Image 01 Image 03

20 Years Ago Today: CIA Officer Johnny “Mike” Spann Was First American Killed In Afghanistan After 9/11

20 Years Ago Today: CIA Officer Johnny “Mike” Spann Was First American Killed In Afghanistan After 9/11

Toby Harnden, author of the recently released book First Casualty: “Mike Spann died fighting, using his Kalashnikov rifle and Glock pistol to kill the enemy as he was overwhelmed…. As a tragic bookend to the 20-year conflict, 11 Marines were among the 13 service members killed at Kabul airport during the August evacuation – most of whom had been babies when Mike Spann was killed.”

On November 25 of each year we remember Johnny Micheal Spann. On this date in 2001, Spann became the first American killed in Afghanistan after 9/11. That was 20 years ago.

Spann’s story is truly heroic, as I noted in my first post about Spann on May 3, 2011, Remembering Johnny “Mike” Spann:

Hearing the news of Osama bin Laden’s death brought forward many emotions and memories.

One of those memories for me was the story of Johnny “Mike” Spann, from Winfield, Alabama, the first American killed in the Afghanistan war, on November 25, 2001.

Spann was a CIA operative, one of a small number of Americans who landed in Afghanistan, helped coordinate local forces hostile to the Taliban, and directed bombing and other military action.

The story of this small band of men has been told, but not told enough.

Spann was killed during the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi when Taliban prisoners gained access to weapons and attacked.

Spann was killed during that uprising.  One of the prisoners was the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lyndh, who Spann interrogated shortly before Spann’s death.

Spann’s wife Shannon also worked for the CIA.  In addition to his wife, Spann left behind two daughters and an infant son….

So in these days in which we remember those who died on 9/11, let’s also remember Johnny “Mike” Spann, who died in the weeks immediately after 9/11 on a battlefield far from home, and who against seemingly impossible odds helped pave the way for the overthrow of the Taliban, and over nine years later, the justice delivered two days ago.

Each year since then we have a memorial post about Spann updating new information about what happened in Afghanistan leading to his death, and how is family has held up, including these posts:

I recently found this video of the battle:

With the debacle of the Biden administration’s mishandled withdrawal from Aghanistan in August 2021, and the Taliban back in control, I wondered how Spann’s family reacted.

I found this story in the Montgomery Advertiser about Spann’s father

Spann’s father said he was disgusted by images of America’s chaotic withdrawal Monday showing people, desperate to escape the Taliban takeover, clinging to the side of a departing U.S. military jet.

“It makes me sick to my stomach when I see it. It’s disheartening. It’s shameful, I think. I think it’s shameful that we would do this,” Johnny Spann said.

The elder Spann had just dropped off his granddaughter in Birmingham when he had to pull over and look at the images on his cellphone after hearing them described. The scenes of people plunging to their deaths from the plane reminded him of the Americans who jumped from the towers of the World Trade Center, he said.

Spann said he is not opposed to Americans leaving Afghanistan but disagrees with the timing and how it was done. With the Taliban takeover, his mind goes immediately to the Afghans who helped his son and other Americans.

“They are going to die. They are going to kill them. And how can someone stomach that when we know we made them promises? There is no telling how many people we would have lost if those people hadn’t helped us,” he said….

Much of the work his son and others did has been undone, he said, but that doesn’t make their contributions meaningless.

“They helped us keep America safe, and that’s what they were doing for 20 years. They did their job. They did what they were supposed to do. They did what they were told to do. But they didn’t die in vain,” he said.

Spann’s wife Shannon also spoke with Fox News:

Chaotic scenes from the Kabul airport show that Afghans, desperate to flee the country, don’t believe the Taliban’s softer tone or promises to maintain women’s rights, a former CIA intelligence officer told Fox News in an exclusive interview.

Shannon Spann, the widow of a fellow CIA officer who was the first American service member to be killed in combat in Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, also reflected on children and women she met in the Middle Eastern nation during the U.S.’ intervention and what their lives will look like with the Taliban back in power.

