"I went to Afghanistan with the intention of fighting against terrorism and oppression, not to support it."
John Philip Walker Lindh, also nicknamed "The American Taliban" by reporters, is a controversial figure, to say the least. He made headlines when CNN first reported that they had found a captured American citizen who was fighting with the Taliban. Nowadays his name is some sort of anathema to most Americans. I'll weigh in with my own opinion at the bottom, but first I need to start off at the beginning.
John Walker Lindh was born on February 9, 1981 and baptised as a Roman Catholic. His parents named him "John" partly because they admired John Lennon and US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. When he was ten, his family moved to San Anselmo, California in Marin County. His parents like to show that he was a good kid, and he really was. Marilyn Walker describes her son as a “sweet, shy, kid,” who had wanted to work with poor people and perhaps go into medicine. “Everyone who knows him loves him,” she says. “Everyone expected him to become a scholar.” In an interview, she painted a portrait of her son as an intelligent, articulate young man with a gift for languages and a commitment to social justice. He was an ordinary guy who liked to listen to Hip-hop music, and you can even find his posts in the rec.music.hip-hop newsgroup from 1995. As a teenager, he talked to his mother about wanting to work with poor people, perhaps becoming a doctor.
By 15, he was intently exploring other faiths, including Buddhism, Native American practices, and Islam. According to his father, Lindh's direction took a dramatic turn after he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. His cousin instead says he and John first developed an interest in Islam from the "pseudo-Muslim murmurs within hip-hop music." He already had some idea of the faith, when he was 12 his mother took him to see Spike Lee's film Malcolm X. She says he was moved by a scene showing people of all nations bowing down to God. In his later statement to the court, he wrote, "I had first become interested in Islam during 1993, after becoming aware of the Hajj, in which thousands of Muslims all over the world gather at Mecca, a holy site in Saudi Arabia. I learned that all Muslims are required to make this religious journey at least once in their life. I was very moved by the image of thousands of people praying together. Perfectly equal and perfectly humble. I began to read all that I could about Islam."
When he was 16, he converted to Islam, and changed his name to "Sulayman Al-Faris." Sulayman is the Arabic name of Solomon, a great prophet, and al-Faris means "the knight." Years later, reporters asked his parents why. Although they raised him Catholic in a liberal family, his mother said that he was exposed to her following of Buddhist teachings, and his father said "I told him once that maybe he was always a Muslim, because he had clearly found something important for him there.” Another newspaper quotes him telling Lindh, "I don't think you've really converted to Islam as much as you've found it within yourself; you sort of found your inner Muslim." (Newsweek once reported his name as "Abdul Hamid," though I can't find any corroborating evidence.) Despite his parent's lack of experience with Islam, they were pleased to see their son had found something that moved him. While they knew other neighborhood families who were coping with kids involved in alcohol and drugs, it all was innocent.
Judging by his online posts and the photographs of him through his past, he got rid of all his rap music and started growing a beard. He cut back on cursing. He swore off girls and alcohol. "He was always intellectually coherent and he had a wonderful sense of humor," his father said, "and none of that changed when he converted to Islam. I never had any major misgivings." A fellow Muslim who used to drive him to the mosque recalls that when he first saw Lindh, he stood out immediately, not simply because he was a white man in a mostly Indian congregation, but also because he was "on his own," meaning already devoted to Islam and without a referral from another Muslim. Some residents of San Anselmo recalled that they used to see him walking down the streets in Islamic clothing. "He actually looked very lonely," recalled a shopkeeper. "I got the impression that he did not fit in."
Later on in 1997, he met followers of the Tablighi Jamaat, a nonpolitical missionary group of sorts that looks to rejuvinate Muslims. He joined a group at a gathering in Santa Clara, California, and began to share a bond with people he felt were like him. He began to spend weekends at a mosque in San Francisco, where they would pray, eat, and set out on missions to nearby mosques. Time Magazine reported that he was Salafi, but I can't corroborate that (and sounds a bit unlikely to me. Tablighis and Salafis are different groups).
While still only 16, Lindh took a proficiency test and graduated early from Tamiscal High School, an alternative school specializing in independent study. His studies included world arts and culture, which encompassed Islam and the Middle East. On his diploma, he asked for his name to be listed as Sulayman al-Lindh.
In 1998, when Lindh was 18 he traveled to Yemen for nearly a year, with his parents' approval, so he could study Arabic and learn the Quran in its original language. He said it was the best country to learn the "pure" dialect of Arabic used in the Qur'an. He introduced himself as Sulayman Al-Lindh while there and wore "clothing worn by devout Muslims from Pakistan" (I suspect the article is referring to a shalwar kameez). His friend later told the reporter he chose Yemen because the Arabic was said to be closer to the language of the Qur'an and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and also felt it would be easier to practice Islam in a Muslim country. The director of the language center he studied at said he complained about the lack of orthodoxy at the school; the worldliness and the coed classes (his school was secular). Fellow students used to tease him by calling him "Yusuf Islam." "He quickly became disillusioned with the other Muslims in our language school and with Yemen in general," his former classmate said. "I watched Walker get exasperated one afternoon, trying to rouse Muslim students at prayer call, only to hear most of them say they were going to take a nap instead. He was incredulous. Muttering how he couldn't believe Muslims would forgo their duty to pray, he left the room in disgust.
"Those who were raised Muslim didn't much enjoy having their faith questioned by a beginner. They were usually polite and patient with Walker's irritation with their perceived lack of devotion to their faith. But they treated him as a curiosity -- someone playing make-believe. 'Why would anyone convert to Islam anyway?' a Canadian-Indian Muslim asked once after an encounter with Walker. " (Imagine how much that hurts when a Muslim says that to you)
Halfway through the school year, he dropped out, having come all the way from California to Sana'a only to find a spiritual void. He spent the rest of the semester traveling to mosques and other holy places in Sana'a. He later enrolled in Al-Iman (The Faith) University, a school that has 4000 male and 1000 female students from 55 countries. He came home and lived in the US with his parents for eight months. During that time, his father announced he was gay and his parents separated. Lindh probably felt restless and uncomfortable, so he returned to Yemen in 2000.
