Free after 17 years, ‘America Taliban’ John Walker Lindh remains a 9/11 enigma

Los Angeles – John Walker Lindh was one of the many perplexing stories of 9/11 America.

The so-called American Taliban grew up in California’s affluent suburb of Marin County, a cradle of liberal values. But he ended up half a world away at a training camp run by al-Qaeda, conspiring with the enemy.

Lindh spent 17 years behind bars before being released on Thursday from the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Lindh remains an enigma. There have been protests over his release, especially from the family of Mike Spann. The CIA officer was killed during an uprising of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan shortly after Spann interrogated Lindh. There is also evidence he continues to harbour extremist views.

It’s unclear whether Lindh plans to rejoin his family in California.

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American John Walker Lindh is seen in this undated file photo obtained in 2002 from a religious school where he studied for five months in Bannu, 304 kilometres (190 miles) southwest of Islamabad, Pakistan. File picture: AP

Here is the story of the American Taliban from the page of The Times:

AN UNUSUAL UPBRINGING IN MARIN COUNTY

The second of three children, Lindh was born John Phillip Walker Lindh, named after John Lennon, the Beatle who was killed a year before his birth. His family lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, before moving west.

Walker’s teenage years were spent in the wealthy Marin County enclave of San Anselmo, in a neighborhood that features a mix of 60-year-old cottages and houses such as the new 3 000-square-foot trilevel where he and his family lived.

Residents described the neighbourhood with its narrow, tree-shaded streets as a mix of longtime locals and 1960s radicals who found success.

Walker lasted about a semester at Redwood High School, then transferred to an alternative public school next door. At Tamiscal High, an elite independent-study centre for 100 artistically oriented musicians, dancers and others, Walker was allowed to chart his own scholastic course, checking in with teachers on a weekly basis.

Though raised a Roman Catholic, Walker developed an interest in Islam about this time as he read the classic American biography of Malcolm X, the African American activist who converted to Islam and was transformed from convict to political leader and cultural icon.

Walker embraced the religion, changing his name to Sulayman al Faris. His father said Walker began visiting a mosque in Mill Valley, a few miles down the highway from the family’s home. Later, he turned to the San Francisco Islamic Center.

Neighbours watched the young man – whom they described as a thin, academic-looking boy – slowly change as he entered high school. One neighbour said Walker began growing a beard and wearing traditional Islamic robes and a turban.

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This January 2002 photo provided by the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office in Alexandria, Virginia. shows John Walker Lindh. Picture: Alexandria Sheriff’s Office via AP

A MOVE TO THE MIDDLE EAST

In 1998, Walker graduated early by taking a high school equivalency test. He set off to Yemen at age 17 to learn Arabic and pursue religious studies.

Walker told his parents in 2000 he was going to Bannu, Pakistan, to continue his studies with the Tablighi Jamaat movement there.

The Jamaat is widely perceived as apolitical, though media reports from Pakistan suggest that some senior members have ties to radical Islamic factions. The group includes British rock musician Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam. A revivalist movement that originated in India, the Jamaat has traditionally stressed personal piety.

Frank Lindh, his father, told The Times in 2002 that he lost touch after his son began studying at the religious school in Pakistan. At the time, the young man sent an email saying he was going to the mountains to escape the summer heat and would be in touch only infrequently, the elder Lindh said.

When his son still had not made contact after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Lindh said, "my anxiety went sky-high."

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The sun sets on the Federal Corrections Complex John Walker Lindh was released after the conclusion of his prison sentence in Terre Haute. Picture: Bryan Woolston/Reuters

THE ‘AMERICAN TALIBAN’

Prosecutors said John Walker Lindh sometimes sent angry emails home, distancing himself from his family. He claimed the United States had instigated the Persian Gulf War and showed no sympathy for the 17 lives lost in the terrorist bombing of the destroyer Cole.

Lindh found his way to a training camp that the government said was run by al-Qaeda, an ally of the Taliban. He learned to fight for the Taliban army and later surrendered to the Northern Alliance. He then was turned over to US authorities.

Returned under heavy guard to the US, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on 10 counts, including a charge that he conspired to kill Americans and that he conspired with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

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A corrections vehicle patrols near the Federal Corrections Complex where John Walker Lindh concluded his prison sentence in Terre Haute. Picture: Bryan Woolston/Reuters

He also was implicated indirectly in the death of Spann.

Lindh agreed to plead guilty to two felony charges: He admitted serving as a soldier for the Taliban and said he carried a rifle and hand grenades while doing so.

In the frenzy after 9/11, the Lindh case captivated America. He was called the American Taliban, and many wondered how a kid from an upscale suburb could end up involved in terrorism.

Former President George HW Bush quipped once that Lindh was "some misguided Marin County hot-tubber." He later apologized.

tca/dpa

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