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A CIA veteran who survived a hand-to-hand battle with Al Qaeda is now helping Afghans escape the Taliban

Two decades after fighting in the first big battle of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a CIA veteran is coming to the aid of former Afghan comrades before the Taliban hunts them down.

The desperate pleas come flooding into David Tyson’s cellphone, from a country that has fallen off the American radar.

The texts are from Afghans who fought alongside him and his colleagues, and they are asking for help to flee Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The messages often include graphic videos: whippings, torture, the stoning of women, even executions, Tyson said.

Tyson was among the first Americans to fly into Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, as part of a CIA unit dropped into Taliban-controlled territory five weeks after the attacks. Team Alpha fought the first major battle of the U.S. war in Afghanistan at a fort in northern Afghanistan, and Tyson’s teammate, Johnny “Mike” Spann, was the first American killed in combat in the conflict.

CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann.
CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann.Laura Lejuwaan Photography/ Courtesy CIA via Getty Images file

To honor his fallen colleague and his former Afghan partners, Tyson and Spann’s widow, Shannon, have joined forces to try to help evacuate Afghans who once served with Spann and other CIA officers on the battlefield more than 20 years ago.

Over the last year, Tyson has been fielding calls and texts nearly every day from the Afghans who are still trying to get out — former commanders who fought with Team Alpha in 2001 and their families.

The plight of the Afghan partners is “terrifying,” Tyson told NBC News’ Richard Engel. “But I can’t sit here and dwell on that. I just have to try to act and try to help these people." 

Afghanistan is “totally absent from our frame of reference now in the media, in our thinking, we’ve focused on other things,” Tyson said. “I understand that governments abandon and forget. But what I can’t do as a person is abandon and forget, and what we can’t do as people is abandon and forget.”

After President Joe Biden pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, when “we decided to lose a war,” as Tyson puts it, he started to hear from his old Afghan friends. “I guess not surprisingly, many of these men found ways to contact me ... and they were stuck, literally stuck and being hunted down by the Taliban.”

Tyson, Shannon Spann and others associated with Team Alpha have formed a nonprofit called Badger Six, named after Mike Spann’s radio callsign. The group, funded by private donations, says it has managed to get about 300 Afghans out by air and over land to neighboring countries, using safe houses, wire transfers and a network of contacts. Many of them are relatives of former Afghan Northern Alliance commanders who rode on horseback with Team Alpha and U.S. special forces in the opening days of the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Overwhelming odds

The harrowing battle that claimed Mike Spann’s life was triggered by an uprising of hundreds of captured Al Qaeda fighters at a mud-baked fort called Qala-i-Jangi. Tyson, a linguist, and Spann, a former Marine, were questioning the prisoners, trying to glean intelligence and identify any key figures, according to Tyson.

One of the fighters, they learned, spoke English and the other prisoners called him the “Irishman.” The lanky, long-haired prisoner who avoided eye contact turned out to be an American, John Walker Lindh.

John Walker Lindh
John Walker Lindh. AP file

Not long after Spann posed questions to Lindh, the Al Qaeda fighters launched an attack on their captors with weapons they had concealed. Several of them rushed Spann.

Tyson tried to come to his aid after hearing Spann call his first name, and found four men on top of Spann, Tyson said. He shot the fighters attacking his teammate, but Spann had been killed.

A former academic who had served in the U.S. Army, Tyson had not fired a pistol since a CIA course five years earlier. But facing overwhelming odds, Tyson managed to fend off dozens of Al Qaeda fighters, call for help and save the lives of journalists, Red Cross workers and Northern Alliance troops.

Tyson says he fired at least 100 rounds from his Browning 9mm pistol and Spann’s Kalashnikov rifle in the battle, and eventually escaped to another part of the fort.

“I just run across this field, and when I’m running across this field, I am certain I am going to be killed,” Tyson said.

He stumbled upon a German television news team, commandeered their satellite phone and called for reinforcements. “We do not control all of the fort,” he told his CIA colleagues, his phone conversation caught on camera by the German journalists.