Taking the advice of Pakistani friends he made in California before his return to Yemen, he left Yemen when his visa expired and had problems renewing it and went to Pakistan to study at a madrassa. “He’s learned Arabic, and is memorizing the Quran. He’s a very good scholar," remarked his father at the time. Later defending his son's actions, he said, "It's the goal of every scholarly Muslim to memorize the entire Koran verbatim, and John's goal was to become both fluent in Arabic and to memorize the Koran so that he could then go on and become a Muslim scholar. His goal was to attend the Islamic university at Medina in Saudi Arabia or a comparable world-class Islamic university."
Lindh spent several months at a seminary-like madrassa in Bannu, in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. (Some news media reported him studying in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.) The people treated him as a respected guest, his teacher said that his wish was to graduate and become an Islamic teacher back in America and get married. While there, he focused on memorizing chapters of the Quran (he memorized a third of the entire book while there) and learning some Urdu.
Lindh told the headmaster how, after converting to Islam, he began to feel uncomfortable living in the United States and became naturally drawn to Islamic countries, where his adopted faith supposedly played a part in everyday society. Lindh said that he felt as though he could neither explore his newfound religion deeply nor live by the commands of Islamic scripture properly in America, where he saw many societal ills. In his conversations with him, he said, John Walker talked about feeling alone in the US and "comfortable and at home" at the madrassa.
Over the course of several months, sources who spoke to reporters later on said that he was becoming disappointed with all the secularist governments. He would read the newspapers about the atrocities that were occuring against the Muslims in India-controlled Kashmir. He also listened to reports that the Northern Alliance, a rebel group in Afghanistan, was massacring and raping innocent Muslims.
After a period of time, Lindh took a leave from his studies, and sent an email home to his mother saying that he was going to "some cold mountainous region." He asked permission to take the trip and his father gave it, but insists he wouldn't have if he know Lindh was going to Afghanistan. He hardly packed anything. He took only a backpack, sunglasses, a white shalwar kameez, and a sleeping bag with him the day he left, leaving a full suitcase and his library of books on Islam for safekeeping. He didn't say when he'd be back, but imagined he'd be back in California by Christmas.
Later on, he said in an interview ""I was in [Pakistan's] Northwest Frontier Province. The people there in general have a great love for the Taliban. So I started to read some of the literature of the scholars and my heart became attached to it. I wanted to help them one way or another." He used to listen to the Taliban's radio broadcasts over the border. He most likely met former Taliban teachers, and probably heard that Afghanistan was run by an Emir, a leader which would make it an Islamic State. The Taliban claimed that they were the only Islamic government, as they said that they were the only ones who follwed Islamic law correctly.
Reporter:Have you thought of fighting jihad in places like Chechnya or (inaudible)
Walker: Any Muslim that's concerned for the affairs of Muslims (inaudible) has considered this, I think.
Reporter: But you chose Afghanistan, and one thing that I always wondered was, you have Muslims fighting Muslims here.
Walker: That's a question that's actually addressed in the Koran itself, that, if there is an Islamic state -- I mean there are certain situations in which Muslims, by necessity, are fought. For example, if a group of Muslims were renegades against the Islamic state, it calls for (inaudible)...
Lindh enrolled in a training camp in Afghanistan
during Summer 2001 to join in fighting alongside the Taliban
against the Northern Alliance
. He is said to have met Osama Bin Laden
during the training, who funded some of the operations by the government as well as the separate endevors of Al Qaeda. He traveled there to speak to the volunteers. Bin Laden allegedly thanked him for coming to support the cause. However, Lindh didn't know anything about Bin Laden's record, or that he was accused of bombing US embassies in Africa. Lindh's father said, "He came away from those encounters very skeptical about bin Laden because John recognized instantly that bin Laden was not an authentic Islamic scholar based on what John himself knows." The training of the camp was primarily for fighting the Northern Alliance. The goal amongst the trainees was to help the suffering people of Afghanistan and its refugees, not to kill civilians.
One time, while learning how to fire shoulder-launched grenades and ignite Molotov cocktails, Lindh witnessed the shooting death of a fellow Muslim. The smell of musk filled the air, he later told his religious advisor in prison, and he recalled the teaching of the prophets that martyrs emit their essence upon death. Another time, Lindh said that he and his comrades were trapped in a cave and had no way to escape, but one morning a Taliban soldier recounted a dream he had that night, which promised that somebody would come for them in seven days. They counted each setting sun until, just as foretold, a rescuer freed them. They believed it to be a sign from God.
A Taliban commander told Lindh and the others who joined the group that they were officially members of the Afghan army, even though none were Afghani. With that, Lindh saw himself as a sworn servant to the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a soldier not a terrorist. He was offered a chance to leave Afganistan and fight elsewhere, like against Israel or Kashmir, but he refused saying he had come to help the Afghanis. Subsequently, he wound up defending the front lines against the Northern Alliance. In late summer, he was given 2 grenades and a rifle and sent to Tahar, where the Taliban and Northern Alliance were stuck in a stalemate; he did nothing but hold the hills and sentry duty. He never got to fire upon anyone, and nobody in his unit ever got wounded in combat. It was a boring change of pace for someone who expected to fight in a war.
The news about the September 11, 2001 attacks against the US spread to him by word of mouth. He had no access to news or radio, so its not exactly clear what he knew of it. Since he heard Bin Laden's speech a few months before, he could have made a connection between the attack and the people at the camp who pledged to help him, but Lindh didn't join that group. It's obvious that he saw no connection between the terrorist attacks and the fight against the Northern Alliance. Why should he, they were in two separate countries and had no obvious relation to each other. It took an extremely long time for any authorities, in the first place, to come up with any conclusion as to how the terrorist attacks happened.
