Why you should care
Because thousands of young Western men are attracted to terrorist groups abroad.
Johnny Micheal Spann and Dave Tyson knew they were at war in Afghanistan, but they weren’t expecting a fight on Nov. 25, 2001. That day, the two CIA agents were interrogating about 600 Taliban fighters — some al-Qaida trained — in the courtyard of a remote fortress called Qala-i-Jangi. The prisoners of war had just surrendered to the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, or so Spann and Tyson thought.
Although vastly outnumbered by the prisoners, Spann leaned in to ask one of the foreign fighters why he came to Afghanistan. “To kill you,” the man answered, before lunging at Spann. Within seconds, dozens of other prisoners threw themselves at Spann, overpowering him on the ground while clawing and scratching at his flesh. Under the pile of bodies, Spann managed to fire his AK-47 and then his pistol until he ran out of bullets. He was the first American casualty in the war on terror, but he didn’t die without a fight.
“It wasn’t unusual to have false surrenders,” said Robert Young Pelton, an American Canadian journalist who covered the battle. “Sometimes there were up to a thousand Taliban fighters and just a few dozen guards, so there was no sense of control over them.”
After watching his fellow agent die, Tyson fired several rounds with his AK-47 before escaping to the northern and more secure end of the fortress. That’s where he borrowed the phone of a German journalist to call for military support. But when American special forces arrived, they brought their own mayhem. One of the first bombs they fired hit a group of fighters from the Northern Alliance — then U.S allies — as they struggled to crush a Taliban revolt. The bloody battle lasted six days, and only 86 Taliban prisoners survived.
John Walker Lindh, from Marin County, California, was among them. He was 20 years old.
Lindh was a member of the Ansar Brigades — otherwise known as 055 — which were al-Qaida’s primary combat arm prior to 9/11. For years, the Ansar Brigades fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, and now the groups were united against American forces.
The Taliban had no use for Lindh, since he couldn’t speak Pashto or Farsi.
Lindh, a pious Muslim who converted at the age of 16, maintains that he never intended to fight against Americans. With his family’s blessing, he left the U.S. to study Arabic in Yemen just a year before the 9/11 attacks. It was there that he concluded that a Muslim had to do more than read the Quran and pray. He went to Pakistan to train in an Islamic paramilitary program, hoping to “liberate” Kashmir and establish an Islamic caliphate.
But Lindh’s military trainers realized that he wasn’t fit enough to battle the Indian army, so they advised him to fight in Afghanistan against the less formidable Northern Alliance. The only problem was that the Taliban had no use for Lindh, since he couldn’t speak Pashto or Farsi. In their eyes, Lindh was an Arabic-speaking foreigner who should fight alongside foreign jihadis.
Fast forward to the prison uprising in Qala-i-Jangi, where Spann interrogated Lindh just minutes before the former was killed. As the battle raged, Lindh played dead in the courtyard for hours after he was shot in the thigh. He eventually crawled into the basement where some 300 Taliban fighters were hiding. The Northern Alliance tried to chase them out by throwing grenades into the shaft. They then flooded the basement, drowning dozens of Taliban fighters. Lindh, using a stick to keep himself afloat, survived.
Shortly after the remaining fighters were taken to a hospital, Pelton was told that there was an American among them. That’s when he contacted CNN and prepared to do an interview with Lindh, who was delirious from his gunshot and shrapnel wounds. But live on air, Lindh said his “heart was attached to the Taliban” and that it was “the goal of every Muslim” to become a martyr. Still traumatized from 9/11, the American public was outraged to see one of their own citizens — a Caucasian man — siding with terrorists.
TV personalities, journalists and public officials regarded Lindh as a traitor that was culpable in the death of Spann. But in 2003, two terrorist scholars who interviewed Lindh told The New Yorker that he wasn’t an al-Qaida member, even though he trained in an Osama bin Laden financed camp. To them, Lindh was a lost, naïve and a woefully ignorant young man, unaware that the groups he’d joined backed brutal violence and international terrorism. Lindh even met Osama bin Laden, but he says that he had only a vague idea of who he was.
Pelton is skeptical of this account. “[Lindh] knew what he was doing, and he was ready to die in Afghanistan,” he says.
Despite being charged with conspiring in Spann’s death, Lindh was able to strike a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to only two of 10 charges: supplying services to the Taliban and carrying an explosive. For these, he was handed a 20-year sentence for aiding the Taliban. In years since, Lindh has largely been viewed as a traitor rather than someone who could offer valuable insight into the motivations of foreign jihadis, especially those who left the comfort of the West to join the self-declared Islamic State group more than a decade later.
In 2015, Graeme Wood, a staff writer for The Atlantic, exchanged several handwritten letters with Lindh about jihadism, Islamic law and ISIS. Although Lindh couldn’t offer substantial insight — he was prohibited by prison authorities from reading ISIS religious texts — Wood believes that journalists and researchers should have studied Lindh’s case more closely. “He ended up being one of thousands of young men from similar backgrounds to join a jihadist group abroad.”
Rights groups warn that governments across the world are making another major mistake. While Lindh was released earlier this year for good behavior, thousands of captured ISIS members and their families remain stranded in Syria since their countries refuse to take them back. European children born to ISIS members aren’t even able to return, unless they’re orphans. If abandoned to their fate, analysts believe those children could become the next generation of jihadis. Some may even make their way to Afghanistan, where ISIS has carved out a sphere of influence.
The writing is on the wall.