“David wasn’t an elite warrior. He wasn’t former Delta Force. He wasn’t a SEAL. He wasn’t even a CIA paramilitary. He was a former academic who was a case officer — a linguist,” said Toby Harnden, an author whose book “First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11,” about Team Alpha, contains a detailed account of the battle.

“But when it mattered, he ran towards his comrade — Mike Spann. He ran towards danger,” Harnden said. “And that’s just incredible that a human being is placed in this situation, and has this choice of kill or be killed. And he took the choice of kill and survive.”

Tyson later received the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the agency’s highest award for valor.

“I don’t know what David’s percentage chances of survival were in this, but I would put it at 5 or 10 percent,” Harnden said. 

Paying tribute

The Afghans that Tyson and Shannon Spann are now trying to help often have no passport or other documents, and did not work under formal contracts for the U.S. government. As a result, they do not qualify for visas for former interpreters and others who worked for the United States, and often are not eligible to board periodic relocation flights out of Kabul on planes chartered by the U.S. government.

But Shannon Spann said months of efforts recently succeeded in helping one Afghan family whose son had been badly beaten by the Taliban and whose daughter and widow faced a possible forced marriage with a Taliban member. The family is now out of the country, said Spann, who served in the CIA’s counterterrorism center when her husband was deployed to northern Afghanistan more than 20 years ago.

Team Alpha group photo
Team Alpha, an elite group of CIA operatives, whose covert mission was to partner with Afghan allies to oust the Taliban and drive Al Qaeda from Afghanistan after the attacks of 9/11. Back row: CIA case officer David Tyson (2nd from right) and Mike Spann, the first American combat casualty in the war (far right). Courtesy David Tyson

Having already lost her husband to the war, Spann said the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan and its aftermath have been incredibly painful to watch.

“It calls into question whether those sacrifices were worth it. And that is a place that’s very difficult to go,” she said. “The weight of it feels so overwhelming.”

That’s why she and her small team “try to look at each individual family, one at a time,” she said. “Because if you look at the big picture, it’s too much.”

She said Americans had a “moral obligation” to bring Afghan partners to the United States for permanent resettlement. “They stood with us in order to ensure victory in the early days of the war. Their lives are under constant threat because of their partnership with us,” she said.

The Biden administration has repeatedly defended its evacuation efforts.

Afghan Commander Mohammed Faqir Jawzjani with Captain Mark Nutsch in Northern Afghanistan
Afghan Commander Mohammed Faqir Jawzjani with Capt. Mark Nutsch, head of a U.S. Special Forces team in Northern Afghanistan in 2001. Nutsch is part of the group now working to help former Afghan allies escape the Taliban. Courtesy David Tyson

A former Afghan cavalry commander who worked with Team Alpha in 2001, Mohammed Faqir Jawzjani, is one of the Afghans who Tyson was able to help. With Tyson working the phone with his American contacts on the ground, Faqir managed to enter Kabul airport and board a U.S. military plane in the final days of the American withdrawal. He is now in New Jersey with his family.

“I’m lucky,” said Faqir, who had three brothers killed by the Taliban during the war. “If I stayed there, it would have been the end of my life.”

 From the age of 10, Faqir says his whole life in Afghanistan was dominated by war. “I remember always gunshots, wounds and people dying,” he said. “Now I’m relaxed.” Living in safety is new for him, he said. “No more fights, no more struggles for years, everything is new.”

David Tyson with Mohammed Faqir Jawzjani and his family at their home in New Jersey
Mohammed Faqir Jawzjani (center, back row), a former Afghan commander, and his family now live in New Jersey after being evacuated with the help of former U.S. partners, including David Tyson (second to left, back row). Courtesy Dr. Abdul Azim Rasul

Tyson and other members of Team Alpha paid tribute to Mike Spann at Arlington National Cemetery last year on the 20th anniversary of his death.

“This brings back the events that took place on 25 November 2001,” Tyson said. “That crashing realization, that stunning aspect of realizing that Mike was actually dead, because somebody like Mike, you know, in our minds, people like that don’t die,” he said.

“Mike’s shadow is always there for me. And he’s always asking me to be worthy of his sacrifice. And that has helped me along a great deal.”