Lindh’s attorney, James Brosnahan, said that Lindh grew suspicious of al Qaeda while still in Afghanistan. "You do not attack civilians based on the Qur’an," Brosnahan explained. "You don’t commit suicide based on the Qur’an. As it became more and more clear that Osama bin Laden had done all of this, John wanted to get out of Afghanistan. He wanted to go home. But he couldn’t for fear of death. You don’t hail a cab when you’re fighting with the Taliban up there."
If Lindh had any sort of suspicions, he couldn't act on them. The US was bombing the area by October 7, when negotiations with the Taliban broke down over handing over Bin Laden, and by that point there really was no way out. Transportation wasn't working for anyone, the nearest town of Kunduz was 2 days walk, and there was the threat of bandits on the roads. Eventually his group had to fall back as planes bombed the area, and eventually he got boxed in.
His father recounted the situation when defending his son, "It's a confused retreat. Many of them are killed. If they're captured by the Northern Alliance, they're killed. There's a chilling series of pictures in the New York Times of a prisoner as he's taken, castrated and then killed. This is what John faced. He was very desperate and near dead by the time he got to Kunduz." It's reported Mr. Lindh walked without rest for about two days, covering approximately 50 miles through mountainous terrain before arriving in the province capital, Kunduz. Upon arrival, he was exhausted, severely dehydrated and in physical and psychological shock that impaired his ability to speak.
On approximately Nov. 24, 2001, Lindh's unit surrendered with the expectation that they would be freed after being disarmed and driven to Herat. Lindh was one of the 400 that made the deal with Northern Alliance Warlord General Dostum, and a large amount of money is given to Dostum in return for the safe passage. Instead, Dostum breaks his deal and trucked them into the Qala Jangi fortress, an old 15th or 16th century fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif, and herded them into a basement along with 400 other Taliban fighters to detain them for interrogation. Dostum and his troops have a reputation for massacring and torturing prisoners; human rights organizations consider him one of the worst war criminals in the country. (General Dostum was part of the Soviet-backed puppet government) An uprising ensued in the prison. On or about Nov. 25, 2001, Mr. Lindh was seated on the ground in the area around the Qala Jangi fort with his hands bound behind him. At that time, he heard an explosion as a prisoner snuck in a grenade. When Lindh attempted to run, he was hit by a bullet or shrapnel and fell to the ground, where he lay for some hours until he was helped into the basement of the fort by other prisoners.
US aircraft bombed the facility in response, but had to stop after they tried to drop a 1000 pound bomb which was misdirected and killed Dostum's troops. Northern Alliance troops started a fire by pouring gasoline on the cornered prisoners in the compound's basement, killing several people. They then flooded the basement where all the prisoners were trapped, drowning many people, and nearly killing Lindh, who managed to survive by others holding him upright. A week later in the flood, only 85 prisoners were left alive. Lindh survived with a bullet to the leg, shrapnel wounds from grenades, and hypothermia. Early on he survived by pretending to be a corpse, which probably saved him from being slaughtered. He and the remaining survivors were tied up and thrown in a metal shipping container with other wounded and sick prisoners for six hours, doubled over with abdominal cramps caused by drinking the polluted water that flooded the basement. The Northern Alliance would have killed him and everyone else had it not been for the timely arrival of the Red Cross and reporters.
It's since been reported that the Northern Alliance killed the rest of the Taliban soldiers, meaning that Lindh is the only survivor who really knows what happened there. A British journalist on the scene, Luke Harding, reported, "Dostum's Northern Alliance and his British and American allies had only one plan: to kill all those in the compound...For those who had died, it had been a cold, terrifying, and squalid extinction. We had expected slaughter, but I was unprepared for its hellish scale."
Later on, he was brought to a hospital, where a CNN reporter saw him and immediately interviewed him on camera. CNN reported it as breaking news, and on December 2, John Walker Lindh became a household name. He was shown on televisions all over the globe; ragged, unkempt, dirty, unshaven, and looking like he was just trapped in a basement for a week without food and shot. He was frail-looking and obviously disoriented, and in pain, as he would stop and wince during the interview from the wounds every so often.
Immediately afterwards, he was taken by Green Berets and interrogated. The office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld instructed the military intelligence officers to "take the gloves off" in interrogating him. He told them everything he knew, since they told him he could save American lives if he did. They blindfolded him and tied and chained him up, wrote "shithead" on his blindfold, and snapped pictures, some also of soldiers posing with him. They taunted him, told him that they were going to kill him, and continually threatened to shoot him. Another told Mr. Lindh that he was ‘going to hang’ for his actions and that after he was dead, the soldiers would sell the photographs and give the money to a Christian organization.” The photographs did make their way into news outlets. His bullet wound was left untreated, and the Red Cross was denied the right to visit him. U.S. military authorities moved Lindh to a U.S. warship, off the coast of Pakistan, where he was interrogated by U.S. investigators again. (Secret prison Hotel California?) He was then transferred to a military post in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
When they brought him to the military base, they cut off his clothes and duct taped him naked to a stretcher, and took more pictures of him. They locked him in a metal shipping container, shivering. Finally they gave him blankets, but wrapped them so tight that they pinned his arms down. They left him like that for two days in a windowless metal crate, and tried to serve him pork. The soldiers refused to untie him, and would tip the stretcher to the side sometimes so he could relieve himself. According to court papers, they interrogated him while in that position, and denied his requests for a lawyer. His responses to interrogators were cabled to Washington hourly. The US denies torturing him, but they did forcefully interrogate him and admit to using “sleep deprivation, cold and hunger” to get him to reveal anything he knew about the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or Osama Bin Laden.
After that, he got officially served with an arrest warrant, and was brought to the US to stand trial under federal charges. He was not, however, interned at Camp X-Ray, because he was a US citizen (although fellow soldier Yasser Hamidi was sent there despite the fact that he is a US citizen). He could have been brought before a military tribunal, except for the fact that George W. Bush publically stated that those tribunals would only be reserved for non-citizens (the case of Jose Padilla was probably not an issue at the time). On February 5, 2002, Lindh was indicted by a federal grand jury on ten charges, including conspiring to support terrorist organizations and conspiring to murder Americans. The latter charge was because the government accused him of taking part in the uprising where a CIA agent later died; the charge was later dropped. The charges would carry three life terms and 90 additional years in prison. A week later, he pleaded "not guilty" to all ten charges.
