreboding castle called Qala i Jangi (The Fortress of War) that lay just to the west of the holy shrine town of Mazar e Sharif. It was in this castle that hundreds of fanatic foreign Al Qaeda fighters allied with the Taliban had revolted in November of 2001 after previously surrendering to Dostum. It had been a bloody affair with the prisoners killing their captors (including one American), seizing a nearby arms depot, and almost breaking out of the castle and scattering into the nearby town of Mazar e Sharif to wreak havoc. The breakout attempt had only been put down when the Americans laser bombed the revolting prisoners with fighter-bombers and Dostum's troops bombarded them with tanks. Hundreds of foreign fighters had been killed in the carnage in the fortress and it had been a close call.

As a historian trying to record these extraordinary events it was important that I see the site of this tragedy for myself so I could describe it for my readers in a book I was writing on Dostum. When we drove in through the gates of the massive fortress, I could see signs of the recent fighting. Hundreds of spent RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) shells lay piled in heaps, several of the buildings where the revolting prisoners had been killed were still blackened from soot, and in the basement of one building where the prisoners had made their last stand I could still see rotting remains of their clothes and bones. As we climbed out of the charnel pit where dozens of prisoners had been killed, I noticed something that seemed out of place in this grim setting, a marble obelisk monument about six feet high gleaming in the setting sun to my left.

Assuming it was a monument to the battle of Qala i Jangi, I was surprised when I read the following inscription in both English and Dari (the lingua franca of Afghanistan) carved on its front:

In Honor of Mike Spann
1969-2001
A Hero who Sacrificed his Life for Freedom,
for Afghanistan, and for the United States.
We will Never Forget your Courage or Sacrifice
May God be with and Bless Him

As the sun set over the lonely monument in the courtyard of the castle, I asked Dostum to tell me the story of Spann, the man slain in the fortress uprising who he would describe as both a "jasur" (a brave fighter) and his "dost" (friend). I quickly realized I was hearing the story about the very first American/Coalition soldier to die in what would later become known as the Global War on Terror. The story of his final days is the story of an idealistic 32 year old who left the safety of his country and his wife and new born son to fight those who had slaughtered almost three thousand Americans in a senseless act of mass terror just a month before is extraordinary. It is rare that we have such a detailed account of the very first person to die in a war (the war has now taken almost 4,500 American lives in Iraq and almost 2,300 in Afghanistan) and I thought I would share it by way of commemoration of his sacrifice and those of thousands of men and women who would follow him in dying in remote lands in the service of their country.

Johnny Micheal (not Michael) Spann was born in Winfield, Alabama in 1969 and graduated from Winfield City High School in 1987. He was no average student and, at 17, earned his pilot's license and buzzed his football team during practice (he played wide receiver and running back). Micheal then went on to Auburn University and majored in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement before joining the Marines in 1992. In the Marines he trained to be a member of the elite 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company. His speciality was calling in Close Air Support, a skill that would ultimately take him to Afghanistan to call in airstrikes on the Taliban.

After serving in locations that ranged from Okinawa, Japan to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Spann joined the CIA in 1999. There he trained to be a member of the Agency's SAD (Special Activities Division), a paramilitary unit created to wage covert combat operations and espionage. While in the CIA, he met Shannon Joy who had recently joined the Agency and was training to become a Counter Terrorism officer. Soon thereafter they were married (it was his second marriage). By the summer of 2001 they had had a baby boy named Jake and seemed to have a bright future together.

Then came the historic attacks of 9/11. Spann quickly volunteered to join a six man SAD team that included agents RJ (a high-ranking CIA field officer who had trained the mujahideen freedom fighters in the 1980s and spoke Dari), David Tyson (a field operative who spoke Uzbek and had been liaising with Dostum's anti-Taliban rebels) and three other officers in being inserted into Afghanistan. Their mission was to work behind enemy lines in Dostum's rebel mountain enclave to see if they could assist him and his Northern Alliance horsemen in breaking out of the mountains and seizing the shrine town of Mazar i Sharif from a much larger Taliban army.

But before he deployed, Spann took his young daughters from his previous marriage, Allison and Emily, out to their favorite pancake restaurant to tell them that he would be gone for while. Over their tears he promised them he would be home soon.

