Born in 1981 and baptized a Catholic, John Walker Lindh spent his early childhood in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland, His mother was a health care aide who eventually became a Buddhist, and his father, Frank Lindh, worked as a government lawyer. When the father accepted a job with Pacific Gas & Electric in 1991, the family moved to Northern California’s affluent Marin County. At some point, Frank Lindh left his wife and family and moved in with a gay boyfriend in San Rafael, California.
At age 12, John Walker Lindh became interested in Islam after watching the movie, Malcolm X. He officially converted to the Muslim faith in early 1997, calling himself both Suleyman al-Lindh and Suleyman al-Faris.
In July 1998 Lindh moved to Yemen to study Arabic at an Islamic school, or madrassa. Nine months later, he returned to California for a short time before going back to Yemen on February 1, 2000.
In October 2000 Lindh relocated to Pakistan where he joined Harakat-ul Mujahedeen-Al Almi (HUM), a radical Islamic organization suspected of having perpetrated terrorist attacks and assassination attempts against President Pervez Musharaff. After going through an HUM military training program designed to prepare him for combat against Indian forces in Kashmir, Lindh became disillusioned with that cause and decided instead to join the Taliban, the Sunni fundamentalist political movement that ruled Afghanistan via the dictates of strict Sharia Law. In an interview with CNN several years later, Lindh would explain what had motivated him to join the Taliban: “I was in [Pakistan’s] Northwest Frontier Province. The people there in general have a great love for the Taliban. So I started to read some of the literature of the scholars and my heart became attached to it. I wanted to help them one way or another.”
Lindh entered Afghanistan and offered his services to the Taliban in the spring of 2001. On June 1 of that year, he began a seven-week stint at al-Qaeda‘s al Farooq training camp, where he met the iconic terrorist Osama bin Laden. According to an FBI document: “At some point during the training, Lindh [was asked] to swear allegiance to … al-Qaeda…. [H]e declined, however he swore allegiance to Jihad.”
By the fall of 2001, Lindh was both an al-Qaeda operative and a Taliban army soldier. When U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan after the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Lindh was deployed to the Taliban front lines in Mazar-e Sharif, where he took up arms against the Americans. Shortly after the devastating U.S. aerial bombardment of Afghanistan began, however, Lindh fled approximately 100 miles on foot to the city of Kunduz.
There, American and Northern Alliance troops captured Lindh along with some 3,000 of his Taliban comrades on November 25, 2001. (To view a photo of what Lindh looked like at that time, click here.) Soon thereafter, the makeshift prison where the captives were being held was the scene of a violent Taliban uprising in which hundreds of escaped prisoners were killed by Northern Alliance personnel. Lindh was one of only about seven-dozen prisoners who survived the mayhem, though he was wounded in the process by a bullet to his right thigh. Taken into custody by Northern Alliance troops on November 29, Lindh was then transported by truck to Mazar-e Sharif. He initially told his Northern Alliance captors that his name was Abdul Hamid, but while being interrogated by CIA combat operative Mike Spann he confessed his American birth and gave his name – again falsely – as John Phillip Walker. (Walker was the maiden name of Lindh’s mother.)
Next, Lindh spent several weeks aboard the American Navy warship USS Bataan in the North Arabian Sea, where, under interrogation by American investigators, he revealed his al-Qaeda ties. Lindh was then transferred to a U.S. military post at Kandahar International Airport in Afghanistan. From there, he was flown to the United States on January 23, 2002. In February he was indicted by a federal grand jury on ten separate charges. All told, Lindh could have been sentenced to a maximum of three life terms in prison, plus 90 years. But in a plea agreement which was reached in July, he pled guilty to: (a) supplying services for the Taliban, and (b) carrying weapons in an armed battle against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance; Lindh also agreed to cooperate as an informer for FBI and intelligence officials. In exchange, the U.S. government dropped all the other counts from the lengthy criminal indictment against Lindh, including the very serious charge of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals – namely, CIA officer Johnny Michael Spann, who had been killed in the Mazar-e Sharif prison uprising.
On October 4, 2002, Lindh was sentenced to 20 years in a Terre Haute, Indiana federal prison. At his sentencing hearing, he said: “Had I realized then what I know now … I would never would have joined them [the Taliban].” Adding that he had “never understood jihad to mean anti-American or terrorism,” Lindh condemned “terrorism on every level, unequivocally,” as something that was “completely against Islam.”
Ten years into his prison term, Lindh in 2012 joined an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that won the right for Muslim prisoners at the “communication-management unit” of Terre Haute’s high-security prison – a unit where inmates’ communications with the outside world were severely restricted – to gather together and pray in groups.
In early 2013, Lindh obtained Irish citizenship through his connection to his paternal grandmother, Kathleen Maguire – herself a native-born citizen of Ireland. Lindh’s hope was to eventually live in that country after his release from prison a few years down the road.
In a 2017 report titled “U.S. Homegrown Violent Extremist Recidivism Likely,” the National Counterterrorism Center stated that as of May 2016 Lindh had “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.” Similarly, a 2017 Federal Bureau of Prisons intelligence assessment: (a) said that Lindh had made supportive statements about the genocidal Islamic State terrorist organization, and (b) quoted Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s academic program on extremism, saying that “from all I’m hearing inside of government, [Lindh] is still as radical as he went in [to prison].”
Notwithstanding those negative reports, on May 23, 2019, Lindh was released on probation after having served 17 of the 20 years to which he had been sentenced. Among the terms of his early release were that: (a) he would be barred from using the Internet or owning a web-capable device without prior permission from his probation officer; (b) if he were to eventually be granted such permission, all of his online communications would have to be conducted in English and would be continuously monitored; (c) he would be barred from traveling internationally or getting a passport, thereby thwarting his hopes of relocating to Ireland; (d) he would be required to undergo mental health counseling; and (e) he would be prohibited from communicating “with any known extremist” and from owning, watching, or reading any “material that reflects extremist or terroristic views.”
Further Reading: “John Walker Lindh Profile” (CNN.com); “John Walker Lindh, Known as the ‘American Taliban,’ Is Set to Leave Federal Prison This Week” (NY Times, 5-21-2019); “Excerpts From Statement by John Walker Lindh in Court [during his sentencing hearing]” (NY Times, 10-5-2002); “John Walker Lindh, American ex-Taliban Militant, Obtained Irish Citizenship Thanks to His Irish Grandmother” (Fox News, 3-20-2019).