On Nov. 25, 2001, two CIA officers discovered a bearded 19-year-old English speaker among a group of captured Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
The bedraggled teen stood out. “Irish? Ireland?” a CIA officer asked the prisoner, who gave no reply.
He turned out to be an American. And hours later, one of his CIA interrogators was killed when the captured Taliban prisoners staged an uprising.
Photographed naked and bound, California-born John Walker Lindh became detainee #001 in the global war on terrorism and dubbed the “American Taliban.” Branded a traitor and terrorist back home, he was convicted of supporting the Taliban and sentenced to 20 years in prison in a media firestorm that captured the zeitgeist of the post-9/11 era.
Now 36 years old, Lindh is set to be released in less than two years. And he’ll leave prison with Irish citizenship and a stubborn refusal to renounce violent ideology, according to the U.S. government. Foreign Policy obtained two government documents that express concerns about Lindh: One details the communications of Lindh and other federal prisoners convicted of terrorism-related charges, and the second, written by the National Counterterrorism Center, addresses the intelligence community’s larger concerns over these inmates, once released.
“As of May 2016, John Walker Lindh (USPER) — who is scheduled to be released in May 2019 after being convicted of supporting the Taliban — continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts,” reads the National Counterterrorism Center document prepared earlier this year.
The report, marked “For Official Use Only” and dated Jan. 24, 2017, provides a window into how the intelligence community looks at the prospect of releasing American citizens still considered potential threats. The document indicates that intelligence and law enforcement agencies are already worried that “homegrown violent extremists,” like other criminals, could have high rates of recidivism.
The document, which cites various Federal Bureau of Prisons intelligence summaries, claims that in March of last year, Lindh “told a television news producer that he would continue to spread violent extremist Islam upon his release.”
The television news producer is not identified, no specific statements are quoted, and there is no public record that Lindh has participated in media interviews.
While Lindh’s case is the most prominent among these prisoners, it’s not unique. U.S. authorities are monitoring dozens of other inmates who they deem to be “homegrown violent extremists” and who will be released within the next several years.
By the end of 2016, according to the National Counterterrorism Center, there were 300 terrorism offenders in prison, including 80 arrested in the past two years. “We assess that at least some of the more than 90 homegrown violent extremists incarcerated in the US who are due to be released in the next five years will probably reengage in terrorist activity,” the report says, “possibly including attack plotting, because they either remain radicalized or are susceptible to re-radicalization as has already been demonstrated overseas.”
Back in 2002, Lindh’s case posed difficult challenges for a government just starting to grapple with how to prosecute the war on terrorism on the battlefield and in the courts. Fifteen years later, as Lindh approaches his release from prison, the federal government will again be venturing into unchartered waters as sentences for other convicted extremists expire.Now it will be up to President Donald Trump to decide one of the trickiest legacies of the war on terrorism: how to treat so-called homegrown terrorists after they’ve served their time.
Several attorneys who worked on terrorism cases told FP the government doesn’t have any specific conditions in place for extremists once they’re released. Most of the emphasis is on the prosecution up front, and not what happens after they leave prison, they say.
Most sentences for terror-related cases involving U.S. citizens in the post-9/11 era “are ripening into release just now,” said Joshua Dratel, a lawyer who has defended suspected terrorists in federal court. But the government, he notes, isn’t entitled to do anything with them upon their release; they’re free subject to the terms of their release.
Lindh’s journey from a liberal suburb in Marin County, California to northern Afghanistan began as an adolescent, when he watched the film Malcolm X. He told FBI interrogators that the movie inspired him to convert to Islam. In 1998, at just 17 years old, he dropped out of school and went to Yemen to learn Arabic, with his parents’ support.
From there, he traveled to Pakistan, where he spent time with a paramilitary group fighting for Kashmir’s independence from India. Then he made his way to Afghanistan, prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, to fight with the Taliban, which controlled much of the country and was waging a war with the Northern Alliance. It was then that he lost contact with his family, who wouldn’t hear from him again until after his capture.
Lindh spent seven weeks at a training camp near Kandahar, which was used to prepare Taliban militants for combat and al Qaeda volunteers for terrorist attacks. He met Osama bin Laden at least once and spoke briefly with the al Qaeda leader, who thanked the American and other foreign fighters for taking part in the jihad, according to the FBI’s account of his interrogation.
