Battle of Qala-i-Jangi

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Battle of Qala-i-Jangi
Part of the War in Afghanistan and the Afghan Civil War
Mike Spann Memorial.JPG
Johnny Michael Spann's memorial at Qala-i-Jangi in 2007.
Date25 November 2001 – 1 December 2001
(6 days)
Location36°40′N 66°59′E / 36.667°N 66.983°E / 36.667; 66.983Coordinates: 36°40′N 66°59′E / 36.667°N 66.983°E / 36.667; 66.983
Result Coalition victory
Northern Alliance
 United States
 United Kingdom
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
East Turkistan Islamic Party
Commanders and leaders
General Abdul Rashid Dostum[1]
Major Mark E. Mitchell[2]
unknown 386[3]
Casualties and losses
73 Afghans killed
250 Afghans wounded
1 American killed
9 Special Forces soldiers (5 Americans and 4 British) wounded
300 killed
86 re-captured[4]

The Battle of Qala-i-Jangi (also referred to as the "Battle of Mazar-i-Sharif") was an uprising of prisoners-of-war that took place between 25 November and 1 December 2001, in northern Afghanistan, following the armed intervention by United States-led coalition forces to overthrow the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which had been harboring al-Qaeda operatives.

Hundreds of men, including many non-Afghans, surrendered outside Mazar-i-Sharif and were held at Qala-i-Jangi fortress by the Afghan Northern Alliance forces (United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan) for an interrogation by American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel interested in al-Qaeda suspects. The prisoners, who had not been searched properly, violently revolted and the ensuing fighting escalated into one of the bloodiest engagements of the conflict. It took Northern Alliance fighters, assisted by British and American special forces and air support, six days to quell the revolt.

All but 86 prisoners were killed as well as a number of Northern Alliance fighters. The only U.S. fatality was the CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, the first American to be killed in combat during the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Among the surviving prisoners were two American citizens suspected of fighting with the Taliban: Yaser Esam Hamdi and John Walker Lindh.


In late November 2001, with their military situation in northern Afghanistan becoming critical, many Taliban field commanders agreed to surrender to the Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader of the ethnic-Uzbek dominated National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, outside the besieged city of Kunduz.[4] Hundreds of Al Ansar[5] "guest" foreign fighters (mostly from Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East) also surrendered their weapons, including a large group that had arrived in a convoy one day earlier to a place 100 kilometres (62 mi) away of the agreed capitulation site, close to Mazar-i-Sharif.[6] Dostum described the Taliban surrender as a "great victory" for the Alliance,[7] a bloodless success that would allow the future reconciliation of citizens of Afghanistan. Thousands of prisoners were transported to the Sheberghan Prison (it was alleged that many of them died due to mistreatment during and after the transport).

Meanwhile, as the U.S. forces wanted to question the captured foreign fighters about possible links with the al-Qaeda international jihadist network, the Afghans decided to transfer such prisoners to Qala-i-Jangi ("the war fortress" in Dari), a 19th-century fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif that Dostum had previously used as his headquarters and ammunition depot. On 24 November 386 [3] foreign suspects were transported on flatbed trucks to the fortress, now turned into a prison. The prisoners had not been searched, and some had concealed weapons during the surrender. On the day of the surrender, two prisoners committed suicide with grenades and killed one of Dostum's commanders and some others in two separate incidents at the makeshift prison. Despite the deaths, the National Islamic Movement militia did not reinforce security at the prison.[8] John Kerry's report for the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations later alleged it was a pre-planned "Trojan Horse" style operation, a gambit that would allow a die-hard force of foreign fighters to take over a strategically important fortified position at Qala-i-Jangi and capture a massive munitions stockpile.[6]


On 25 November, two CIA officers, Johnny Michael Spann from the paramilitary Special Activities Division, and David Tyson, a case officer, Uzbek speaker and regional expert,[9] arrived at Qala-i-Jangi to carry out prisoner interrogations in the fort's courtyard.[10] The CIA officers questioned selected prisoners, especially Sulayman al-Faris who was an American citizen born as John Walker Lindh (at the time, they noticed only that Lindh was a European-looking prisoner and different from the others, so he was singled out for an interrogation). Approximately two hours after the interviews began, a number of prisoners, some of them with concealed grenades, suddenly stood up and attacked their captors, who were outnumbered about four to one.[11] Attacking in a suicidal manner, revolting prisoners overran and killed Spann and several Afghan guards; they also appeared to be often much better trained than their Northern Alliance captors, many of whom got shocked and frightened by their enemies' display of skill and fanaticism.[5] The prisoners managed to take over the southern half of the fortress, including the armory and ammunition depot, seizing a large store of small arms, grenades, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars and ammunition.[12]

