The man known as the “American Taliban” was just released early from federal prison in the US — a decision nearly as controversial as the man himself.
John Walker Lindh was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2002 after pleading guilty to supporting the Taliban, the brutal Islamist group that harbored al-Qaeda in Afghanistan during the planning of the 9/11 attacks.
His capture alongside Taliban fighters in November 2001 quickly turned him into a national obsession. Photos of the 20-year-old Lindh at the time of his capture — face covered in filth, hair shaggy and matted, eyes wild — were ubiquitous in the press.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, America was equal parts captivated and horrified by this young man from a wealthy family in California who had seemingly turned against his country and joined the side of the terrorists. Many viewed him as a traitor, making him a divisive figure even after all these years.
Which is why his release on probation Thursday, three years before his sentence was due to end, has proved so contentious. It doesn’t help that some still blame him for the first death in the Afghanistan War and say he still harbors extremist views despite his nearly two decades in captivity. As recently as 2015, Lindh professed his admiration for ISIS, the terrorist group that briefly succeeded in building a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Bill Roggio, a Taliban expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, didn’t mince words when I asked him how he felt about Lindh getting out of prison: “Johnny Walker Lindh’s release is a travesty of justice and is Exhibit A in our failure to deal with unrepentant jihadists,” he told me.
The question now is whether Lindh will choose to live a quiet life of obscurity somewhere in America from here on out, or if his decades-long sympathies for extremists will make him a danger to the US.
How Lindh became the “American Taliban”
Lindh, a 38-year-old California native, converted to Islam at the age of 16. About a year later, he traveled to Yemen to learn Arabic, and eventually made his way to Pakistan and then Afghanistan, where he would go on to become a Taliban “volunteer” and be instructed in an al-Qaeda training camp.
After his 2001 capture, he told US forces that he joined the Taliban because “my heart became attached to them.” He was detained at a prison compound in northern Afghanistan and interrogated by CIA officers, including Johnny “Mike” Spann. Shortly after his interrogation of Lindh, Spann was killed in a prison uprising at the compound.
Many, including members of Spann’s family, say Lindh was at the very least partly to blame for the revolt that led to the CIA officer’s death — widely considered to be the first death of the now two-decade-long Afghanistan War.
Lindh told a federal judge a year later that he never supported terrorism and regretted joining the Taliban. He even called Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington “completely against Islam.”
While some wanted him charged for Spann’s death, Lindh pleaded guilty only to two felony charges: helping the Afghan group and carrying a rifle and grenade. He was sentenced to 20 years in a high-security federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
His father defended Lindh in 2007, telling CBS News “we know he’s not anti-American. We know he doesn’t have any sympathy for terrorism.”
The problem is that Lindh’s conduct seems to disprove his father’s claim.
Lindh may still be an extremist. That’s a huge problem.
“There is very close to nothing in terms of de-radicalizing programs at the federal level,” Bennett Clifford, an extremism expert at George Washington University, told the Washington Post on Wednesday. “The current model is hoping long prison sentences for material support of terrorism will be a deterrent.”
That hope doesn’t seem to have paid off in this case.
In 2014-’15, Lindh sent a series of handwritten letters to a producer at NBC Los Angeles in response to questions from the producer. Answering a question about whether ISIS represented Islam, Lindh reportedly wrote in a March 2015 letter, “Yes, and they are doing a spectacular job.”
He continued: “The Islamic State is clearly very sincere and serious about fulfilling the long-neglected religious obligation to establish a caliphate through armed struggle, which is the only correct method.”
And a 2017 report from the US National Counterterrorism Center said Lindh “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts” while in prison as of May 2016.
It’s therefore possible that the US government just released someone who still sides with Islamic extremists. If that’s the case, he could potentially plot to harm Americans or others by joining a terrorist organization or launching attacks of his own.
That possibility, among other reasons, led the slain CIA operative’s daughter to ask President Donald Trump not to let Lindh go. She and her family members continue to push for further punishment of Lindh. “Releasing him into our public is a danger to everybody,” Alison Spann told CBS News on Thursday.
Neither Lindh’s legal team nor his family would say what he plans to do once he’s out of prison. ABC News’s James Gordon Meek reports that Lindh will initially live in the Eastern District of Virginia outside of Washington, DC (where he pleaded guilty to his crimes), during his supervised release.
What’s certain, though, is that many — including the US government — will be keeping a close eye on him wherever he goes.