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

John Walker Lindh, The 'American Taliban,' Is Released From Prison

This image from television footage shows John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan on Dec. 1, 2001. Lindh was a Taliban soldier who was captured at that time.
This image from television footage shows John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan on Dec. 1, 2001. Lindh was a Taliban soldier who was captured at that time.

Updated at 10:10 a.m. ET

John Walker Lindh, known as the "American Taliban" after his capture in Afghanistan in 2001, was released from prison on Thursday after serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence, the Bureau of Prisons said.

Lindh received three years off for good behavior, though his probation terms include a host of restrictions: He needs permission to go on the Internet; he'll be closely monitored; he's required to receive counseling; and he's not allowed to travel.

Now 38, Lindh was being held at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. He remains a lightning rod for critics who say his sentence was too lenient and he shouldn't be allowed out early.

"There is something deeply troubling and wrong about this," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Thursday morning.

Bearded and bedraggled, Lindh became a focal point of American anger when the then-20-year-old from Northern California was found among the ranks of Taliban soldiers captured in Afghanistan less than three months after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.

At his sentencing in 2002, Lindh said he became a soldier for the Taliban because he supported its form of Islam and was prepared to fight its rivals in Afghanistan. But he said he never had any intention to fight Americans.

"I have never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism or terrorism. I condemn terrorism on every level, unequivocally," he told the court.

However, some reports, citing government assessments, say Lindh supports radical Islam.

Writing in The Atlantic, journalist Graeme Wood said he corresponded with Lindh while he was in prison. Lindh spoke of the Islamic State in positive terms and suggested Wood visit the territory it controlled.

"I understand your concerns about being killed or enslaved, however I believe that your apprehensions are misplaced," Lindh wrote to Wood. "The journalists who have been taken into custody by the authorities of the Islamic State traveled there illegally. Had they gone with the proper documentation, I am confident that the authorities of the Islamic State would have honored their covenants, as required by Islamic law."

Lindh was among hundreds of Taliban soldiers who surrendered to the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in November 2001. While being held at a military compound, the Taliban prisoners launched an uprising, killing CIA paramilitary officer Mike Spann.

Lindh said he was not part of the uprising, and he was never charged with involvement in Spann's death. But Spann's family remains critical, saying Lindh failed to warn Spann of the looming uprising. Spann's daughter, Alison, a child at the time of her father's death, posted on Twitter:

"I feel his early release is a slap in the face — not only to my father and my family, but for every person killed on Sept. 11th, their families, the U.S. military, U.S. intelligence services, families who have lost loved ones to this war and the millions of Muslims worldwide who don't support radical extremists."

John Walker Lindh is shown at an Islamic school in Pakistan where he studied from 2000 to 2001.
/ AP
John Walker Lindh is shown at an Islamic school in Pakistan where he studied from 2000 to 2001.

More cases to come

While Lindh's saga has received intense scrutiny, there are many lower-profile cases in which Americans linked to extremist groups will be released from prison over the next several years.

"This is a wave that's coming at us right now that we're not currently prepared to deal with," said Michael Jensen, senior researcher at START, a terrorism research center at the University of Maryland.

"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 releases," he added.

About 100 Americans imprisoned for links to extremist groups are in line to be released in the next four years, Jensen said.

To date, Americans once imprisoned for ties to radical Islamist groups have not emerged to carry out attacks in the United States. But some foreign extremists detained at the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have returned to battlefields abroad after they were released.

Lindh was born in Washington, D.C., where his father, Frank Lindh, graduated from Georgetown Law and worked for the Justice Department. The family moved to Marin County, outside San Francisco, when Lindh was 10.

Raised as a Catholic, Lindh converted to Islam at age 16. With support from his parents, he went to Yemen to study Islam and Arabic and then went to Pakistan in 2000. The following year, he crossed the border to Afghanistan to volunteer as a Taliban soldier.

"Here's where John starts to get himself in trouble," Frank Lindh said in 2013. "It never crossed our mind that he would go into Afghanistan, but that's what he did in spring of 2001."

Lindh and his family say he went to help the group as it battled other Afghan factions, though the Taliban's own abuses were widely known at the time.

In the summer of 2001, Lindh was at a Taliban training camp when al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden visited. The two spoke briefly, according to Lindh's father.

The Taliban sent Lindh to the far northeast of the country shortly before al-Qaida's Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. He remained with the Taliban until a group of several hundred surrendered near the end of November to the Northern Alliance.

Hannah Allam contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.