In the early days after 9/11, the United States was striking back at the Taliban in small ways which would prove to be huge in the coming days ahead. CIA arranged for a small team from their Special Activities Division, part of the agency’s Special Operations Group to be airlifted into Afghanistan from airbase K2, Karshi Khanabad in the country of Uzbekistan. On that team of CIA operatives was Johnny Michael Spann. Spann was a former Marine officer who joined the agency just a few years prior and would set the stage for the follow-on Special Forces A-Teams (Green Berets) that would become known as the “Horse Soldiers.”
Tragically, Spann would be the first American killed in Afghanistan during an uprising of prisoners at Qala-i-Jangi fortress after several Taliban including John Walker Lindh (American Taliban) rose up against their guards.
Life Before CIA:
Spann was bitten by the adrenaline bug early in life. He grew up in the small town of Winfield, Alabama where his father was a real estate agent, about 60 miles northwest of Birmingham. He played football in high school but his activities outside of school would earmark him for his later career.
He earned his private pilot’s license at the age of seventeen. And not long after that, he became a rescue diver and a parachutist. While enrolled at Auburn University, Spann joined the Marine Corps Reserve. After graduating from Auburn with a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice/Law Enforcement in 1992, Spann attended the Marines’ Officer Candidates School at Quantico, Virginia graduating and getting a commission as a 2LT in the Field Artillery.
Spann would serve six years in the Marine Corps attaining the rank of Captain. He did tours in both Camp Lejeune, NC, and Okinawa before joining CIA and becoming a paramilitary officer in the Special Activities Division of the agency’s Special Operations Group in 1999.
Afghanistan and Death in 2001
After the disastrous events of 9/11, CIA made contacts within the command structure of the Northern Alliance, specifically General Dostum who would become very close with the follow-on mission of Green Berets. They made arrangements with guerrilla fighters of the Northern Alliance to send in Special Operations troops.
Spann’s team boarded Special Operations equipped helicopters flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Night Stalkers) at K2 airbase on the night of October 12th. They flew for an hour and a half thru the Hindu Kush mountains, had to conduct an in-flight refueling and then landed on a mountaintop in Darya Suf 110 kilometers south of Mazar e Sharif where they were greeted by Dostum’s soldiers on horseback as if from another era.
Dostum was heavily outnumbered and outgunned. So, Spann and the agency operatives called in reinforcements including a Green Beret Team from the 5th Special Forces Group (5th SFG) ODA-595 (codenamed “Tiger 02”) and a US Air Force combat air controller team to call in air strikes and coordinate the much-needed air campaign. Together, the small army of CIA agents and Green Berets with Dostum’s cavalry began to conduct operations that would smash the Taliban forces before them.
But Spann’s life would be cut short during the battle at Qala-i-Jangi fortress compound near Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Spann and another CIA operative David Tyson questioned several Taliban prisoners including John Walker Lindh, an American citizen, that joined the Taliban.
After the uprising, the FBI interviewed several detainees in Guantanamo Bay because of allegations that the detainees were being unlawfully abused. However, they relayed the story of how Spann got killed.
It was at this time, a large group of prisoners rioted. Spann had just finished interviewing Lindh when a Pakistani man rushed him. Spann had an AK-47 slung over his back and a pistol. He killed the man with a single shot.
Spann’s father said that he was told by people in Afghanistan that his son was standing with two physicians treating an injured prisoner when groups of other captives charged out of a prison building, firing guns. He added his son emptied his AK-47, then began firing his pistol, but was overwhelmed by the detainees after his ammunition ran out.
Another captive said Spann shot a prisoner in the head, then “ran in the direction of the [prison] building.” He said he saw “several prisoners run after the American and ramming him with their bodies.” But the captive also said he had been shot and “did not see what happened to the American.” When he regained consciousness, the detainee added that he saw Spann “lying on the ground near the entrance of the basement, tangled with a prisoner as if they had been fighting.” The captive added that he “assumed” that Spann was dead.
But a German television crew that was there had a different version. Time magazine reported:
According to members of a German television crew who were later trapped in the fort with Dave, 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.
When Spann’s body was recovered on November 29, reportedly he had been shot twice in the head with a rifle and his body had been booby-trapped with hand grenades by the Taliban prisoners, most of whom had been killed in the fighting. One of the exceptions was Lindh, who after freely joining the Taliban, and taking an active role in the fighting pleaded guilty in Federal Courtin Alexandria, VA he was given the light sentence of 20 years of prison with no possibility of parole. He’s due to be released in 2022.
Remembered By His Countrymen and Allies:
Spann is remembered with a star on the Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA that commemorates individuals who died in the line of duty. He was posthumously awarded the Intelligence Star and the Exceptional Service Medallion.
The Intelligence Star CIA’s equivalent of the U.S. military’s Silver Star, and because of that Spann was approved for burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
A small memorial to Mike Spann was put up by Dostum at Qala-i-Jangi. A forward operating base is named in his honor. He was survived by his wife Shannon who was also a CIA employee and three children.
12 Strong Flap:
His eldest daughter was upset at the film “12 Strong” because she felt that the filmmakers portrayed as the Special Forces A-Team as the first in the country. But, in fairness, after the team made contact with Dostum’s forces, the CIA man on the ground makes contact with the A-Team, and he obviously had been there a while.
There is a film in development but only in the very earliest stages based on Spann’s life.