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Analysis: John Walker Lindh fought for al Qaeda’s pro-Taliban force

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John Walker Lindh, an American who fought on the side of the jihadists in Afghanistan both before and after 9/11, was released from prison earlier today. In late 2001, Lindh and his fellow fighters surrendered to the Northern Alliance and were transported to the Qala-i Janghi prison near Mazar-e Sharif. The CIA’s Johnny “Mike” Spann questioned Lindh shortly before a bloody uprising inside the prison. Spann was killed during the insurrection.

Lindh was quickly dubbed the “American Taliban” after he was taken into U.S. custody. But that is somewhat of a misnomer. While Lindh admittedly fought alongside the Taliban, he did so as part of al Qaeda’s primary combat arm in pre-9/11 Afghanistan.

No, Lindh did not volunteer to commit a terrorist attack in the West. He was certainly no terrorist mastermind, or even a dispatched operative, when American forces detained him. But al Qaeda was never just about terrorism — a key fact that is still not widely understood. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, al Qaeda has devoted most of its resources, since its founding, to warfare. And it was in that capacity Lindh chose to serve.

A wounded Lindh garnered worldwide attention in early Dec. 2001 when CNN aired an interview with him. The interviewer was Robert Pelton, who worked as a freelancer for the cable news network at the time. In response to Pelton’s questioning, Lindh explained that he and his comrades shared a common goal: to be “martyred” on the battlefield.

Lindh also said that he was among the “Ansar” who were divided into “different branches according to ethnic groups.” This was “because of management (ph) and of course, we all have the same cause, which has nothing to do with ethnicity or anything like that.” Because he had studied Arabic, and didn’t know the other languages spoken by the recruits, Lindh was assigned to a camp that housed Arabs. Even though he “came with the Pakistanis” to Afghanistan, Lindh clarified, “they sent me to the Arabs because I don’t understand Urdu.”

“So the Arab section of the Ansar is funded by Osama bin Laden,” Lindh told Pelton. He added: “Also the training camps that the Arabs train in before they come to the frontline are all funded by Osama bin Laden.”

The meaning of Lindh’s answer was clear: he had been trained in an al Qaeda camp.

After his interview with Lindh, Pelton summarized the encounter on CNN, saying that because Lindh “could not speak Pashtun, they sent him to the Arabic speaking training camps run by bin Laden.” There, Lindh “saw bin Laden many times,” usually “when Osama would visit the camps and sometimes when [Osama] visited the front lines.” CNN later reported that Lindh had told Pelton about his “training at a camp run by terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.”

Months later, Lindh’s attorneys agreed with federal prosecutors on a “Stipulation of Facts,” saying that twelve “facts are true and correct and that the Government would so prove at trial by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” The “Stipulation of Facts” can still be found on the Department of Justice’s website. Fact number six reads:

“In or about late May or June 2001, the defendant agreed to attend a training camp for additional and extensive military training. In or about June 2001, the defendant traveled to the al-Farooq training camp, a facility associated with Usama Bin Laden, located several hours west of Kandahar, in Afghanistan. In or about June and July 2001, the defendant remained at the al-Farooq camp and participated fully in its training activities, including courses in weapons, orienteering, navigation, explosives and battlefield combat.”

Al-Farooq (also spelled Al-Farouq, Al-Faruq) served as al Qaeda’s basic training facility. Some of its attendees were selected to participate in more highly-specialized training courses. And a small percentage of its enrollees, including a number of men who became the 9/11 hijackers, were chosen for terrorist attacks in the West. The 9/11 Commission found that “at least seven of the Saudi muscle hijackers took” the “basic training regime” at al-Farooq. They weren’t the only ones. For example, hijacker Hani Hanjour was first identified as a trained pilot while he was enrolled at the camp.

Still, the overwhelming majority of al Qaeda’s trainees weren’t selected for 9/11-style attacks. The Taliban “granted al Qaeda permission” to open Al-Farooq, according to the 9/11 Commission. And many of its trainees went on to fight for the Taliban.