“You don’t have to look further than the airport in Kabul to see that local Afghans don’t believe [the Taliban’s] story of ‘we’re going to be peaceful, we’re not going to do reprisals, we’re going to invite participation from women,'” Spann told Fox News. “People literally clinging to the landing gear of aircraft to try to get away from the story that they know is about to be written.” ….

Believing that the Taliban is painting a false narrative as killings continue, Spann reflected on women and children she met in Afghanistan soon after the U.S. entered Afghanistan.

She described meeting young children, the same ages as her children, who she met in an orphanage during a 2002 trip to Afghanistan for a ceremony honoring her late husband.

“They greeted us with such friendship,” Spann, who left the CIA in 2009, told Fox News. “They had such resilient joy on their faces.”

“I can’t stop thinking this week about those children,” she continued. “Now those children are in their 20s and 30s, like my children are. What will their life look like now?”….

She told Fox News that it was “unconscionable” that the U.S. had no plan to “evacuate the most vulnerable of our friends and partners.”

Spann’s daughter Alison recently gave a lengthy invertiew about her father.

This year also brought new information about the team Spann was with in those opening days, and how Spann died. Journalist and author Toby Harnden, someone whose work I have followed for years, published a fantastic book, First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11.

When Harnden reached out to me regarding the book, it was with this kind note:

I know how closely you’ve followed Mike Spann’s story over the years – when most forgot him.

Harnden kindly provided me with a review copy as well as permission to use some of the exclusive photos that appear in the book.

The Daily Mail detailed some of Harnden’s new findings:

The mystery of how Mike Spann, the CIA officer who was America’s first casualty on the battlefield after 9/11, was killed in Afghanistan has finally been solved nearly 20 years after his death.

Spann, 32, a former Marine Corps officer and CIA paramilitary, died on November 25, 2001, during a prisoner uprising at Qala-i Jangi, a remote fort outside Mazar-i Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

He and David Tyson, a CIA case officer, had gone into the fort to question the first Al Qaeda members to have been captured.

More than 400 fighters had been detained in a cellar in the Pink House, a building inside the fort.

At the time, it was reported that Spann had been beaten, kicked, and bitten to death.

A Random House book, which was subsequently discredited, later claimed that Spann had been captured and tortured horrifically before being shot in both legs and then the neck.

At the time, it was reported that Spann had been beaten, kicked, and bitten to death.

A Random House book, which was subsequently discredited, later claimed that Spann had been captured and tortured horrifically before being shot in both legs and then the neck.

At the time, it was reported that Spann had been beaten, kicked, and bitten to death.

A Random House book, which was subsequently discredited, later claimed that Spann had been captured and tortured horrifically before being shot in both legs and then the neck.

While Spann is central to Harnden’s book, the investigative reporting goes beyond Spann to the entire Alpha team. From the Preface:

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.

In this interview Harnden discusses his book and his findings about how Spann was killee:

Harnden provides details on John Walker Lindh — now a free man after release from U.S. prison — who was known among his initial captors as “the Irishman,” and his connection to Osama bin Laden:

The Irishman was John Walker Lindh, a twenty-year-old who had grown up in San Anselmo, just north of San Francisco—the city where J. R. Seeger had been working on terrorism issues, and less than 200 miles from the Yosemite cabin where Shannon and Jake Spann had stayed. After a privileged, liberal California upbringing, Lindh had converted to Islam. In the summer of 2001, he had traveled to Afghanistan, where he had trained at Al-Qaeda’s Al Farouq camp, which at least seven of the 9/11 hijackers had attended. Weeks before 9/11, Lindh had met with Osama bin Laden at Al Farouq and learned that attacks on the United States were planned….

When [Robert Young] Pelton [a National Geographic journalist] asked if it was “your goal to be shahid or martyred,” Lindh replied that it was “the goal of every Muslim” and elaborated, with passion in his voice, “I tell you, to be honest, every single one of us, without any exaggeration, every single one of us was 100 percent sure that we would all be shahid, all be martyred, but you know, Allah chooses to take a person’s life when he chooses.”