Many laypeople predicted that the government would try to charge him with treason, a very rarely invoked statute that could carry the death penalty. According to a Newsweek poll. 40% of the country surveyed said they wanted to see him charged with treason. The government's case for that charge would be difficult because a minimum number of witnesses are needed for a conviction of treason, and also since Lindh didn't take up arms against the US, rather the US took up arms incidentally against him. (Not even him, against the people he was providing material support to.)
There are not many photographs of him, and the few taken have been recycled over and over again by the news media. His parents provided pictures of him before he left, and there is another picture of him wearing a kiffeyah with a beard, and there are pictures of him in the prison in Afghanistan, and in the hospital lying down. During the trial, another picture emerged of him clean shaven and with close-cropped hair, but usually reporters would immediately move onto the photos of him looking haggard in the prison, as if that was somehow more compelling to see. Lindh's laywer said "This isn't Rambo," though in a strange twist, Rambo DID fight the people who invaded and occupied Afghanistan in Rambo III.
George W. Bush first dismissed Lindh, "I don't know what we're going to do with the poor fellow." Donald Rumsfeld claimed "John Lindh was captured by U.S. Forces with an AK-47 in his hands," which was patently false. Bush later said in December 2001, "Obviously Walker is unique in that he is the first American al Qaeda fighter we have captured." Lindh had never heard of Al Qaeda, nor had most Americans before 9/11.
US Attorney General John Ashcroft held two nationally televised press conferences concerning Lindh, likely aiming to make this the conviction of his career. He accused Lindh of dedicating himself to "killing Americans," and a 10-count felony indictment includes allegations that Lindh committed "conspiracy to murder United States nationals." John Ashcroft even went so far as to accuse Lindh of complicity in the atrocities of September 11, 2001. At his January 15, 2002 press conference Aschroft stated that the filing of criminal charges against Lindh was compelled "by the inescapable fact of September the 11th." "We cannot overlook attacks on America when they come from United States citizens." Lindh's father later criticized, "As any lawyer would know, it is a breach of professional ethics for a prosecutor to make prejudicial comments about a criminal defendant who is awaiting trial."
However, after much saber rattling, the government stopped pursuing most of the charges. He was obviously not an Al-Qaeda operative, he had no advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks, the charge of involvement in the killing of the CIA agent was weak and shoddy. Most of the accusations turned out to be empty and baseless, particularly the 9/11 accusations.
On July 12, 2002 when Lindh's lawyer and his team came to the courthouse in Alexandria for pretrial motions, prosecutors asked for a meeting to discuss ways of avoiding a trial. Later, the defense learned that U.S. Attorneys had already paved the way for a deal. They brought the matter up to the Attorney General, John Ashcroft. With his approval, the prosecutors discussed a possible deal with officials at the Pentagon, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, among the most vocal of Lindh's early critics. Rumsfeld agreed to the idea of a plea. Next, a Justice Department lawyer spoke to White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez, who briefed President Bush. But while the top officials of the U.S. government were ready to strike a deal, Lindh was not. James Brosnahan, Lindh's lawyer, says his client wanted assurances that he could continue his Islamic studies in prison and be given space for the required five daily prayers.
In a move that surprised many, and for reasons not entirely clear to the public, on July 15, 2002, Lindh pled guilty to two charges — serving in the Taliban army and carrying a gun. The judge asked Walker to say, in his own words, what he was admitting to, to be perfectly clear. "I provided services as a soldier to the Taliban last year. I carried a rifle and two grenades," he said; "I plead guilty." In exchange for his plea, the US government agreed to drop all other charges.
The rumored reason that the plea bargain was offered in the first place, given the rhetoric thrown at him by government officials and the prosecution, is that the government was afraid he could be somehow acquitted or given a shortened sentence, or that the government could be embarrassed by allegations of torture. Remember, the sum of their evidence was in his confession. The defense was going to argue that the prosecution's evidence hinged on Lindh's confession while in military custody, and that the confession was coerced. In addition, the Judge had signaled during the trial that he was going to throw out the confession; on the day the plea bargain was presented to the judge, he was preparing to consider dismissing portions of the prosecution's evidence. That would leave the government desperate, since their basis of evidence was already weak. As the rumor continues, the US government therefore threatened to detain him as an Enemy combatant and send him to Guántanamo unless he took the plea bargain. A few months later, Jose Padilla was subject to that tactic, pulling him from the trial and placing him in a military brig. Yaser Hamdi, an American citizen who was also caught in Afghanistan, was declared an Enemy combatant and was denied his right to a lawyer. The rumor appears credible, because in 2003 the same deal was made with the "Lackawanna Six"; six men who fell under suspicion for training in Afghanistan but plea bargained rather than face the threat of "enemy combatant" status if they won the trial. Lindh pled guilty to the 2 least serious charges, while the remaining 8 were dropped. Lindh went from being accused of being an Al Qaeda member and treasonous murderer to a man convicted of violating an embargo.
At his sentencing, he made a tearful statement publicly to the court. (http://www.freejohnwalker.net/statement.html) It's quite a compelling read, but a little too long to include here. I've left most of it, since his own words are better than mine:
"I went to Afghanistan because I believed it was my religious duty to assist my fellow Muslims militarily in their jihad against the Northern Alliance.Because the term “jihad” has been commonly misunderstood, I’d like to take a few minutes to explain the meaning of the term. In the Arabic language, jihad literally means “struggle.” In Islamic terminology, jihad refers to the spending of one’s utmost exertion in the service of God.
I have never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism or terrorism. I condemn terrorism on every level--unequivocally. My beliefs about jihad are those of mainstream Muslims around the world. I believe that jihad ranges from striving to overcome own personal faults, to speaking out for the truth in adverse circumstances, to military action in the defense of justice. The type of jihad one practices depends upon one’s circumstances, but the essence of any form of jihad lies in the intent.