In November 2001, U.S. forces found Lindh among a group of Taliban fighters whose commander had surrendered to the Northern Alliance near Mazar-i-Sharif. Hours after Lindh was interrogated, his fellow prisoners staged a revolt in which some 500 were killed, including a CIA operations officer, Johnny Michael Spann. Lindh was shot in the leg during the fighting. He was one of only 86 who survived the uprising.
Lindh’s parents only learned of his whereabouts when CNN aired an interview with him shortly after his capture.
During more than 50 days of detention, U.S. authorities sometimes had Lindh blindfolded, naked and bound to a stretcher with duct tape. Although his family had retained a defense lawyer and told U.S. authorities about it, Lindh knew nothing about his attorney for a month.
Brought back to the United States, Lindh found himself facing charges of terrorism, even though there was no evidence he plotted against Americans. In the frenzied aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft described Lindh as an al Qaeda-trained terrorist who “chose to embrace fanatics.”
In the first legal case of the “war on terror,” Lindh was charged with providing material support for terrorism. The government’s case eventually collapsed over questions about Lindh’s treatment and confession while he was held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and on U.S. naval ships.
With the defense team ready to shine an embarrassing light on Lindh’s treatment, federal prosecutors — at the urging of the Defense Department — dropped nine of the ten counts, including charges he tried to kill a CIA officer or support terrorism. Lindh ultimately pleaded guilty to violating an executive order prohibiting aid to the Taliban, and for carrying weapons in Afghanistan, and he agreed to drop any claims that he was abused by the U.S. military.
At his sentencing, Lindh, then 21, denounced Osama bin Laden, expressed regret over joining the Taliban, and renounced terrorism. “I condemn terrorism on every level — unequivocally,” he said in a prepared statement. “My beliefs about jihad are those of mainstream Muslims around the world.”More than 15 years after he was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan, Lindh’s case remains the subject of debate and intense speculation. Is he a dangerous traitor or the victim of an angry nation lashing out after a terrorist attack?
“We’ll never know what actually happened to John Walker Lindh,” said Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “John Walker Lindh, in many respects, was a victim of the time. It was the aftermath of 9/11.”
Marc Sageman, a former CIA operations officer and a terrorism expert, said Lindh’s rise to public infamy and lengthy prison term was an “overreaction” to the new threat of terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. “Of course he pled guilty to some kinds of charges. Because the country was ready to lynch him,” Sageman said.
For Sageman, Lindh was more of a foot soldier fighting for a U.S. adversary rather than a terrorist plotting attacks. “People bandy about the word terrorism when they describe him,” he added. “I don’t see him as a terrorist.”
John Walker Lindh knows he won’t walk out of prison as just another ex-convict, and will likely face a hostile American public. While in prison, he came up with the plan of possibly moving to Ireland, according to a Bureau of Prisons intelligence summary. The document, prepared by the Federal Bureau of Prisons Counter Terrorism Unit, summarizes communications of prisoners convicted of terrorism-related crimes, and includes excerpted emails in which Lindh discuss his desire to leave the United States after his release.
Lindh secured Irish citizenship in 2013, according to the intelligence summary. Sources familiar with the matter confirmed his Irish citizenship to FP, and said it was obtained thanks to his paternal grandmother, Kathleen Maguire, an Irish citizen from Donegal born in 1929.
His father, Frank Lindh, hopes that his son could build a new life in Ireland after his release. But under Irish law, even with his new citizenship, the Irish government could refuse to issue a passport on grounds that Lindh posed a threat to national security. The U.S. government also could bar him from traveling abroad for at least three years, under the terms of his “supervised release” from prison, and even after that, legal experts say.
When asked about Lindh’s case, the Irish Embassy in Washington said it “does not comment on individual cases.” U.S. authorities also declined to comment.
In his initial years in prison at Terre Haute, Indiana, John Walker Lindh was kept under what are known as “special administrative measures,” which heavily restricted his communications with the outside world. Those measures were lifted in 2009, though the Bureau of Prisons declined to say if any specific restrictions are currently applied to Lindh.
Whether by choice or government constraint, Lindh has communicated little about his life in Terre Haute, though some details can be gleaned from his lawsuits against the Bureau of Prisons. In 2013, he won the right for communal prayer, and in December 2014, Lindh joined another legal battle, this time arguing for the right to wear his pants above his ankle, in line with Muslim tenets.
The Bureau of Prisons intelligence summary obtained by FP indicates that Lindh does have email contact with his father and an advocacy group working on his behalf.
