Team Alpha

Twenty years later, plus Understandably Live. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Three things I remember from right after 9/11, besides my intense shock, anger, and sadness.

  • First, saying to my girlfriend at the time, in all seriousness, in the minutes after the second plane hit the World Trade Center and it was clear that this was no accident: “My God. Saddam Hussein is so stupid. How can he not understand that we will utterly destroy him for this?”

  • Second, wryly joking with my brother on the phone an hour or two later: “If only we’d had national missile defense.” (Ancient history now, but in 2000, George W. Bush had made advocating for national missile defense a big issue in his campaign.)

  • Third, especially in the weeks that followed: impatience. “How long is this going to take?” I exclaimed to a friend at one point, probably around the end of September, before there was any word of US boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

I share these examples not because I’m proud of my cluelessness back then, but because I think I represent more of America in September 2001 than we’d like to admit.

I thought of myself as well-read and worldly, and I was even a reserve officer. So I had a sense that what had just happened could quite possibly affect me personally.

And yet, I knew nothing. I barely had the vaguest idea about al Qaeda or Afghanistan. As of 6 am that day, I couldn’t have quoted you Osama bin Laden’s name. (I remember grasping for it: “the guy who blew up the embassies in Africa, and that destroyer in Yemen, you know who I mean, right?”)

I certainly had no idea that it would be two full decades before we’d pull out and go home, in a rather disastrous fashion.

Well, today’s newsletter—and probably more importantly, today’s edition of Understandably Live, in which I’ll be interviewing Toby Harden, author of First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11—is about some of the very few people who weren’t so clueless.

Specifically, it’s about Team Alpha, the somewhat hacked-together, eight-member CIA team who, on October 17, 2001, became the first Americans to land behind enemy lines on Afghanistan.

It wasn’t an invasion then, so much as an attempt to team up with US special forces and warplanes to bolster the Northern Alliance, which was the main opposition force against the Taliban, and which had already been fighting for at least five years at the time.

Among the members of Team Alpha: Johnny Micheal Spann, who had served in the Marines before becoming a CIA paramilitary officer, and who became the first US combat death in the war on terror when he was killed in a prison uprising on November 25, 2001, outside Mazar-e-Sharif.

This is the same uprising after which John Walker Lindh, nicknamed “the American Taliban” was captured; in fact, Spann had talked with Lindh not long before he was killed.

I’ve been looking forward to this interview for a while. Toby Harden has been back to Afghanistan many times over the last two decades, as part of his work as a foreign correspondent.

(Slightly unrelated, Harden also spent time in a Zimbabwean jail in 2005, accused of covering that country’s elections without government permission. I feel compelled to mention that mainly because it’s pretty badass, and reflects his devotion to his work.)

Anyway, we’ll be talking about the previously unknown stories he learned about the early days of US involvement post-9/11 in Afghanistan, his efforts even now to get Afghans who worked with US and UK officials out of the country, and what the intelligence officers and special operators he’s in touch with today think about how the end came about.

As clueless as I was just after the attacks, hopefully now, 20 years on, we can fill a few gaps in our collective knowledge.

As a reminder, we’re trying today’s interview a new way. You can watch and participate on YouTube, LinkedIn, or Facebook, just by clicking through those links or the buttons you’ll find below. No signups or Zoom log-ins are necessary.

You’re also welcome to add comments on any of the platforms. If you get completely stymied and want to ask a question, just reply to this email during the chat with your comment or question. I’ll try to keep an eye out.

Remember, the livestream is today: Thursday, September 9, 1 pm ET:

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Call for comments: I’m curious about whether other people remember themselves being as clueless as I was in the first hours and days after 9/11. Also, with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, what’s going through your head now, as you think about that fateful day?

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Something completely different

Hey, want to be interviewed for an article? Not my article, actually, but I told a colleague of mine who is writing about people who relocated recently “after careful deliberation on a variety of choices” that I’d see if I could help him find some subjects.

Writer David Hochman adds: “I'm looking for list-makers, spreadsheeters, downsizers, practical empty nesters, people who weighed options like climate change/cost of living/walkability/# of pickleball courts (or whatever) and then made the move.”

He’s writing for AARP—a print feature for one of their publications—so ideally he’s looking for people aged 50+.

If you or someone you know “engineered a midlife or retirement relocation like that recently,” and you’d like to share what you learned (or you’d just like to learn more), send a note directly to him, at

7 other things worth your time

Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of Toby Harnden. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.