With Spann missing in the chaos, Tyson escaped to the northern and more secure part of the fortress, where he was trapped with a television crew from the German ARD network. He borrowed their satellite phone, and called the U.S. embassy in Uzbekistan, requesting reinforcements.[13] Tyson specifically requested no air support, due to the proximity of allied Afghan forces. CENTCOM sent a quick reaction force from the Turkish school, a base in Mazar-e-Sharif, housing Green Berets and an 8-man team from Z Squadron Special Boat Service, the quick reaction force was assembled from whoever was in the building at the time: a headquarters element from 3rd Battalion 5th Special Forces Group, a pair of USAF liaison officers, a CIA medic and the SBS team.[14] The Afghans also brought reinforcements: their personnel and a T-55 tank entered the compound and started firing into the prisoner-controlled area. Several other television crews arrived on the scene of the battle, ensuring it got wide media coverage; the successive stages of the fighting were filmed extensively, providing rare footage of special forces units in combat. At 2 pm, a mixed special ops team, formed with nine U.S. Army Special Forces and six British Special Boat Service operators, one of them was U.S. Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Stephen Bass, arrived and joined the Afghans firing at the prisoners from the northern part of the fort. From 4 pm until nightfall, they directed two U.S. fighter-bomber aircraft for nine airstrikes against the entrenched prisoners, who continued to put up a fierce resistance. Despite Tyson's requests, 500-pound GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs from U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet were dropped on the armory, which was serving as a base of fire for the prisoners. He and German journalist Arnim Stauth were rescued when a relief action by four U.S. troops enabled them to escape.[5]

The next day, the allied Afghan militia set up a command-and-control post near the northern gate to direct their tank and mortar fire. By mid-morning they were joined by U.S./British forces divided into three teams: a close air support team designated CAS-1 that went inside the fortress along the bottom of the northeast tower to direct bombing strikes into the southern courtyard, a second close air support team designated CAS-2 that positioned itself near the main gate of the fortress, and a Quick Reaction Force consisting of four more Special Forces troops, a U.S. Navy surgeon, and eight soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division. At 11 pm, a GBU-31 JDAM guided bomb, weighing 2,000 pounds (957 kg), was dropped from an USAF Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, directed by the Air Force Special Tactics combat controller on the CAS-1 team who called in the JDAM strike. The pilot mistakenly entered in the wrong coordinates, hitting the combat controller's position. The bomb's explosion killed 30 allied militiamen and wounded 50 others on the northeast tower above the CAS-1 team, flipped over a friendly tank, and injured all members of the CAS-1 team, including five U.S. and four British operators.[13] That night two AC-130H Spectre gunships (callsigns GRIM 11 and GRIM 14) circled over the fortress, firing at the prisoners. The main ammunition depot was hit, creating a massive explosion which continued to burn throughout the night.[15] One prisoner managed to escape from the fort, only to be captured and lynched by the local population.[5]

By the morning of 27 November, prisoner resistance had slackened. The allied forces mounted a systematic assault supported by tanks and other armored vehicles, and defeated a counterattack by the prisoners. By the end of the day, they had recaptured most of the fort, at that point facing sporadic gunfire and some suicide grenade attacks.[5] The Americans recovered Spann's body, which the prisoners had booby trapped with a grenade.[13] Afghan fighters looted the bodies of prisoners, extracting gold teeth, taking the shoes and sneakers, and killed at least two who were found to be still alive.[16]

At that point, the Coalition forces assumed all of the prisoners were dead. In reality, however, well over 100 surviving prisoners had retreated to the basement dungeon of a central building, where they hid and were discovered only when they killed the body collectors who attempted to enter it and injured two others.[5] The fighting resumed. Northern Alliance fighters fired and threw in grenades and explosives into the basement, and even poured oil in and set it alight, but the resistance continued. On 28 November, General Dostum arrived and personally tried to persuade the last prisoners to surrender, to no effect. The next day, Dostum ordered the dungeon flooded with frigid irrigation water.[17] This tactic worked and the last holdouts finally surrendered on 1 December. Of the 386 prisoners brought to the fortress, 86 emerged alive from the flooded basement, including John Walker Lindh.[16] Some survivors later claimed they did not participate in the battle. One also told The Observer reporter Luke Harding that some wanted to surrender earlier, but a group of seven Arabs took control and did not let them.[4]