This was a consistent part of al Qaeda’s program at the time. Members of the 9/11 Commission’s staff explained in a statement, “Overview of the Enemy,” that they “conservatively” estimated that “thousands of men, perhaps as many as 20,000, trained in Bin Laden-supported camps in Afghanistan between his May 1996 return” from Sudan and September 11, 2001. “Of those,” however, “only a small percentage went on to receive advanced terrorist training.” During this same timeframe, bin Laden “forged a close alliance” between al Qaeda and the Taliban. And even though the Taliban “paid a great price for this alliance,” ultimately leading to the “destruction of its regime,” the Taliban “also benefited from its relationship with al Qaeda.” Not only did bin Laden provide “significant financial  support to the Taliban,” he also “supplied hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters to support the Taliban in its ongoing war against other factions in northern Afghanistan.”

Among those fighters was John Walker Lindh.

Interviewed by the FBI

As part of his agreement with the government, Lindh pleaded guilty to only two charges, including serving the Taliban. But it is clear from the CNN interview and the “Stipulation of Facts” that there was more to Lindh’s story. It is not clear why the government decided not to pursue the additional charges outlined in the original indictment, which included his training at Al-Farooq and encounters with bin Laden.

Lindh’s lawyers and advocates challenged his early treatment while in U.S. custody, as well as the admissibility of a FBI affidavit filed in his case. But the indictment, as well the supporting FBI affidavit, contained details that ring true, or were substantiated by other sources — including Pelton’s interview with Lindh in early Dec. 2001.

The FBI affidavit was filed by a special agent who read a report filed by another special agent. It was that FBI agent who interviewed Lindh “on or about” Dec. 9 or 10, 2001 — that is, after CNN’s interview had aired.

Lindh allegedly told the FBI that he had first joined a paramilitary camp in Pakistan that was run by Harakat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), a US-designated terrorist organization that is closely allied with al Qaeda. Lindh could have fought for HUM in Kashmir, but decided to take up the Taliban’s cause instead. After receiving a recommendation letter from HUM, and being informed that he needed more extensive training to fight in Afghanistan, Lindh made his way to Al-Farooq. Lindh told the FBI special agent that he knew at the time that bin laden and al Qaeda were “against America and the government of Saudi Arabia.”

Bin Laden visited the camp three to five times, Lindh told the FBI, delivering lectures on “the local situation, political issues, old Afghan/Soviet battles, etc.” On “at least one” occasion, Lindh and “four other trainees met with Bin Laden for approximately five minutes, during which Bin Laden thanked them for taking part in jihad.”

Lindh was presented with “several options”: he could continue training at Al-Farooq, attend training “at one of Bin Laden’s many other camps,” fight against the Northern Alliance on the front lines,” or take part in terrorist attacks.

Interestingly, according to the FBI’s affidavit, Lindh explained that he had met with Abu Mohammed al-Masri, a senior al Qaeda leader who has long been wanted for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Masri is still at large today. According to the United Nations Security Council, Masri has been managing al Qaeda’s global network from inside Iran.

While at al-Farooq, Masri asked Lindh and “other foreigners training at the camp” whether they’d be “interested in traveling outside Afghanistan to conduct operations against the United States and certain Israeli targets.4

Lindh turned down the offer to carry out terrorist attacks overseas, as well as the prospect of additional training, preferring to fight on the front lines instead. (An expert hired by Lindh’s defense team, Rohan Gunaratna, downplayed Lindh’s involvement with al Qaeda, ignoring that most of al Qaeda’s trainees were similarly destined for combat, not international terrorism. But after interviewing Lindh, Gunaratna confirmed that Lindh was trained at Al-Farooq and that he had declined Masri’s offer. This lends more credibility to the FBI’s affidavit, which recorded the same details.)

The FBI’s affidavit also includes this allegation, based on Lindh’s interview with a special agent: “Within the first several weeks of his arrival there [at Al-Farooq], in or about early June 2001, [Lindh] learned from one of his instructors that Bin Laden had sent people to the United States to carry out several suicide operations.”

This is plausible, as bin Laden was known to have loose lips. The 9/11 Commission found that, during a speech at Al-Farooq, bin Laden had “exhorted trainees to pray for the success of an attack involving 20 martyrs.”

