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'American Taliban' To Be Released From Prison Thursday


The U.S. fight against the Taliban is not over, but the man known as the American Taliban is going free. In 2001, not long after 9/11, Afghan forces allied with the United States, captured John Walker Lindh. He's been in federal prison 17 years and is to be released today. NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam is covering this story, which has many implications.

Good morning.


INSKEEP: How did an American end up in Afghanistan on the side of the Taliban?

ALLAM: Well, it's certainly an unusual case. Lindh was born into a Catholic family in D.C. His dad was a lawyer at the Justice Department.


ALLAM: Yeah, he grew up in California. And around age 16, he became interested in Islam, ends up converting. And then with his parents' permission, he sets off to study Arabic and Islam in Yemen and then Pakistan. And then he crosses into Afghanistan and things get really murky. He sympathized with the Taliban cause, goes off to join them, ends up at a training camp where, at one point, he even met Osama bin Laden.


ALLAM: Yeah, this was before 9/11 but definitely after other al-Qaida attacks on U.S. interests.

INSKEEP: How did he end up in U.S. custody after the United States struck back for 9/11 in Afghanistan?

ALLAM: Right. Well, in November 2001, Lindh was captured by the Afghan Northern Alliance. He's questioned by CIA officers who were on the ground. And then moments after he's questioned, this big prisoner revolt unfolds. One of those agents, Mike Spann, was killed. The revolt's put down. And in this long and bloody ordeal, Lindh gets shot in the leg, but he does end up as one of only 86 of several hundred Taliban prisoners to survive.

INSKEEP: So this is interesting. We've got a guy who's served 17 years of a 20-year sentence. He's out on good behavior, can't hold him any longer. But it's unusual because normally, prisoners in a war would be prisoners of war until the war is over, then you let them go. But now you have a sort of endless war against terror groups. And aren't there multiple people like John Walker Lindh who are supposed to get out at some point?

ALLAM: Certainly. You know, he was - he's sometimes called detainee number one in the so-called war on terror. And now in a way, he is parolee number one. And it's going to be a test case for, you know, several people who are going to be released in the next four or five years. I spoke to Michael Jensen. He's a researcher at the START center. It's a terrorism research center at the University of Maryland. And he talked about this. This is what he said.

MICHAEL JENSEN: This is a wave that's coming at us right now that we are not currently prepared to deal with. So my hope with the Lindh case is that people look at it carefully, assess what his risks and what his needs are and then we use that as a foundation to build on for future releasees. So, you know, we need to move quickly on this. It's - in the next four years, we're going to have a hundred of these individuals that we're trying to reintegrate back into U.S. communities.

INSKEEP: Wow - a hundred.

ALLAM: That's right. And Jensen said there's no national plan, no strategy in place to deal with this. So there's a scramble now to come up with one.

INSKEEP: Well, if Lindh is the test case, let's think this through. He gets out today. There's still a battle against the Taliban and other terror groups. How's the United States going to deal with him?

ALLAM: Yeah, absolutely. He - he'll get out, and he has a probation period of three years. And so in that time, he'll be watched very closely - really restricted access to the Internet. Pretty much everything he does online for the next three years has to be signed off on by his parole officer.

INSKEEP: Oh, he's monitored the same way that parents may monitor their kids only more extremely, perhaps.

ALLAM: Right, much more extremely. There's also, you know, travel restrictions and other sort of - you know, the normal restrictions for people on probation. But really with Lindh, the extra restrictions on the Internet are to prevent him from becoming an online recruiter for, you know, extremist groups.

INSKEEP: Hannah, thanks so much.

ALLAM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Hannah Allam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.