The Uyghur Turkistan Islamic Party's Islamic Turkistan magazine in its 5th edition published an obituary of its member Turghun (Ibn Umar al Turkistani) speaking of his time training at the Al Khaldan training camp and his meeting with Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. The Uyghurs in Afghanistan fought against the American bombing and the Northern Alliance after the September 11 2001 attacks. Ibn Umar died fighting against Americans at Qala-i-Jangi that month.[18][19]


Surviving prisoner John Walker Lindh photographed after being transported to Camp Rhino on December 7, 2001

Of the 86 prisoners who survived the battle, one was found to be John Walker Lindh, an American convert to Islam who had moved to Afghanistan to help the Taliban battle the Northern Alliance prior to the September 11 attacks. Shortly after the battle, an embedded journalist working for CNN, Robert Young Pelton, managed to identify the badly injured and hypothermic Lindh as an American. Lindh was then separated from other prisoners and his life was saved by an American special forces medic.[5] Lindh was later repatriated to the United States to face charges of treason. In 2002, he was found guilty of aiding and supporting the enemy and sentenced to 20 years in prison without parole.

In early 2002, at least 50[4] other surviving prisoners were transferred to Camp X-Ray at the newly constructed Guantanamo Bay detention camp at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were mostly Arabs, including 21 Saudis and nine Yemenis,[4] but there were also some nationals from other countries such as Russian national Rasul Kudayev (from Kabardino-Balkaria), who had allegedly joined the Afghanistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU),[20] and Abdul Jabar, an Uzbek member of the IMU. In 2004, after three years of detention without trial (at first at Camp X-Ray, until his identity was discovered), the U.S. citizen Yaser Esam Hamdi won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which affirmed the right of U.S. citizens to habeas corpus and trial; he was released from United States custody without charges and was deported to his native Saudi Arabia.

Major Mark E. Mitchell being decorated for his combat actions during the battle by General Bryan D. Brown, chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command

For his actions during the battle, Major Mark E. Mitchell, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the first such decoration to be awarded since the Vietnam War.[21] Additionally, a U.S. Navy corpsman, Chief Petty Officer Stephen Bass, was awarded the Navy Cross to for his actions while attached to the British Special Boat Service.[22][23] Bass' Navy Cross was the first navy cross awarded since Operation Just Cause.[24] A biography of Bass can be found within the book The Navy Cross: Extraordinary Heroism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Conflicts.[25]

Johnny "Mike" Spann, the only U.S. fatality, was recognized as the first American killed in combat during the U.S. 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. For his "extraordinary heroism" in fighting off the prisoners long enough to allow his colleagues to escape, Spann was posthumously awarded the CIA's Intelligence Star;[26] because the Intelligence Star is considered analogous to the Silver Star, the Department of Defense allowed him to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.[27] At Spann's memorial at the cemetery, officials said that, after being attacked, Spann "fought with his AK-47 until it ran out of ammunition, then drew his pistol and emptied it, before turning to hand to hand combat which saw him shot."[28] Mike Spann's family visited the fortress after his death. Afghan doctors who were present on site at the time of the riot told the Spann family they "thought Mike might run and retreat, but he held his position and fought using his AK rifle until out of ammo, and then drew and began firing his pistol", and that the only reason that they and several others were able to live was "because Mike stood his position and fought off the prisoners while enabling them the time to run to safety."[29]


Due to the high number of prisoner casualties, and the use of massive firepower against them, the Northern Alliance and the foreign coalition forces were accused of breaking the Geneva Conventions by using disproportionate means.[30] American soldiers found a number of the dead with their arms tied behind their back.[31] Abdulaziz al-Oshan, one of the detainees, later summarized the incident and told American authorities at Guantanamo Bay: "They called it an uprising and it's not; it's some kind of massacre."[16] Amnesty International called for an independent inquiry,[32] but the U.S. and British governments rejected this, arguing that the fierce and well-armed resistance of the uprising fully justified the use of air-power and heavy weapons against the revolting prisoners.