From his home, his wife and his family, Spann was flown across the world to the republic to the north of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan. There he and the rest of his SAD team waited at an airbase known as "K2" (Karshi Khanabad) for news from Dostum, whom they were told was eagerly awaiting them in a mountain valley known as the Darya Suf 110 kilometers south of Mazar e Sharif. Then, some time around the night of October 12th, Spann and the other members of his team boarded a Black Hawk helicopter flown by the 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) "Night Stalkers" and prepared to be infiltrated through Taliban airspace into Dostum's rebel enclave. Half way through their flight their helicopter took part in the first in air refueling of the war, then proceeded on its long and dangerous journey. After over an hour and a half, the mountains of the Hindu Kush rose up before them in the darkness and they began to sluggishly wind their way up one dark valley after another avoiding the occasional Taliban anti-aircraft fire.
Finally, they arrived at a HLZ (Helicopter Landing Zone) marked out by Dostum's anti-Taliban Uzbek rebels' lamps. As the fine Afghan dust swirled around them, Spann and the rest of his team scrambled out of their helicopter to be greeted by smiling Uzbek horsemen that looked like characters from a Star Wars movie. On the next day Dostum himself rode up with his guards and embraced them. He then explained to Spann, Tyson, RJ and the other agents his bold plan. He and his 2,000 horsemen wanted to break out of the Darya Suf Valley, ride north and seize the shrine of Mazar e Sharif from the Taliban. He promised the Americans that this symbolic act would break the fighting spirit of the superstitious Taliban who believed the mosque's possessor had the mandate of Allah to rule Afghanistan.

To assist Dostum in his plan, the CIA agents called in reinforcements including a Green Beret Team known as ODA 595 (Operational Detachment Alpha, code named "Tiger 02") and a US Air Force combat air controller team to call in bomb strikes known as Operational Detachment Command 53. Together, the CIA agents and the Special Force teams began to ride with Dostum's horsemen calling in bomb strikes before their cavalry charges. Against all odds, a synergy developed between the triad of medieval-style riders, ground spotters armed with laser target designators, and aircraft flying from distant aircraft carriers and bases in the Indian Ocean. Spann himself put his talents to use as a Close Air Support specialist and as a Marine in the fighting which often involved bloody close combat. Finally, on November 9th Dostum and the Americans defeated the Taliban army of the north and captured the prize of Mazar e Sharif. Disheartened by the deadly bombings and cavalry charges, the Taliban and their Al Qaeda 055 Brigade allies fled to the east to a place called Kunduz where they were pummeled by B-52s and AC 130 Specter gunships before finally surrendering to Dostum.

Dostum then had the local Taliban shipped west to his home base of Sheberghan, while the more dangerous foreign Al Qaeda fighters were transported to his recently captured fortress of Qala i Jengi. There, Spann and agent Dave Tyson began to interrogate the prisoners and photograph them on November 25th. In so doing, they put themselves in grave danger for there were actually more Al Qaeda prisoners than guards and many of the captives had secretly kept their weapons on themselves after 'surrendering.' As Spann interrogated a group of prisoners with an AK 47 slung over his back, he asked one of them why they had come to Afghanistan. A Time Magazine article tells what happened next:

According to members of a German television crew who were later trapped in the fort with Dave [Tyson], Spann asked the prisoners who they were and why they joined the Taliban. They massed around him. 'Why are you here?' Spann asked one. 'To kill you,' came the reply as the man lunged at Spann's neck. Spann drew his pistol and shot the man dead. Dave shot another, then grabbed an AK-47 from an Alliance guard and opened fire. According to eyewitness accounts given to the German team, the Taliban fighters launched themselves at Spann, scrabbling at his flesh with their hands, kicking and beating him. Spann killed seven more with his pistol before he disappeared under the crush.

The other agent, Dave Tyson, managed to break away by firing AK 47 rounds at the prisoners and called in airstrikes on them before they could escape. When it was over only a few of the prisoners survived (including one named John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban") and Spann's body, which had been booby trapped by the Taliban with grenades, was found with two 30 caliber bullet holes in the head amidst those he had killed in the final brutal seconds of his life.

Due to the extraordinary circumstances of his death (there were several journalists in the fortress at the time, including one who filmed much of the incident which can be found here under Part 3), the White House announced Spann's death. His body was subsequently flown back to Washington escorted by his CIA comrades and given a full military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Spann was also given an intelligence star on the wall at Langley, CIA Headquarters which commemorates those members of the Agency killed in the line of duty.

In distant Afghanistan, Dostum felt responsible for the death of his "dost," Spann, and grieved over the loss of a comrade he knew had died making a free Afghanistan possible. In 2002, he invited Spann's widow, Shannon, their daughters, and his father and mother to travel to the Qala i Jangi fortress for a ceremonial unveiling of the marble monument he had built to honor Spann. On December 12th a solemn ceremony was held amidst an honor guard of fifty horse-mounted, turbaned Uzbeks and Green Berets to commemorate the loss of the very first American to die in the War on Terror.

While Spann's death created a stir at the time (the CIA rarely announces the deaths of its covert operatives), it was soon to be overshadowed by the deaths of thousands more Americans who would die fighting an emboldened Taliban insurgency and against Shiites and Sunnis in distant Iraq. Today, Spann's monument stands as a reminder of a time when Americans were ready to travel to the far corners of the earth fighting their enemies in a Manichean battle against what President Bush labeled "the Evil Doers." But it is also a reminder that wars are fought with the blood of young men and women like Spann, many of whom don't return from their dangerous missions across the globe.

For more stories and photographs of the CIA mission of Spann, RJ and Tyson alongside Dostum's Uzbek horsemen see The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led U.S. Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime.