First Casualty

The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11


By Toby Harnden

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An award-winning journalist reveals the dramatic true story of the CIA's Team Alpha, the first Americans to be dropped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan after 9/11.

America is reeling; Al-Qaeda has struck and thousands are dead. The country scrambles to respond, but the Pentagon has no plan for Afghanistan—where Osama bin Laden masterminded the attack and is protected by the Taliban. Instead, the CIA steps forward to spearhead the war. Eight CIA officers are dropped into the mountains of northern Afghanistan on October 17, 2001. They are Team Alpha, an eclectic band of linguists, tribal experts, and elite warriors: the first Americans to operate inside Taliban territory. Their covert mission is to track down Al- Qaeda and stop the terrorists from infiltrating the United States again.
First Casualty places you with Team Alpha as the CIA rides into battle on horseback alongside the warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. In Washington, DC, few trust that the CIA men, the Green Berets, and the Americans’ outnumbered Afghan allies can prevail before winter sets in. On the ground, Team Alpha is undeterred. The Taliban is routed but hatches a plot with Al-Qaeda to hit back. Hundreds of suicidal fighters, many hiding weapons, fake a surrender and are transported to Qala-i Jangi—the “Fort of War.”
Team Alpha’s Mike Spann, an ex-Marine, and David Tyson, a polyglot former Central Asian studies academic, seize America’s initial opportunity to extract intelligence from men trained by bin Laden—among them a young Muslim convert from California. The prisoners revolt and one CIA officer falls—the first casualty in America’s longest war, which will last two decades. The other CIA man shoots dead the Al-Qaeda jihadists attacking his comrade. To survive, he must fight his way out against overwhelming odds.
Award-winning author Toby Harnden gained unprecedented access to all living Team Alpha members and every level of the CIA. Superbly researched, First Casualty draws on extensive interviews, secret documents, and deep reporting inside Afghanistan. As gripping as any adventure novel, yet intimate and profoundly moving, it tells how America found a winning strategy only to abandon it. Harnden reveals that the lessons of early victory and the haunting foretelling it contained—unreliable allies, ethnic rivalries, suicide attacks, and errant US bombs—were ignored, tragically fueling a twenty-year conflict.

"Masterful, complex, and heartfelt, from the deeply personal to the critically strategic. Captures many lessons on many levels." —Ambassador Hank Crumpton, former senior CIA officer


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Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

—Isaiah 6:8

We are the Nation’s first line of defense. We accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go.

—CIA mission statement

Someone has got to do the things no one else wants to do.

—CIA officer
Mike Spann


For two decades, the United States has been engaged in a seemingly endless—and eventually largely forgotten—war in Afghanistan. During this time America and NATO troops suffered over 3,500 fatalities. After the first casualty in 2001, the CIA sustained at least another 18, more than in any other war during the Agency’s seventy-three-year history. American deaths reduced to a trickle after 2015, but since then over 10,000 Afghan civilians are have died each year.

The Taliban now controls most of the country and has never cut its ties to Al-Qaeda. Its leaders believe, with justification, that they defeated American forces. With the US withdrawal due to be completed by September 11, 2021, the Taliban is poised to seize power, and a bloody civil war seems inevitable—leaving the few Americans still paying attention to wonder what the war was for.

It was not always like this. On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda operatives turned four hijacked planes into missiles aimed at symbols of American power. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in history. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania on 9/11, eclipsing the death toll at Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier. All nineteen of the suicide hijackers had been trained in or had visited Afghanistan, where Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, given sanctuary by the Taliban government, had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.

With images of planes hitting the twin towers playing in loops on every TV network, America was united. Mass murder had come to American shores. The perpetrators of 9/11 had to be brought to justice and prevented from launching further attacks. Groups harboring terrorists, including the Taliban, would be swept away. There was anger, certainly, and a desire for vengeance. But the abiding sentiment was one of “Never again.” Playing defense was no longer an option. Now Americans were determined to hunt down the enemy on the other side of the world.

In the days after 9/11, Americans embraced the reality that survival meant risk, and more death. The post-Vietnam aversion to casualties was in the past. Within the US government, only the CIA knew Afghanistan. America had abandoned Afghanistan after the Cold War, but a small band within the CIA had vigilantly observed the growing power of Islamic fundamentalists. For more than two years, it had sent small teams into the country to assist leaders of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s foes and Afghanistan’s resistance. The Pentagon had no military plan for Afghanistan, and so it was that in the country’s hour of need the Agency was called upon to lead America’s response.

First Casualty is the story of Team Alpha, a group of eight Americans who were at the forefront of that response and became the first to fight behind enemy lines after 9/11. It is a rousing tale of the remarkable success they achieved when, for perhaps six weeks, the CIA ran the war. These men brought regional expertise, language skills, and a focus on tribal dynamics and human psychology—as well as a warrior ethos and elite military skills. The power delegated to them took their breath away. This was a war directed on the battlefield, not from 20,000 feet above or 7,000 miles away.

Each day, Team Alpha members lived on a knife edge and made decisions of strategic consequence. Knowing the axiom that in war the first casualty is the plan, they embraced flexibility and improvisation, drawing on the legacy of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. Along with the Green Berets, Team Alpha’s officers were insurgents engaging in unconventional warfare “by, with, and through” indigenous allies—a concept that later became part of US military doctrine. They helped the resistance overthrow Afghanistan’s oppressors. It was a formula that worked, in a place where historically almost nothing had.

By December 2001, ten CIA teams—including Team Alpha and totaling a few dozen CIA officers—had secured victory across Afghanistan. Fighting alongside them were Special Forces troops operating symbiotically with US air power. Among those troops was a unit from Britain’s Special Boat Service (SBS), operating in the tradition of their country’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), which inspired the OSS. Jettisoning a directive that restricted their ability to fight, the SBS headed toward the sound of gunfire.

The complexity of Afghanistan was apparent to Team Alpha. False surrenders, switching sides, warlord machinations, prisoner abuse, suicide attacks, and ethnic ferment were facts of life. This was a country—if it was a country at all—that could not be controlled. After the surviving members of Team Alpha left Afghanistan, the US military took over and American forces became occupiers rather than insurgents. Conventional troops poured into the country, and fortified bases were established. The United States sought to impose democracy and a central government in Kabul. Rather than allowing warlord rivalries to play out in a deeply traditional society of ethnic and regional patchworks, the US excluded leaders it found unpalatable. Western standards of morality and fair play were applied, even retrospectively, as the US tried to create a nation in its own image. Early success became a long-drawn-out failure.

First Casualty tells the story of the opening chapter in a new era of history when a resolute America was confident in what could be done, and the CIA seized the opportunity to do it. It is an inspiring story of what was achieved then, and a plaintive one of what might have been since.

Who’s Who

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

George Tenet: Director

Cofer Black: Director of Counterterrorism Center (CTC); Africa Division case officer

Hank Crumpton: Chief of CTC/Special Operations (CTC/SO); Africa Division case officer

Rich Blee: Chief of Alec station; Africa Division case officer

Robert Grenier: Chief of Islamabad station; Near East (NE) Division case officer

Charlie Gilbert: Chief of Tashkent station; NE Division case officer

Gary Schroen: Chief of Jawbreaker; NE Division case officer

Team Alpha

J. R. Seeger: Chief; Dari linguist; NE Division case officer

Alex Hernandez: Deputy; Ground Branch paramilitary officer

Scott Spellmeyer: Ground Branch paramilitary; later Team Bravo chief

David Tyson: Uzbek linguist; Central Eurasian (CE) Division case officer

Mike Spann: Ground Branch paramilitary officer; husband of Shannon Spann, a CTC officer

Mark Rausenberger: Medic, Office of Medical Services (OMS)

Andy: Ground Branch paramilitary officer

Justin Sapp: Captain; Green Beret detailed to the CIA

Team Bravo

Bob: Dari linguist; NE Division case officer

Glenn: Medic, OMS

Greg: Ground Branch paramilitary officer

US Military

Donald Rumsfeld: Defense Secretary

Paul Wolfowitz: Deputy Defense Secretary

Tommy Franks: General; head of US Central Command (CENTCOM)

Bert Calland: Rear admiral; head of CENTCOM’s Special Operations (SOCCENT)

John Mulholland: Colonel; commander, 5th Special Forces Group and Task Force Dagger

Green Berets, 5th Special Force Group

Operational Detachment Charlie (ODC) 53 (Boxer), 3rd Battalion

Max Bowers: Lieutenant colonel; commander

Kurt Sonntag: Major; executive officer

Mark Mitchell: Major; operations officer

Paul Syverson: Captain; adjutant

Anthony Jarrett: Captain; communications officer

Paul Beck: Sergeant first class, communications

Mike Sciortino: Staff sergeant, US Air Force; air controller

Kevin Leahy: Captain; commander of support company

Dave Betz: Master sergeant, support company

Ken Ashton: Sergeant first class, Operational Detachment Bravo (ODB) 580

Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595

Mark Nutsch: Captain; commander

Andy Marchal: Sergeant first class; intelligence sergeant

Steve Bleigh: Sergeant first class; medic

Bill Bennett: Sergeant first class; medic

UK Military

Z Squadron, Special Boat Service (SBS)

Jess: Captain, Royal Marines; team commander

Paul “Scruff” McGough: Sergeant, Royal Marines

Tony: Corporal, Royal Marines

Steph Bass: Chief boatswain’s mate; Navy SEAL

Northern Alliance

Jamiat-i Islami (Tajiks)

Ahmad Shah Massoud: Commander of Northern Alliance forces until September 9, 2001

Fahim Khan: Commander of Northern Alliance forces after Massoud

Atta Mohammed Noor: Commander of Jamiat forces in Mazar-i Sharif area

Hezb-i Wahdat (Hazaras)

Karim Khalili: Commander of Hazara forces in Bamiyan province

Mohammed Mohaqeq: Commander of Hazara forces in Mazar-i Sharif area

Jumbesh-i Milli (Uzbeks)

Abdul Rashid Dostum: Commander

Lal Mohammed: Deputy commander

Amir Jan Naseri: Adviser; former Taliban commander; Pashtun

Faqir Mohammed Jowzjani: Unit commander

Ak Yasin: Unit commander

Abdul Sattar: Chief of security

Amanullah: Chief of intelligence in Darya Suf Valley; Tajik

Abdul Salam: Chief of captives in Darya Suf Valley

Sayed Kamal: Chief of intelligence in Mazar-i Sharif

Al-Qaeda and Taliban

Osama bin Laden: Al-Qaeda founder and leader

Mohammed Atta: Leader of nineteen hijackers on 9/11

Mullah Mohammed Omar: Taliban founder and leader

Mullah Mohammad Fazl: Deputy minister of defense; commander of Taliban northern forces

Mullah Norullah Noori: Governor of Balkh province; Taliban political commander of Northern Zone

Mullah Dadullah: Senior Taliban commander

John Walker Lindh: Ansar (Arab) Brigade 055 foot soldier


Zero Hour

Settling in for the journey from Tashkent to Heathrow, the burly, broad-shouldered man traveling alone blended in among the passengers on board Uzbekistan Airways Flight 201. His thick, graying hair framed a friendly, open face with rough-hewn features. He was six feet two and looked like he worked in perhaps engineering or agriculture—hands on rather than in an office. A plaid shirt hung loosely over canvas pants. David Tyson was certainly not one of the sharp-suited businessmen flying from the former Soviet republic in the hope of closing a deal in London.

The Boeing 757, painted in the powder blue, yellow, and green of the national airline, took off on schedule for a flight of seven hours. At precisely the same moment some 6,000 miles and nine time zones away, Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian national, was about to board American Airlines Flight 11 at Boston Logan Airport with four subordinates. There it was 7:35 a.m. and the azure sky was cloudless. Atta was the leader of nineteen hijackers from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda on four planes who were about to launch the most devastating attack on the United States in history. An Al-Qaeda commander had referred to the day of the coordinated terrorist strikes as “zero hour.”

To anyone on Flight 201 giving David a second thought, it might have been a surprise to learn that he was an American—especially given his ease with the vernacular of various dialects of the Uzbek language. David spoke fluent Russian, Turkish, and Turkmen, and could converse in Kazakh, Tatar, and Azerbaijani. But it was his Uzbek, honed during four years of living in Uzbekistan as a student, that could pass as native. Never seen in a tie, David, as a graduate student in Tashkent, had at one time possessed no shoes. His friends would quip that he had been an Uzbek peasant in another life. By David’s own admission, he had once teetered on the verge of going native. The business cards now in his wallet, however, identified him as not just an American but a diplomat, a second secretary serving with the Department of State in the Political-Military section of the US Embassy in Tashkent.

In truth, David was a spy. Aged forty and under diplomatic cover, he was a clandestine operative working at the Central Intelligence Agency’s Tashkent station, housed inside the embassy. More specifically, he was a case officer, a member of the CIA’s Central Eurasian Division, within its Directorate of Operations. The DO, as it was known, was the CIA’s elite clandestine arm. The CIA’s analysts, technicians, and support staff were housed in separate directorates and worked overtly. In the DO, by contrast, CIA officers worked undercover, the majority as State Department employees, using aliases in all communications. Their true affiliation was classified and kept secret, often even from their families. Though booked on the flight in his true name, in all diplomatic and intelligence traffic he was referred to by an operational pseudonym. Monitoring bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan had been one of David’s principal responsibilities since being stationed in Uzbekistan in 1998. He was traveling to London to discuss his efforts to keep armaments in Afghanistan from falling into terrorist hands.