The Afghan forces were criticized for mismanagement of the prisoners, which is believed to have enabled the uprising. The captives were not properly searched and some carried grenades into the prison. Dostum later admitted this had been a mistake.[29] Also, as Qala-i-Jangi had been previously a Taliban base, many of the prisoners had been there before and knew its layout. Dostum had planned to hold the men at a nearby airfield, but the U.S. was using it to ferry in supplies. By questioning the prisoners in a group, rather than separately, protected by few guards, the interrogators put themselves at risk with men known to be dangerous. George Tenet, director of the CIA, dismissed the accusations of mismanagement and praised his agents as "heroes";[33] in Bush at War, the journalist Bob Woodward described Spann as a hero whose actions saved the lives of many.[27]

Representation in other media[edit]

  • In the documentary The House of War, Robert Young Pelton and film maker Paul Yule provided a detailed account of these events. Interviews and footage from CNN, ARD, and elsewhere (Dodge Billingsley and recovered interrogation footage) show Mike Spann and Dave Tyson moments before the uprising. Pelton's The World's Most Dangerous Places one-hour special "Inside Afghanistan" details his time with the U.S. Special Forces team (ODA 595) that fought with Dostum's troops.
  • The incident was documented in the National Geographic documentary series Critical Situation "Taliban Situation" and by French reporter Damien Degueldre in Good Morning Afghanistan.
  • Doug Stanton's non-fiction book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan opens with an account of the battle.
  • Frederick Forsyth's novel The Afghan includes a partly fictional but detailed account of the battle and its context. Forsyth calls the captives the "six hundred most dangerous men in Asia." Out of 600, he counts 60 non-Arabs. The rest were "ultrafanatical" al-Qaeda Arabs who wanted to die and take an enemy with them to become a rewarded martyr.
  • Damien Lewis's book Bloody Heroes is a detailed account for the event with references and interviews from members of the SBS team.
  • On the anniversary of the battle, David Tyson recounted the story of Spann's death, the battle that lead to it, and how he honored Spann's legacy in a podcast: Intelligence Matters.[34]

See also[edit]

  • Badaber Uprising, a similar uprising of the Soviet and Afghan communist captives in a fortress prison in Pakistan in 1985
  • Fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, which involved a killing of hundreds of Taliban who were cornered by the Northern Alliance and U.S. forces in a school building in 2001
  • Dasht-i-Leili massacre