Last year, I felt that I had an obligation to assist what I perceived to be an Islamic liberation movement against the warlords who were occupying several provinces in Northern Afghanistan. I had learned from books, articles and individuals with first-hand experience of numerous atrocities committed by the Northern Alliance against civilians. I had heard reports of massacres, child rape, torture and castration. I also knew that many of these warlords had fought alongside the Soviet Union in the 1980’s during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. I went to Afghanistan because I believed there was no way to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people aside from military action. I did not go to fight against America, and I never did....
My experience of living in Afghanistan was limited to military life as a trainee and as a soldier. In retrospect, I had no real exposure to the life of civilians under the rule of the Taliban. Since returning to the United States, I have learned more about the Taliban, such as reports of the Taliban’s repression of women, which I did not see or hear of while I was in Afghanistan, and which I believe is strongly condemned by Islam.
I have also become aware of the relationship between the leaders of the Taliban and Usama bin Laden’s organization. Bin Laden’s terrorist attacks are completely against Islam, completely contrary to the conventions of jihad and without any justification whatsoever. His grievances, whatever they may be, cannot be addressed by acts of injustice and violence against innocent people in America. Terrorism is never justified and has proved extremely damaging to Muslims around the world. I have never supported terrorism in any form and never would.
I went to Afghanistan with the intention of fighting against terrorism and oppression, not to support it.
Although I thought I knew a good deal about the Taliban when I went to the front line, it’s clear to me now that there were many things of which I was not aware. I made a mistake by joining the Taliban. I want the Court to know, and I want the American people to know that had I realized then what I know now about the Taliban, I would never have joined them.
When I began my studies in Islam, I had the ambition of one day teaching, writing, and translating Arabic texts into English. I still have these ambitions and hope to pursue my studies in Islam, the Arabic language, World History, Linguistics, Sociology and English Literature. I hope to use this knowledge to serve Islam and the interests of Muslims in America and around the world to the full extent of my capability.
Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed that Lindh's story of a religious quest gone wrong was just a ruse. Lindh received a 20-year sentence, October 4, 2002. His projected release date is 5/11/2019. However, he can get out in 17 years for good behavior. The judge gave him credit for the entire time he has been in custody, including the 2 months in Afghanistan, and good behavior could further reduce his sentence by 54 days each year.
Lindh's conviction got some public outcry, but was never picked up by any large-scale media source. Instead, they ran with people who supported the conviction. “Twenty years? I thought they should have just shot him in the first place,” was the remark of an American soldier in Kabul. Lindh’s father, Frank Lindh, said that he tried to comfort his son by telling him that Nelson Mandela, another “good man,” had done more than 26 years of hard time. Lindh was 21 at the time of his sentencing. White House officials said President Bush personally approved the plea bargain arrangement.
Lindh's attorney said he agreed to cooperate "fully, truthfully and completely" with both military intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the terrorism investigation, and any profits he might make from telling his story will be taken by the government (as part of the Son of Sam laws). As part of the plea deal, Lindh and his lawyers cannot talk about the conditions he was held in, in Afghanistan and in US custody, despite photos of smiling soldiers standing over his naked and tied body. When Sy Hersh helped break the Abu Ghraib scandal open, he reported that Lindh may have suffered the same, but Lindh is barred from discussing it as part of the plea bargain.
Pentagon officials, following Rumsfeld's orders, insisted that Lindh retract his claim of being mistreated by the military, as part of the plea bargain. Brosnahan says his client never felt he was intentionally abused by guards, though several took snapshots of one another next to him tied up, naked and blindfolded. Defense lawyers wanted the charges alleging ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups dropped."We were not going to sign anything that he was a terrorist," his lawyer remarked. “The Department of Defense insisted that we state that there was ‘no deliberate’ mistreatment of John.” His client agreed to do so, but, the attorney noted, “Against that, you have that photograph of a naked John on that stretcher.”
Lindh's father told Time Magazine "John went (into Afghanistan) to help the mujahideen, as he understood the people Ronald Reagan called the 'freedom fighters.'" At the time he arrived, the US was still giving money to Afghanistan. Despite all the hullabaloo about him receiving training from the Taliban, the Summer was hardly enough time for a decent "boot camp" training in weapons use.
Lindh's lawyers said that he was looking forward to broadening his education in prison—studying not only Islam and Arabic, but also American history and English literature. Barred from reading newspapers or magazines during his months in detention, Lindh has been devouring the works of James Joyce. Since January, 2003 Lindh has been at a medium-security prison in Victorville, a medium security federal prison in the California desert, northeast of Los Angeles, to serve the remainder of his sentence. He was moved to this prison so that he may be closer to his family when they visit. It has a lot of vocational and educational programs. The cells hold two prisoners. There is a law library and a leisure library. His chaplain said "He thinks life is of value wherever it is. In his cell he can enjoy praying and reading the Qur'an." He has since used the time to memorize the remaining two-thirds he had left unfinished when he left for Afghanistan, and is now a Hafiz. In March 2003, Lindh was tackled by another inmate while he was allegedly praying, and beaten while having obscenities screamed at him. He was not seriously injured. However, in the years afterward, he has risen to a position of great respect in the Prison's Muslim community.
In 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft added Adam Yahiye Gadahn to a list of wanted suspects, who Newsweek called "apparently a second 'American Taliban,' like John Walker Lindh, a California Lost Boy who wound up in Afghanistan allegedly working for Al Qaeda." According to the article (http://msnbc.msn.com/id/5092800/site/newsweek/), he may have known Lindh, but I don't know how they would have information like that.
Also, the US Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of Yasser Hamdi, prompting Lindh's lawyers to appeal his case as well. It will be seen what happens. His lawyers are hoping a change in public mood could help him, and they've petitioned President Bush in a long-shot bid to shorten Lindh's sentence.