David was not a typical CIA officer. Agency colleagues may have viewed Uzbekistan as the ass-end of nowhere, but David loved the place. He had joined the CIA in 1996—Tashkent was his first posting—at the age of thirty-five, from graduate school at Indiana University, where he had been lecturing and working toward a PhD. There, he had gained a master’s degree with a thesis on “Literacy in Turkistan Prior to Soviet Rule” and become an expert on shrine pilgrimage among the Turkmens.

CIA colleagues had nicknamed him “the Professor.” When leaving academia, however, he had known that he was crossing over to what many regarded as the dark side. For well over a year, he had been talking to a middle-aged CIA officer who had identified herself as Sandy Baker—not her real name—about what he had gleaned from his travels in the former Soviet Union. Latterly, she had broached whether he might become a spy. The turning point had been in a freezing parking lot in Bloomington with his wife, Rosann. She hailed from the same small town in Pennsylvania, and they had met when they were undergraduates. The couple had two young children and were struggling to make ends meet. David told her that he had received a job offer from the CIA and they wanted an answer. “Do we leave this life here behind?” he asked. “We need to make a decision.” He was entrenched in the small world of Central Asian studies and considered part of his department’s family. They had stood looking at each other in the snow and then agreed that he should make the leap. David had strong bonds with his professors, and he knew that joining the CIA would cause some of his colleagues to cut him off. There would be no going back. It had been a close call, with government health insurance tipping the balance.

So far, life as a spy seemed like an endless adventure. David had been on missions in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, often operating alone, armed, using his languages, and employing his newly learned intelligence tradecraft. He had become part of a close-knit band of CIA officers on the edge of what was for most Americans a forgotten Cold War frontier. Though it was a time of peace for the United States, the region where David lived was wracked by war. David had been pushing the CIA for more money and more weapons for US allies, and to take more risks. It was a time before he had a surfeit of all three. It was a time when he had not killed a man, or kicked a bloodied body to check if a friend was still alive. It was a time when he had not run, and shot, and fought for his life. It was a time when he had not lain in the dust beside the staring eyes of a corpse. It was a time when he had no nightmares of being chased by men determined to kill him. It was a time when he could not conceive of any of those things happening.

At age seventeen, David’s wanderlust was such that he had written a letter to the French Foreign Legion—he found the address in a school library book—asking if he could join. To his surprise, he received a reply suggesting he report to a recruiting depot outside Marseilles; alas, he had no means of raising the airfare. Instead, David enlisted in the US Army straight out of high school, without telling his parents, rather than take a job in the paper or steel mills surrounding his home in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. After two uneventful years in the field artillery, when he was mostly based in West Germany and played a lot of basketball, he had become a student. David had enrolled at Westchester State University and discovered a talent for languages, beginning with Russian because it seemed the most exotic. During a semester at Columbia University, he had been so short of money that he had started going to a New York homeless shelter to get free soup. Before long, he had become a helper there; then, for free board and a modest paycheck, he worked as a live-in supervisor. Some of the men took him around the New York subway system, introducing him to underground tribes of homeless. David had become so involved in the lives of the men at the shelter, many of them alcoholics or drug addicts, that Rosann had fretted it was distracting him from his studies.

He quit Columbia and moved to a doctoral program at Indiana University, at the same time securing an ROTC commission as an intelligence officer. His second stint in the Army enabled him to use the G.I. Bill to fund his student life. Central Asian studies was a niche area of academia that offered more opportunities than Russian, which was dominated by émigrés. David had grown up in a family with an ethos of modesty, thrift, teetotalism, and staunch Christianity drawn from the Mennonite tradition. Having discovered his aptitude for languages and a fascination with other cultures, he was drawn from these simple roots to explore the obscure and the esoteric.

David’s patriotism was understated but deep. His father had served in the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid during World War II and survived Japanese kamikaze attacks. Although post-traumatic stress had never been discussed, after the war his father had seemed a changed man and had struggled to stay in jobs, working variously as a carpenter, janitor, preacher, and security guard. David had studied in Leningrad from 1985 to 1986, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, fueling his belief in personal freedom, the rights of the individual versus the state, and America’s role as a force for good in the world. He had experienced communism again as a student in Tashkent beginning in 1989, when he was arrested regularly by the Uzbek secret police; he used his time being held, sometimes overnight in the cells, to hone his tenses and bolster his vocabulary.