  1. ^ Sennott, Charles M. (5 May 2015). "The First Battle of the 21st Century". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 2017-04-12. Retrieved 4 November 2016.
  2. ^ DuMouchel, Leah (15 May 2010). "Doug Stanton's 'Horse Soldiers' fight 21st century war on 19th century terrain". The Ann Arbor News. Archived from the original on 2016-11-05. Retrieved 4 November 2016. Or, as ground commander Major Mark Mitchell put it, 'Brains before bullets. Outthink 'em so you don't have to outshoot 'em.'
  3. ^ a b Estimates of the number of prisoners vary: some sources place their number at 300 [1] Archived 2007-09-30 at the Wayback Machine, others at 400 [2] Archived 2007-12-13 at the Wayback Machine, others at 500 [3] Archived 2008-01-17 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ a b c d e "The Report of The Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment". p. 78. Archived from the original on 2014-08-08. Retrieved 2013-08-08.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Mark Kukis, "My Heart Became Attached": The Strange Journey of John Walker Lindh, pages 126-146.
  6. ^ a b Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed to Get Bin Laden and Why It Matters Today Archived 2013-08-22 at the Wayback Machine, page 37 (chapter "Qala-i-Jangi: The Trojan Horse")
  7. ^ Perry, Alex (20 December 2001). "Inside the Battle at Qala-i-Jangi". Time. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved February 20, 2007.
  8. ^ Perry, Alex, "Inside the Battle at Qali i Jangi", Time, Dec 1, 2001
  9. ^ David Tyson (1997). "Shrine Pilgrimage in Turkmenistan as a Means to Understand Islam among the Turkmen". University of Georgia. Archived from the original on 2009-08-01. Retrieved 2009-08-02.
  10. ^ Moore, Robin (2003). The Hunt for Bin Laden: Task Force Dagger. New York: Random House. pp. 167–169. ISBN 0-375-50861-9.
  11. ^ George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA 2007, pp. 221-224. ISBN 978-0-06-114778-4.
  12. ^ Berntsen, Gary and Ralph Pezzullo. Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander 2005, p. 252. ISBN 978-0-307-23740-8
  13. ^ a b c The house of war –– Retrieved February 20, 2007 Archived 2007-03-22 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Neville, Leigh, Special Forces in the War on Terror (General Military), Osprey Publishing, 2015 ISBN 1472807901 ISBN 978-1472807908, p.73
  15. ^ Dodge Billingsley on location account of the event and post action interview with AC-130 105mm gunner.
  16. ^ a b c Worthington, Andy, The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison, Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-2665-8, 2007.
  17. ^ Boot, Max (2006). War Made New. p. 373. ISBN 978-1-59240-315-8.
  18. ^ "(رحمه اللّٰه) صفحات من تاريخ بطل الشيخ الشهيد ابن عمر التركستاني" (PDF). تركستان الإسلامية. No. السنة الثاني العدد الخامس. January 2010. pp. 10–13. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-05-08.
  19. ^ "Türkistan İslam Cemaati Komutanı İbni Ömer et-Türkistani'nin Hayatı". Doğu Türkistan Bülteni Haber Ajansı. 18 January 2016. Archived from the original on 2017-03-03.
  20. ^ Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus, page 417.
  21. ^ Afghanistan SF leader gets first DSC since Vietnam; Archived 2014-04-16 at the Wayback Machine ; – Retrieved June 28, 2007.
  22. ^ "Lt. earned a Navy Cross he can't wear". Navy Times.
  23. ^ "Coronado SEAL wins Navy Cross". San Diego Union-Tribune. Copley News Service. 1 November 2003. Archived from the original on 4 November 2016. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
    Dick Camp (14 January 2012). Boots on the Ground: The Fight to Liberate Afghanistan from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, 2001-2002. MBI Publishing Company. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-7603-4111-7.
    John F. Kerry (April 2010). Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed to Get Bin Laden and Why It Matters Today: A Report to Members of the Committee on Foreign Relations, U. S. Senate. DIANE Publishing. p. 38. ISBN 978-1-4379-2671-2.
    Oliver North (1 November 2010). American Heroes in Special Operations. B&H Publishing Group. pp. 33–34. ISBN 978-1-4336-7343-6.
    John C. Fredriksen (31 December 2011). Fighting Elites: A History of U.S. Special Forces. ABC-CLIO. p. 305. ISBN 978-1-59884-810-6.
  24. ^ "Stephen Bass". Hall of Valor. Military Times. Archived from the original on 2016-11-04. Retrieved 2 November 2016. During the same battle for which Stephen Bass became the first Navy SEAL to earn the Navy Cross since the invasion of Panama in 1989, Army Special Forces Major Mark Mitchell also earned the Distinguished Service Cross.
  25. ^ Jeffery Cook, Ph.D. (August 2008). "James E. Wise, Jr. and Scott Baron, The Navy Cross: Extraordinary Heroism in Iraq , Afghanistan , and Other Conflicts, Annapolis , MD : Naval Institute, 2007, 272 pp" (PDF). International Journal of Naval History. 7 (2). Retrieved 2 November 2016.
    James E. Wise; Scott Baron (2007). The Navy Cross: Extraordinary Heroism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Conflicts. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-945-3.
  26. ^ "CIA Honors Slain Agency Officers at Annual Ceremony Press Release. Director of Central Intelligence, CIA". Archived from the original on 2007-05-09. Retrieved 2017-08-24.
  27. ^ a b Bob Woodward, Bush At War. Simon and Schuester, 2002, page 317.
  28. ^ "Johnny Michael Spann". at ArlingtonCemetery•net. (Unofficial website).[better source needed]
  29. ^ a b Perry, Alex (December 1, 2001). "Inside the Battle at Qala-I-Jangi". Time. Archived from the original on 2010-06-29. Retrieved April 26, 2010.
  30. ^ Luke Harding, Simon Tisdall, Nicholas Watt & Richard Norton-Taylor. "Fatal errors that led to massacre" Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine, The Guardian. December 1, 2001.
  31. ^ Justin Huggler, "How our Afghan allies applied the Geneva Convention[dead link]", The Independent, 29 November 2001.
  32. ^ Richard Norton-Taylor. "SAS role in fort deaths questioned" Archived 2016-07-21 at the Wayback Machine, The Guardian, December 15, 2001.
  33. ^ "Spann described as a hero" Archived 2007-01-17 at the Wayback Machine. CNN, Nov 28, 2001.
  34. ^ "Former CIA officer talks about first U.S. casualty in Afghanistan on anniversary of Mike Spann's death". Retrieved 2020-11-28.