"I think we all have to realize that the odds are against it," Frank Lindh said in his San Francisco speech. "It is difficult to envision a situation where all those hotheads in Washington can turn around and recognize the kid got a raw deal and should be released." "He never fought against America. He was simply rescued... He never fired a gun at an American," he also said earlier in an appeal.
During the 57 hours of back and forth negotiations between the prosecution and defense over the terms of a plea bargain, Lindh seemed worry-free. "No one can ever hurt me," Lindh told his religious advior in prison, quoting a Muslim scholar, Ibn Taymiyah. "If they imprison me, I can devote my time to worship. If they exile me, that is an opportunity to see new lands of God. If they kill me, then they make a martyr of me."
Lindh has written letters to his mentor at the Mill Valley, California mosque where he accepted Islam. According to Ebrahim Nana, who runs the mosque, Lindh has written of his dreams about building Islamic schools so American children would not have to go abroad to study. For now, he will recite a special prison prayer Nana has given him: "Our Lord, take us out of this town whose people are oppressors and raise for us from yourself one who will protect us." Nana also told the reporter, "Allah has kept him alive for a purpose."
Lindh's religious advisor says he lives a relatively normal life in medium security prison. He lives with a cellmate (another white convert in prison), works a prison job and is allowed to mingle with other inmates, but he is prohibited from talking about his experiences in Afghanistan, can't see visitors who aren't relatives or lawyers, and isn't allowed to speak Arabic, and thus lead prayers or teach about Islam. (He was put in solitary confinement for a few days after returning the traditional greeting "assalaamu 'alaykum.") He now goes by the name Hamzah, and its reported that his beard is "down to his chest." In 2004 he was reported to be taking an Arabic correspondence course, although an expert for the defense team said, "His knowledge of Arabic and the Koran is comparable to that of a Ph.D candidate." He is reported to have become a Hafiz (memorizer of the entire Qur'an). He also gets fan mail, which so far has included at least one marriage proposal. "He is an extremely well-liked, well-respected, model inmate in the system by the authorities as well as by the inmates," said his religious advisor, Shakeel Syed. "Some of the inmates have come to sympathize with him because of his special restrictions."
"Prison has helped him become a better Muslim," Syed said. "He is a Malcolm X with a softer tone....I'm talking about the later Malcolm X who transcended racist sentiments and nationalism. When Hamzah is released, I believe he can become a bridge-builder between faiths and communities, a man who will fight against inequality and for social justice. He smiled at me when I told him that he could play that role in the future, but he is much too modest to say that he agrees."
Abdul Raheem (formery Robert Thompson), 52, was recently released from Victorville prison. He knew Lindh for nearly two years and also describes a pious and studious young man who is held in extremely high esteem by other prisoners. "I would safely predict that right now Hamzah is reading the Koran," he said, during a late-afternoon interview. "I've never seen anyone read a book like Hamzah reads the Koran. He's so quiet and gentle that you often wouldn't know he's there. He's a lovely, sweet man. I don't think that the non-Muslims know what to make of him, but they sure respect him. Some people hassled him and called him a traitor at first, but that's long gone."
Asked if Lindh ever expresses regret about how his life has turned out, Abdul Raheem laughed. "Of course not. We all know that everything in our lives is decreed by Allah. How can you have regrets when Allah has chosen your path. He tells us not to worry about how others perceive Muslims, that we should just focus on living a good life according to the teachings of the Koran."
My personal opinion:
I feel that it was a great injustice to throw the book at this man so harshly. When he was shown on CNN, there was this tremendous outcry by people to "Hang him from the highest tree." He's been called a traitor, turncoat, fundamentalist. People wanted him executed
and his body buried in pork to send a message to anyone who would be such a "traitor to the country." It's like people were equating him with Osama Bin Laden
or Zacharias Moussaui
, whom he does NOT support or condone.
The kind of backlash after his story came out was tremendous. Every reporter asked the same question "How did a quiet, bright young boy from suburban America wind up with the Taliban?" The general consensus by the people was that he was some crazy nut who got "brainwashed" by Muslim propaganda. In case the people who chronicled his story weren't explicit in saying that message, they sure hinted at it a lot. The mainstream media coverage of Lindh's case has been characteristically shoddy, shallow and sensational. Much attention has been given to Lindh's Marin County upbringing to show that he was a good boy, and then contrasted with photos of him lookng all ragged after being handed over to American troops. He grew up outside of San Francisco, and conservative commentators said that perhaps a liberal atmosphere forced him into a Taliban lifestyle. What? Lindh's mother recalls getting anonymous threats directed at her after Lindh's capture, "Great parenting job, you should be shot with the same gun used to shoot your son."
The commentary by newscasters and others has been so frivolous. Yes, after September 11, there was a lot of fear and it's evident in the articles I researched that there was chaos and anger, including among the mood of reporters. They tried to find every small detail that could give them the "Why." They know he was influenced by the story of Malcolm X, so they discuss that, and Ann Coulter openly questioned the morality of having Malcolm X as a hero. They know that he went to an Islamic school for a while, and the worst kind of "investigative Journalism" emerged that tried to depict madrassas as "festering" "schools of hate" as one put it. Could someone get away with over-generalizing that way about a parochial school or yeshiva? The author of "American Taliban" accuses Lindh of being a repressed homosexual and blames his former political views as a result of it. I find that to be the most outrageously bogus conclusion one could come to in this case. Conservative Shelby Steele portrayed him as a predictable product of "a certain cultural liberalism" native to Northern California, and she wasn't alone. Former President George H. Bush called him as a "poor misguided Marin County hot-tubber." On the Left, Hillary Clinton and Al Franken called him a traitor. On the Right, Ann Coulter wanted him executed as a warning to liberals, but later clarified that she wanted him "burned alive" on TV, and also railed against how we should monitor and do something about the numberous converts to Islam (never mind that the examples of converted criminals she cited were not Muslims).