David’s first job at the Agency in 1996 was not glamorous: translating “open source” material such as the Russian newspapers Izvestia and Pravda. He joked that rather than being recruited as a clandestine operative, as he initially hoped, he had been captured by the nerds. His department, the Agency’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service, occupied a nondescript office block seven miles from CIA headquarters in Langley, northern Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. But David’s facility with languages meant he was soon plucked from this backwater. After an accelerated course at “The Farm,” the Agency’s training facility near Williamsburg, Virginia, he was bound for his old stomping ground of Tashkent.

In Uzbekistan, David had impressed his CIA superiors with his thirst for every aspect of his job, barring bureaucracy. A case officer in Pakistan destined for the highest ranks of the CIA had taken him under his wing, teaching him the art of hands-on spying, recruiting assets, and navigating the intrigue of ethnic rivalries. David was not fazed by danger and was happy to take risks. He seemed to be the kind of eccentric who was a perfect fit for the CIA. Colleagues loved to tell the tale of how the Tyson family, with Rosann’s parents in the back of the car, had stopped at a gas station in rural Uzbekistan. When Rosann had looked around as the gas was being pumped, her husband had disappeared. Some considerable time later—the exact period depended on who was recounting the story—he returned, puzzled by the fuss over his absence. David had seen an elderly farmer working in a field and walked over to talk to him. The old man had invited David to his home for tea; it would have been rude to refuse.

David had no sense of self-importance and would help anyone. He was also uninterested in professional advancement. It was received wisdom that any new case officer, and especially one who had joined the Agency late, should take a job in headquarters after their first tour. Instead, David had signed up for a second stint in Tashkent. He was where he wanted to be. Having left academia behind, David was now all in with the CIA. He had found his new tribe.

On September 11, David’s destination was a hotel close to Grosvenor Square in London’s well-heeled Mayfair district. Although he had been in the CIA just three years, David’s age, expertise in his region, and air of quiet self-assurance meant that he was being treated as an operative with greater experience. The following day, he was to meet fellow CIA officers inside the Agency’s vast London station, where the subject would be Afghanistan.

*  *  *


  • A Good Morning America September Buzz Pick
  • "Run, don’t walk to pick this up. Toby Harnden has done a masterful job...What a powerful read."—James Gagliano, former senior FBI agent
  • "This is Afghanistan's Black Hawk Down...Harnden’s account is both well-informed and panoramic." —Daily Telegraph (UK)
  • "The hard-to-imagine drama, in the hands of another narrator, could easily turn overwrought; in this book, it is not. First Casualty is rife with heroic moments.  But it is the variety of the human reactions in those moments, and afterward, that separates this book from others. Fear, combat fatigue, and sadness appear often in the narrative...This book is compelling, sometimes disturbing, but in a necessary way." —Philip Mudd, former senior CIA officer, The Cipher Brief
  • "Storytelling at its best—educational and inspirational. A unique, important, and enduring history captured for all who want to learn." —Ambassador Hank Crumpton, former senior CIA officer
  • "Harnden...secured a coup by persuading the CIA to give him access...a terrific action narrative."

    Max Hastings, The Sunday Times of London
  • First Casualty reads like a Tom Clancy thriller, yet every word is true, and painstakingly researched. This is modern warfare close-up and raw: the pity, the heroism, the cruelty, and very occasionally some moments of glory too, as human beings are pushed to their furthest limits of endurance, and beyond. Harnden tells the extraordinary story of the battle of Qala-i-Jangi with verve, intelligence, acute analysis and flashes of ironic wit. It would make a terrific movie.”—Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny
  • "Vividly describes the rollicking adventures Langley’s men enjoyed amid the blood, dust and tribesmen." —Bloomberg News
  • "An absolutely gripping read"—Brad Thor
  • "This is an amazing book - highly recommended." —Marc Ambinder
  • "Harnden’s scoop is to have convinced the CIA to give him access to its key men from those early days.” —The Spectator
  • "First Casualty is the closest most readers will come to really knowing a spy; Harnden intimately portrays who these men were and are as America attempts to extract itself from its longest war."—James Pekoll, Booklist
  • "Harnden skillfully interweaves dramatic action sequences with the backstories of the book’s central figures, and briskly highlights the failures of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Readers will be swept up in this little-known chapter of America’s 'forever war.'"—Publishers Weekly
  • “The heart of Harnden’s readable book is the Battle of Qala-i Jangi, a bloody, six-day revolt of around 400 al Qaeda prisoners in a 19th-century fortress designed by British engineers during earlier imperial adventures in northern Afghanistan…Harnden’s scoop is to have convinced the CIA to give him access to its key men from those early days.”—Justin Marozzi, The Spectator

On Sale
Sep 7, 2021
Page Count
432 pages

Toby Harnden

About the Author

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 First CasualtyBandit 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.

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