'American Taliban' John Walker Lindh Scheduled To Be Released On Parole

May 22, 2019
Originally published on May 22, 2019 5:03 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now an update on one story that's part of the long war in Afghanistan.

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TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The prisoner speaks English, and a defense official says the U.S. forces now holding him have every reason to believe he is a U.S. citizen.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten reporting back in 2001. And the prisoner he spoke of was Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, a 20-year-old from Northern California. Lindh was later sentenced to 20 years for joining the Taliban. He's scheduled to be released tomorrow from federal prison in Indiana.

NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here in the studio. Welcome back, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: Remind us how John Walker Lindh wound up as a soldier with the Taliban.

MYRE: Well, he was born right here in D.C. And his father was a lawyer at the Justice Department and a practicing Catholic. The family moved to Northern California when he was age 10, at 16 converts to Islam. And then a year later with his parents' support, he goes to study Arabic in Yemen and then on to Pakistan. And then in the spring of 2001, he goes to Afghanistan to volunteer as a Taliban soldier without his parents knowing about this part of it.

CORNISH: So how did his interest in Islam lead him to becoming a soldier for the Taliban?

MYRE: Well, his family said he was very idealistic. And the U.S. at that point wasn't involved in the war. And the family says that John Walker Lindh had no intention of fighting Americans. But then 9/11 happens. And the U.S. begins its bombing. And he's among a group of Taliban soldiers who surrender. And there's just a - sort of extraordinary coincidence. And there's this footage of John Walker Lindh on his knees being questioned by a CIA operative who turns up at this camp, and his name was Mike Spann, part of this very small CIA contingent.

A few hours later, the Taliban prisoners launch an uprising, and Spann is killed. Now - no evidence John Walker Lindh was an active participant. In fact, he was shot and wounded. And this goes on for several days, but he's eventually captured. He pleads guilty to joining the Taliban, gets a 20-year sentence, though no terrorism or treason charges against him.

CORNISH: He's now being released three years early - right? - in that 20-year sentence. Do we know what John Walker Lindh thinks about the Taliban today?

MYRE: Well, not exactly because we really haven't heard from him behind bars. When he went to prison in 2002, he gave a prepared statement and said, I've never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism or terrorism. I condemn terrorism on every level, he said at the time. But we do have to note the terrorism - the Taliban, rather - was already a very notorious group when he joined - had an abominable human rights record. And they were protecting Osama bin Laden. And then - sort of another extraordinary coincidence - he actually met Osama bin Laden, who turned up at one of the Taliban training camps at that time.

And Mike Spann's family is very upset about this release. One of his kids who was very young at the time and is now grown - a daughter, Alison - says this release is a slap in the face.

CORNISH: Greg, what are the conditions of his relief - of his release? Where is he going to live?

MYRE: We don't know exactly. His parents are very supportive and are still out in Northern California. But he got these three years off for good behavior. The judge has put on very tight probation restrictions. He's going to need permission to go online. He'll be closely monitored at all times. He'll get mental health counseling. Now, we do know that in prison he did get an Irish passport through one of his grandparents of Irish descent, but he can't travel. So we don't know what kind of life he's going to be able to build out of this, and we'll just have to wait and see.

CORNISH: That's NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thank you.

MYRE: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.