© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

John Walker Lindh, Known As The American Taliban, Released From Prison After 17 Years


What now for John Walker Lindh? The man known as the American Taliban was released today from federal prison after 17 years; that's three years early for good behavior. Lindh's attorney has not responded to questions from NPR but told CNN that Lindh plans to move to Virginia. Lindh's release has a lot of people talking and wondering about how someone convicted on terror-related charges can or should reenter society; among them, journalist Graeme Wood of The Atlantic.

Wood tracks terrorism and extremism, and four years ago, he sat down and wrote a letter to Lindh, in prison, asking for his thoughts on jihad and the Islamic State. And Graeme Wood, I gather John Walker Lindh wrote you right back?

GRAEME WOOD: Yes. I wrote to him and asked, what do you think of this group? They seem to be doing what you wanted to do, and how have they been able to accomplish that? And he got back to me pretty promptly, saying, you know, I'm able to see things on CNN; I can watch BBC. But that's all I know, so you'll have to send me some of their propaganda to read before I can speak to you in an informed way. And then he said, thank you for your interest in the Islamic State.

KELLY: Wow. There was a striking exchange between you two where he wrote - he couldn't answer some of the questions you were asking him, and he suggested you go visit the Islamic State yourself, so you could pose these questions directly to the leaders of ISIS, to which you replied - what?

WOOD: I said, that sounds like a great idea; I just don't want to get killed or put into slavery. And he wrote back and said, your apprehensions are understandable, but I believe they are misplaced. And he said, the Islamic State seems to be led by Muslims who will respect the covenants that they make with you. So if you follow the correct procedures to go in, you can trust these people.

KELLY: Well, I mean, that prompts me to ask, was there anything, as you corresponded with him, that suggested to you that he has had some epiphany, that he has completely changed the way he thinks about the world while in prison, and that he no longer sympathizes with al-Qaeda or with jihadist ideology?

WOOD: Quite the opposite. The more that I corresponded with him - and it was fewer than half a dozen letters - but he would drop little hints that, yes, he maintains a very strict jihadist orientation, and that he thinks the Islamic State was a good thing while it was lasting. Not only did he say that he thought the leaders of the Islamic State were trustworthy people, he also referred me to a person he described as a colleague, Ahmad Musa Jibril, who was in the penitentiary in Terre Haute with him for a bit of time and who was the most popular cleric among travelers to the Islamic State. So I take that as a pretty strong endorsement of the Islamic State's project by John Walker Lindh.

KELLY: Well, so what kind of life do you imagine he may be able to lead now that he is no longer tucked away inside a penitentiary, as of today?

WOOD: Well, he's going to be watched very carefully, of course, by American authorities. They're perfectly aware that he seems to be unreformed. But what we have now is a really striking case of what do we do with someone who has more or less paid his debt - he's served his judicially approved sentence - and still wants to be part of a caliphate, still wants to be part of jihad, in a violent sense? So the ability that our society has to reintegrate and rehabilitate such a person are really going to be tested, as he lives on the outside.

KELLY: And just practically speaking, what are you watching for - because his probation terms forbid him from owning devices that connect to the Internet or from having online communications in any language other than English without permission from his probation officers. Is that realistic?

WOOD: Well, I think you can keep tabs on what devices he's using, see what he's looking at on the Internet. And for the three years of his likely probation, that will be pretty easy. Going forward, beyond that, it's going to be tough for him. I mean, he's going to be a totally free man after his supervised release is finished. And from there forward, he's famous, but there's other people who will look at him as a hero, and those people will probably not get the same scrutiny. So I'm less concerned about him blowing himself up or convincing someone else to than what he represents as a category of people, not all of them as prominent as he is, who might have some of the same ideas.

KELLY: Graeme Wood, staff writer for The Atlantic and author of the book, "The Way Of The Strangers: Encounters With The Islamic State." Thanks very much.

WOOD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.