Chapter Three – “The Third Option” provides extensive background on Spann, and later chapters document his final moments with his family before he left for Afghanistan:

THERE WAS NEVER any question in Mike Spann’s mind that he would be part of America’s response to the Al-Qaeda attack on 9/11. He had left the Marines because the prospect of staff jobs and more training exercises failed to excite him. Mike was recently remarried with a baby son, and two daughters whose mother was gravely ill. No one would have criticized him if he had stayed behind. Shannon Spann briefly wondered whether it was right that he should go, before concluding that this was what her new husband had joined the CIA to do….

As Team Alpha’s departure for Uzbekistan neared, the Spann family— Mike, Shannon, Alison, Emily, and Jake—drove down to Williamsburg for the weekend. They also visited nearby Yorktown, site of the 1781 British surrender and birthplace of American independence. The trip had been arranged long before, and Mike was not going to miss it. But the timeline for the team leaving was fluid, and he’d been told the date could be moved up at short notice. “No matter what happens, do not leave without me,” he told Alex. For two days the Spanns took in the sights of colonial Williamsburg, the couple reminiscing about the times
they had spent there while at The Farm—already that seemed like a lifetime ago. Unlike many military operators before a deployment, Mike Jake whenever he could, and pushing the stroller, which he had dubbed the JTV—Jake Terrain Vehicle…

Alison, having seen the footage of 9/11, was beside herself that her father was going to the place where the terrorists had planned the attacks. He had explained to her that he couldn’t tell the US government he was unable to go: “What if every daddy said that? Who would there be to protect you?”

Shannon and Mike kissed and hugged, and she told him she loved him and was proud of him. She supported what he was doing and wanted him to succeed, she said, for the sake of his family and his country. Then, carrying his bags, he walked into the CIA headquarters building where they had both arrived as recruits just over two years earlier. Inside, a huge American flag had been hung in honor of the victims of 9/11. The automatic doors swished open and Mike, not looking back, disappeared into the lobby. Shannon returned to the car and wept.

I wondered how Harnden assessed Spann’s memory in light of the Biden debacle. Harnden provided this statement to me:

Mike Spann was an American hero who served his country as a Marine Corps officer and a CIA paramilitary. After 9/11, he was determined to get into Afghanistan with Team Alpha and take the fight to Al-Qaeda. On November 25, 2001, he was one of the two first Americans to question Al-Qaeda suspects following the attacks on New York and the Pentagon. He identified John Walker Lindh as an English-speaking Westerner. Mike Spann died fighting, using his Kalashnikov rifle and Glock pistol to kill the enemy as he was overwhelmed. He became the first casualty for the United States in Afghanistan but was far from the last. When U.S. forces exited Afghanistan in August, some of the brave Afghan allies who fought alongside Mike Spann in 2001 were abandoned, to our national shame. As a tragic bookend to the 20-year conflict, 11 Marines were among the 13 service members killed at Kabul airport during the August evacuation – most of whom had been babies when Mike Spann was killed.

On this day, we remember Johnny “Mike” Spann, and the sacrifice he made for his country, and the sacrifice his family makes to this day. Nothing that has happened since then diminishes his heroism.


Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.


I am thankful for their service and sacrifice. I am sickened how little our so called leaders care. And Bush, Cheney, I am looking at you…

    St.Hahn in reply to EBL. | November 25, 2021 at 8:52 pm

    I am surprised how little history our leaders and their advisors seemed to know and appreciate. We did not respect Islam when war was declared on us in 1998 and still don’t. We let ourselves get bogged down in a no win slog. Bush would probably say the same things about Islam today that he said 20 years ago. We were playing checkers and the enemy was playing chess. 9/11 was a unique teaching moment. The most powerful nation on earth had the opportunity to put a stake in the heart of political Islam and draw a line in the sand but we failed and I am not sure how we create the political will to change course now.

    I would like to know what the CIA was thinking and to answer that question I might be interested in the book.

Thank you, Professor

Can only feel they were sold out by this administration.

“They are going to die. They are going to kill them. And how can someone stomach that when we know we made them promises?”

It’s a wisdom hat, not a tinfoil hat.