Legal observers observe today that the sentence was the byproduct of the national mood at the time, and note that many subsequent terror prosecutions in the U.S. have led to much shorter prison terms. "He became an almost cathartic criminal case for the public," said George Washington University law Prof. Jonathan Turley. "Just as the public emotion was at a fever pitch, John Walker Lindh walked right out of central casting as a vicious traitor who betrayed his country. Upon further examination, he appears to be a confused kid playing a low-level role."
Ever since he made the spotlight, American Muslims (myself included) have been looked upon in quite a nasty light. I'm a white Muslim and I've had to put up with people who accuse me of being somehow "untrustable" like him. I've even had people call me "John Walker Lindh" as an insult. My mother swore that she'll never "make the mistake his parents made," which means she's completely against me digging into Islam or even going abroad to learn more about the religion. This country is extremely unfair to converts, far too many Americans have this basic assumption that you must be wacky to want to be a muslim. Unfortunately, a few bad apples like Richard Reid, Jose Padilla, and Zacharias Moussaui haven't improved anyone's perceptions. Can't people remember Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Cat Stevens, and Hamza Yusuf?
I feel that Lindh was scapegoated for a lot of things. His first court appearance made headlines, and everyone conveniently forgot about the Enron scandal that unfolded at the same time. The government wanted to show that they were tough on terrorism, and wanted a "win" on their record against terrorism. John Ashcroft called him an Al-Qaeda member, a follower of Osama Bin Laden, and a holy warrior against the US. That was all false, and 9 of 10 charges against him were dropped. John Ashcroft said, "personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against your country," but the accusation didn't stick, since he never fought Americans. In the end, he was convicted only of violating a Clinton-era executive order forbidding American citizens from providing "personnel" services to the Taliban, and his sentence was extended "because he carried a weapon in the commission of the offense." The government had to really stretch to find a law to charge him with breaking. The defense argued that law only applied to financial transactions, and the law was later changed; he couldn't be convicted under it today. But by then, people had already made up their minds about him. His father implored American in a speech 4 years later, "I think it's clear that the United States really made a mistake in treating Taliban footsoldiers and the Afghan army as if they were al Qaeda terrorists. This was unjust in the eyes of the whole world, but especially among Muslims. And finally, I say that the mistreatment and the imprisonment of John Lindh was and is a human rights violation. It was based purely on an emotional response to the 9/11 attacks, and not on an objective assessment of John's case."
I can't help but feel sorry for him; his only crime was that he was fighting for some group who later on became the enemy of the US military, whom he never fought. He was fighting the Northern Alliance months before the United States became involved in the conflict. Not only that, the US allowed Afghanistan to come under Taliban rule by supporting the Afghan Mujahideen. Ronald Reagan invited their leaders to the White House, and declared them "the moral equivalents of the founding fathers."
The indictment in federal court states that Lindh declined the offer to participate in terror operations against Israel and the United States and chose instead to go to the front lines to fight the Northern Alliance. He also declined to swear allegiance to Al Qaeda.
As an update to the story, in December 2003, a US Federal Appeals court ruled that the government cannot convict individuals for providing "material support" for terrorist organizations unless it proves beyond a reasonable doubt that they knew the organizations were involved in terrorist activity. "Without the knowledge requirement," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the panel majority, "a person who simply sends a check to a school or orphanage run by a U.S.-designated terrorist group could be convicted under the statute, even if that individual is not aware of the group's designation or of any unlawful activities undertaken by the group." The Statute from 1996 was used to convict Lindh, but he denied any knowledge that the Taliban was involved in Terrorism. The prosecution did a poor job of proving his mens rea, or criminal intent. For all we know, he thought he was trying to protect Afghanis from the warlords as he claimed and heard.
For everyone's information, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, people from all parts of the world hurried over to help the rebellion against the brutal invasion. Thousands of Muslims, including Americans, answered the call. Uncounted scores of American mujahideen traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, a war effort financially backed by the Reagan administration. That trend continued through the 1990s, though Afghanistan became but one of several other destinations. Figures are sketchy, but the FBI have estimated that up to 2,000 Muslim Americans left the United States during the 1990s to help muslims overseas in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Not only that, but there are Christian Americans who are supporting rebel forces in Sudan, in an extremely brutal war. Pat Robertson has personally sent money to meddle in Liberia. Americans flocked to join in the Spanish Civil War. Lindh was also charged with fighting against an ally of America. The dictator of the Phillipines, Ferdinand Marcos. was an ally of America. Should anybody who fought against Marcos stand trial in America? Joseph Stalin was an ally of America during World War II. Should former Soviet dissidents who opposed Stalin be extradited to America and held to stand trial on a charge fighting against an ally of America? My position is simply that Americans have a long history of laying down their lives in the civil wars of other countries and that the singling out Mr. Lindh was a politically motivated act and helped feed the public outcry and media circus. He was pilloried.
I found a good editorial which reads: "There is nothing wrong with John Walker having Malcolm X as a hero; in fact, I would hope that with a little perspective on his own situation Walker can now see the similarities between his life and the that of Malcolm X. Both mean were recruited and betrayed by cult leaders who used 'thought reform' techniques to lead them into many false conclusions. While Malcolm X lived long enough to get some new perspectives and change his views on a great may things, in is uncertain whether Walker will have time do so himself."
Frankly, I look up to this man, Sulayman Al-Faris. I believe he was a pious individual who had pure intentions to do the right thing. I do not think that the Taliban was all that good, and the reports of corruption and harshness towards women are un-Islamic and have to be condemned. Sulayman didn't know that when he signed up, all he knew was that he heard that muslims were in danger in Afghanistan, and he went to support them. He was not a terrorist, but a mujahid. I can only wish to be as brave as he was in such a situation. Here he is, trying to defend Muslim cities from warlords, and ready to lay down his life as a shaheed for his belief.
Reporter: Was your goal to be (inaudible) or martyred?
Walker: It's the goal of every Muslim.
Reporter: Was it your goal, though? Was it your goal at that time?