“Regarding the Ireland issue, I really don’t know what to expect from the Irish government. I know virtually nothing about them. I think the only reasonable way to present my case to them is to explain my unique circumstances that make my survival in the US practically impossible,” Lindh wrote to CAGE, a nongovernmental organization that advocates on behalf of prisoners and detainees caught up in the war on terrorism. “Essentially I am seeking asylum from one country where I am a citizen in another country where I am also a citizen. The worst they can do is to decline my request. I figure it is worth at least trying,” Lindh wrote.
In an email to his son in December 2016, Frank Lindh recounted his “hope-inducing conversation” with CAGE about emigrating. But first, CAGE required the assistance of an American defense lawyer to communicate with U.S. government officials, Frank Lindh informed his son.
There was one hitch: The renowned attorney who represented Lindh in his 2002 trial, James Brosnahan, had “dropped” his client, according to the intelligence summary. (Brosnahan did not respond to a request for comment.)
Frank urged his son “to mend fences with Jim,” referring to his former lawyer, adding that Brosnahan would likely demand that Lindh explicitly reject violence.
“We can discuss this in our next phone call, but one thing I anticipate Jim will absolutely demand is that you be willing to condemn, in all sincerity, publicly if needed, and without any reservation whatsoever, depravity of any kind, whoever commits it,” he wrote.
“You can visualize yourself what the list of depraved acts might consist of. I believe such a request should be easy for you, to fulfill as a devout Muslim and person of conscience.”
But John Walker Lindh refused. Replying to his father, he wrote: “I am not interested in renouncing my beliefs or issuing condemnations in order to please Brosnahan or anybody else.”
The Bureau of Prisons document says that “inmate Walker Lindh made pro ISIS statements to various reporters and was subsequently dropped by counsel.” It does not indicate which counsel, nor does it cite any specific statements.
CAGE has been at the center of its own controversy in recent years; proponents praise its work with detainees while critics accuse of it apologizing for terrorists. Amnesty International dropped its partnership with CAGE in 2015 and still refuses to share a public platform with the group, according to an Amnesty spokesperson. Despite the political baggage, it appears Frank Lindh is pinning his hopes on this organization.
Over the years, John Walker Lindh’s father has campaigned to win a possible commutation of his son’s sentence. In 2009, he participated in an interview with GQ in which he said, “I’m proud of my son.”
Lindh’s father has sought to portray his son as a spiritual, well-intentioned young man unjustly labeled as a terrorist. “Like Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War, John had volunteered for the army of a foreign government battling an insurgency,” he wrote in a 2011 New York Times op-ed. “His decision was rash and blindly idealistic, but not sinister or traitorous.”
Frank Lindh declined several requests for comment. A letter sent to John Walker Lindh at Terre Haute went unanswered. The Bureau of Prisons said that John Walker Lindh declined a request to comment for this article.
In October 2016, in the waning days of the Barack Obama’s presidency, the writer Paul Theroux published an op-ed in the New York Times asking that Lindh’s sentence be commuted, arguing that what Lindh did was comparable to his own youthful experience supporting rebels in Malawi in the 1960s. Theroux said that Lindh was “taking risks to help people perceived as oppressed; and like me, he did not fully understand the bigger picture, was in over his head, and was overtaken by events.”
The next month, Donald Trump, who has railed against the threat of Islamic extremism, was elected president, potentially snuffing out any chance of a commutation. It is now unclear how the government will deal with Lindh or others convicted of terrorism-related charges upon release.
It’s difficult to create a one-size-fits-all rehabilitation program for extremists because there are so few of these cases and each one is unique, said a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted numerous high-profile terrorists. “In this area of trying to rehabilitate extremists, it is really all over the map,” said the former U.S. attorney, who requested to remain anonymous. “The threshold question is what’s effective?
The National Counterterrorism Center suggested one option would be to widen government programs designed to counter violent extremism to include probation and parole officers, and to track convicted terrorists upon release. There’s a precedent with Megan’s Law, the document notes, which requires sex offenders to register their home address and check in frequently with law enforcement.
Lindh, for his part, does not appear to be optimistic. He tells his father in a December 2016 email quoted in the intelligence summary that he likely will have to “abandon this project” to move to Ireland. He says an earlier request to be released to Puerto Rico had not been answered, and that he anticipates having to endure threats and hostility on the U.S. mainland.
“I will just have to stay here for a while and deal with the lynch mobs as best as I can,” he writes. “It is a daunting predicament that I’m in, but many people around the world are in even more difficult situations and find ways to manage, so I am not worried.”
This article was updated on June 25, 2017, to reflect comments from Joshua Dratel.
Top photo credit: CNN via Getty Images/Reuters/Foreign Policy illustration