Every week, I see at least one actor playing a government LEO, saying to a detainee, “If you’re worried about retribution, we can protect you.” I bet the reals ones still say that, too, and they still find people who believe them.

Thanks, Bill, for the reminder of Mike Spann, and the recent comments of his family members, and the introduction to Toby Harnden’s new book, First Casualty, which on your recommendation I just purchased.

what can you say about a man like spann, his sacrifice and those of his family?

perhaps only thank you and rest in peace, warrior


May we never forget Mike Spann and all who have given their lives in the service of country and for the cause of freedom. Rest in Peace, warrior and faithful servant.

I’ve had a window sticker on my truck for over 15 years that reads:
“Johnny Michael “Mike” Spann
79th Star on the C.I.A.’s Wall of Honor”
People sometimes ask what’s the significance of the sticker.
So, I tell them what Mike sacrificed for the United States. Mike had recently been discharged from the Marines when 9/11 happened. His skills fit the CIA, so they hired him. He was assigned to the Qala-i-Jangi fortress and a Taliban prisoner uprising took place while interrogating prisoners, one of which was Lindh.
Mike died on November 25, 2001 in Afghanistan, but not until after he fought gallantly killing several of his attackers with his handgun. He was the first combat KIA in the War on Terror.
I do not believe that it is in the best interest of the United States to release Lindh earlier than right after the last second of his sentence.

First things first. It is my most fervent hope that Mike Spann will rest in peace.

Now things take a turn. One of the things I love about the new LT Governor of VA, Winsome Sears, is that she is spot on when she said that the one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.

Here’s something nobody ever said. And if you joined the armed forces you’ll recognize the sarcasm.

My recruiter lied to me.

Honestly, I didn’t realize when I joined the Navy as an Intelligence Officer I was just going to be a paper pusher. To cut to the chase, there’s not much need for trigger pullers in ONI.

I recall sitting in a department head meeting when my then skipper, who did not like me and you’ll see why, started waxing poetic about how we had chosen the profession of arms for some reason that is too boring to recall. My buddy, who was behind the skipper, rolls his eyes, throws his head back, and throws his pen that he had been using to take notes just in case he had an action item into the air and doesn’t even bother to try and catch it.

I didn’t interrupt him. But during that meeting I announced my intention to leave active duty as the Navy had become not an armed service but Green Peace with an effeminate streak.

Ok, enough of that. Back to the CIA. I always hated them. Not the Mike Spanns. The paper pushers like Valerie Plame. When I was assigned to Commander, Naval Forces Japan occasionally I’d get phone calls from those guys. I can talk about this without talking about it. So they’d call me on a secure line and we had to go to all the trouble of syncing up.

Then after making sure I understood the info was for my Admiral only, they’d tell me something I read about in a Japanese newspaper 3 days earlier. But now, because it’s coming from the CIA that stale news was now classified.

Thanks guys.

Which is why if I were ever tapped by an administration to be something like a cabinet level officer, I’d beg to be the DCI. Then I’d fire almost everyone at the CIA, bulldoze the building, and salt the earth so nothing could ever grow there again.

Almost everyone. For every 100 Valerie Plames there is a Mike Spann doing the Lord’s work. They are few and far between but they’re there. I’d keep them around, but in a smaller more efficient form. Not an agency, but maybe an office. Perhaps something called the Office of Strategic Services. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

When I think about heroes like Mike Spann I can’t help but think about the country he died for. The best tribute we can pay to Mike Spann is make sure it is a country worth dying for.

I can say this as I was Marine Corps trained. Semper Fi, Marine. I’ll do what I can to move the ball forward.

    Philip in reply to Arminius. | November 28, 2021 at 12:11 pm

    Ten thumbs up. In Winfield, AL, you can see a monument dedicated to Mike Spann.
    We should assume that the military’s forced transformation to Green Peace with an effeminate streak is not an accident.
    [See: Hobbes’ “social contract theory”]

Fluffy Foo Foo | December 3, 2021 at 9:36 am

Afghanistan was a mistake and a failure.