Walker: I tell you, to be honest, every single one of us, without any exaggeration, every single one of us was 100 percent sure that we would all be ... all be martyred, but you know, Allah chooses to take a person's life when He chooses. And we have no control over... (pauses are his)
I first watched his interview on CNN
(http://archives.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/central/12/20/ret.walker.transcript/index.html and Video Parts 1-3: http://homepage.mac.com/mr100percent/walkercnn1.mov http://homepage.mac.com/mr100percent/walkercnn2.mov http://homepage.mac.com/mr100percent/walkercnn3.mov ) with intense fascination. He carefully told of how he heard of the threat of the Northern Alliance
, and went to come to the defense of the Taliban, who he heard was a full Islamic government
. He told the reporter that he had no qualms about martyrdom, and how he wanted to be a shaheed
. Looking into his eyes, I could see that he meant it. A few months later, he finally got to read newspapers and watch tv, and see what all the reporters were saying about how the Taliban oppressed women and the acts they committed. He clarified his intentions in his courtroom speech, where he claimed to have no knowledge of any of that. I believe what he said. He made a mistake, and he admitted it. I still think that he was brave for risking his life for his religion, as he saw it. He's not the kind of person who would hurt innocent people. " I understand why so many Americans were angry when I was first discovered in Afghanistan. I realize that many still are but I hope that with time and understanding, those feelings will change," he said at his trial.
The bottom line about his son, Lindh's father said, is that John Lindh was a young man trying to study Islam and help those he thought were in danger from Afghan rebels. If anything, he said while trying to plead his son's case after 4 years of silence, his son was a foolish youth in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Do I wish he hadn't gone to Afghanistan? You bet, and I think John does, too," Lindh said. "In fact, he told me so."
I think that Sulayman Al-Faris and I have a lot in common. I converted to Islam at age 17 (I prefer the term "reverted"), and like him, I felt disillusioned with a lot of things in life. People like to say he felt alienated, perhaps that may be the case, I myself lost a few friends after September 11, 2001. Islam seemed to make more sense than any other religion, free from all the problems that drove my Christian friends into agnosticism. I've read his online posts from 1997 (they're still online), and I can say I see a little of myself in him, he's got both a playful and a serious side. You can see him go from a hip-hop fan over time to a person who sold off his music collection and joined religion message boards. I know how he feels, I sense his searching. I've seen pictures of him, he lost the jeans and grew a beard around that time.
He found a religion that has meaning and purpose to life. Islam provided me with direction, its a religion that has balance. It told me what I should and shouldn't be doing; how to live, how to eat, how to sleep, how to keep clean physically and spiritually. At the same stage as him, as I felt disillusioned with society, culture, secularism, once my belief in God got so strong, I felt like I would do anything for Him. The goal of every pious Muslim is to get closer to Allah and to earn His pleasure. Islam places great emphasis on those righteous followers who struggled as mujahideen and died as shuhada, for they are the ones who will be promised the highest level of Paradise and are the closest to God. Ad Astra per aspera. While I never went out and took any action like he did, I have to admire someone who had the right intention and made the effort. I have to respect someone who got that kind of conviction. He intrigues me, I'm want to see or write to him one day, ask him his story as one revert to another. He is a muslim, and therefore my brother. I miss him dearly, pray for God to forgive his mistakes, and hope that he is ok.
I admire him a lot. That's actually one of the reasons I chose the name Sulayman when I became a Muslim.
Photographs: (in chronological order)
CNN: John Walker Lindh profile- http://www.cnn.com/CNN/Programs/people/shows/walker/profile.html
CNN: A Short Course in Miracles- http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/07/22/time.course/
CNN: Bush gave nod to plea agreement, officials say- http://www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/07/15/bush.plea.deal/index.html
BBC - Profile: John Walker Lindh- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1779455.stm
Why Did John Walker Lindh Make a Deal?- http://www.msnbc.com/news/781133.asp
US torture of John Walker Lindh exposed as frame-up continues- http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/jun2002/lind-j25.shtml
John Walker Lindh's Long, Dark Journey - Salon.com- http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2003/08/25/lindh/index.html
The Fall of John Walker Lindh - Salon.com- http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2003/08/26/lindh/index.html
Ashcroft's Vendetta: Lynching John Walker Lindh- http://www.counterpunch.org/baughman0705.html
MSNBC: ‘He’s a really good boy’- http://www.msnbc.com/news/666499.asp
Wikipedia - John Walker Lindh- http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Walker_Lindh
Free John Walker- http://www.freejohnwalker.net/
The Making of John Walker Lindh- http://www.rickross.com/reference/islamic/islamic56.html
Lindh's Courtroom Statement- http://www.freejohnwalker.net/statement.html
The Strange Odyssey of John Walker Lindh- http://web.archive.org/web/20020718173005/http://teacher.scholastic.com/upfront/issue/articles/11awalker.htm
CNN - John Walker Lindh in Court- http://www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/01/24/walker.court/
Time.com - The Taliban Next Door- http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,187564,00.html
Legal documents in Lindh case- http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/issues/issue_walker.htm
When Johnny Goes Marching Home Again (to Afghanistan)- http://www.reclaim.org/tap/is6/ed6a.html
Time.com - A Short Course in Miracles- http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101020729-322618,00.html
I Studied in Yemen With John Walker- http://archive.salon.com/news/feature/2002/01/04/walker/index.html
Federal Indictment of John Walker Lindh- http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/lindhindictment.htm
CagePrisoners.com - An Exclusive Look at Lindh's Life Behind Bars- http://www.cageprisoners.com/articles.php?id=13189
Lindh's father speaks: The Real Story of John Walker Lindh- http://www.alternet.org/story/31211/
Telegraph UK - The New Malcolm X?- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/04/09/wlindh09.xml&sSheet=/news/2006/04/09/ixworld.html
Mr. Lindh can receive mail at the following address:
John Philip Walker Lindh, Inmate # 45426-083
FCI Victorville Medium I
Federal Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 5300
Adelanto, CA 92301
Mail to Mr. Lindh will be screened by federal authorities.
Mail will be screened by federal authorities (screened for contraband and the like, possibly read?)
Do not send money to this address, money to inmates has to go to a different one.