Why you should care
Because John Walker Lindh’s release raises questions about how to prosecute the war on terror.
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For a long time, the biggest homegrown radical to emerge from the liberal confines of Marin County, California, was the late comedian Robin Williams. Then another hairy Northern Californian with large eyes started popping up all over American television. Shown on the battlefield in Afghanistan fighting alongside Taliban forces in November 2001, the emaciated 20-year-old was first caught on camera in the aftermath of a prison uprising that claimed a CIA officer named Johnny “Mike” Spann, the first American killed in the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
The young American admitted to a CNN reporter that he was part of a Taliban militia funded by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. To some, he became the “American Taliban.” Others labeled him a terrorist and a traitor. Still others claimed he was just a well-meaning kid who somehow got swept up into Islamic jihad. But, to the U.S. government, John Walker Lindh, who was convicted of supporting the Taliban and sentenced to 20 years in prison, was detainee No. 001 in the global war on terrorism. Lindh’s case remains the subject of much debate, and his release today — three years early — from a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, is bound to reignite lingering questions about how the U.S. government chose to prosecute the war on terrorism. Lindh’s release also raises more questions about how federal authorities should proceed today as the sentences for others convicted in that war begin to expire.
A few years after watching Malcolm X in American suburbia, Lindh was a full-fledged jihadi.
Lindh’s adolescence reads like a cautionary tale for those concerned about the pitfalls of permissive parenting. After watching the film Malcolm X as a teenager, Lindh, raised Catholic, decided to convert to Islam. Rather than picking up a Rosetta Stone language course, he dropped out of high school in order to travel to Yemen to learn Arabic so that he could read the Qur’an in its original language. All with his parents’ support. Language lessons in Yemen led Lindh to a madrassa in Pakistan, which led to a training camp near Kandahar, where Taliban militants and al-Qaida volunteers were primed for battle and terrorist attacks. A few years after watching Malcolm X in American suburbia, Lindh was a full-fledged jihadi, one who even spoke briefly with Osama bin Laden.
The dark-haired Lindh grew a beard and looked the part, but by most accounts, he was not a particularly accomplished warrior — his own lawyers would later point to his lack of American kills as a mitigating factor in his case. But it was after his capture that Lindh’s life truly turned into a cautionary tale. The American citizen was sometimes blindfolded and duct-taped naked to a stretcher during more than 50 days of detention. Questions about Lindh’s treatment weakened the government’s case, and federal prosecutors ended up dropping nine of 10 counts against him. At his sentencing, Lindh expressed remorse and renounced terrorism and the Taliban, stating, “Had I realized then what I know now, I would never have joined them.”
And so for the past 17 years, while the rest of us succumbed to smartphones and social media, Lindh has been a studious prisoner, advocating for the right of prisoners to have communal prayer and wear pants above the ankles. His early release comes because of good behavior, but with considerable restrictions. Lindh’s internet use will be closely monitored, and he’s barred from traveling overseas, kneecapping any plans he had to move to Ireland: He acquired citizenship there in prison by having an Irish grandmother.
Still, his release has been opposed by many, including Sens. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, and Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat who recently wrote a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons asking for more information about as many as 109 “terrorist offenders,” including Lindh, who may be released soon. The letter cites a 2017 National Counterterrorism Center (NCC) report claiming that, as of 2016, Lindh “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.” In 2014, he wrote letters to a California reporter in which he expressed support for ISIS. Bill Cummings, an attorney for Lindh, did not respond to a request for comment.
Whether Lindh himself is likely to re-offend, his release raises questions about how the government plans to monitor, and even rehabilitate, other extremists, including those who have ISIS ties. A total of 346 people have been charged and convicted of jihadist terrorism since 2001, according to the research organization New America, and about half of those prisoners should be released by 2025. The NCC report suggests that one way to treat such ex-convicts might be to track and monitor them just as sex offenders are under Megan’s Law, but so far monitoring is done only on a case-by-case basis.
Almost two decades after his capture, the verdict on Lindh remains mixed. “It’s not clear exactly what he was doing for the Taliban, though there is no doubt he was supportive,” says John McLaughlin, the deputy director of the CIA at the time of Lindh’s capture and a current OZY columnist. Some, including Lindh’s father, continue to argue he was just a misguided foot soldier and not a terrorist. “His decision was rash and blindly idealistic,” Frank Lindh wrote in a 2011 New York Times op-ed, likening his son’s voyage to Ernest Hemingway’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, “but not sinister or traitorous.”
Either way, Lindh now has a chance to enjoy his own freedom — and prove that he deserves it.