After 9/11, Lindh allegedly told the FBI, “it was his and his comrades’ understanding” that “Bin Laden had ordered the attacks and that additional attacks would follow.” All of bin Laden’s training camps were emptied, as jihadists “were sent to the front lines to protect Bin Laden and to defend against what they anticipated would be attacks from the United States.” Lindh remained at his fighting position in Takhar, before he and his fighting group retreated.

JTF-GTMO threat assessments indicate Lindh was part of Osama bin Laden’s primary fighting force

As an American, Lindh was not detained at the facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where other al Qaeda-trained recruits who fought alongside the Taliban were held. However, Lindh appears as a named source in several leaked threat assessments compiled by Joint Task Force – Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). Lindh provided information about other Taliban-al Qaeda figures, some of whom had been held at Qala-i-Jangi. And several former Guantanamo detainees fingered Lindh as a member of their fighting force, too.

During his Dec. 2001 interview, Pelton asked Lindh about al Qaeda’s so-called Arab 055 Brigade, which was Osama bin Laden’s primary fighting force on behalf of the Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Pelton clearly suspected that the “Ansar” Lindh said he belonged to was, in fact, the same outfit.

“I was with the Taliban in 1995, and they were explaining, they had the 055 brigade,” Pelton said, explaining that was the “term” used by the Taliban. After responding that he was “not familiar with that,” Lindh added: “It has — they have a number name. I don’t remember the number.”

The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessments show that Pelton’s suspicion was well-placed, as the intelligence in them points to Lindh’s own role as a low-level fighter in the Arab 055 Brigade.

Lindh “identified” Mullah Mohammad Fazl as “a top Afghan Taliban general in northern Afghanistan” and as “an associate” of another top Taliban leader, Mullah Norullah Noori. Shortly before the 9/11 hijackings, Fazl met with Abdel Hadi al Iraqi, who led Osama bin Laden Arab 055 Brigade, to coordinate an assault on the Northern Alliance. Al-Iraqi is still held at Guantanamo to this day.

Fazl and Noori, who had his own ties to al Qaeda, were two members of the “Gitmo Five” exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in May 2014. They were sent to Qatar, which is hosting talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. Members of the Gitmo Five have even reportedly taken part in the talks.

Lindh identified another Guantanamo detainee, Salem Hadi, as “his front line commander,” saying his nom de guerre was “Abu Usama Tabuki” and that he was from Saudi Arabia. Hadi was born in Yemen, and JTF-GTMO’s analysts attempted to figure out why Lindh thought he was a Saudi. Lindh stated that Hadi had “replaced” the previous “front line commander, Abu Turab, when Turab was injured in late September 2001.”

Hadi, who was injured during the Qala-i-Jangi uprising, served as a “sub-commander” in the Arab 055 Brigade. This means that Lindh was part of the same force. Hadi was transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2017.

The JTF-GTMO file for Hadi indicates that still another Guantanamo detainee, Abd al-Rahman Muhammad Salih Nasir, told officials that Lindh had served on the front lines with him. Nasir was one Abdel Hadi al-Iraqi’s men in the Arab 055 Brigade, according to the same file. Therefore, his identification of Lindh as a comrade-in-arms tied the American to the 055 as well. Nasir was transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2016.

Another former Guantanamo detainee, Sadi Ibrahim Ramzi al-Zahrani, said he had served on the front lines with Lindh. JTF-GTMO’s analysts assessed that al-Zahrani was an al Qaeda member who fought for the Arab 055 Brigade. Lindh, in turn, told authorities that al-Zahrani was a member of the “Bilal group,” which appears to have been part of the 055. Al-Zahrani was transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2007.

Faha Sultan served as a “logistics officer” in bin Laden’s 055 and was held in the “same room” as Lindh at Qala-i-Jangi, according to JTF-GTMO. During an interview in Sept. 2002, Lindh apparently recounted a conversation he had with Sultan. Sultan told Lindh that he didn’t want to surrender, because it was “better to die here than be tom apart by the NA [Northern Alliance].” Lindh also “photo-identified” Sultan as “Abu Saad from Taif,” Saudi Arabia, saying he “was a senior Taliban member” who served as an “administrator who was always on the back lines in charge of purchasing food.” Lindh “also commented that he saw [Sultan] on the front lines, and again during” his fighting force’s retreat to Kunduz in 2001. Sultan was transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2007.

JTF-GTMO assessed that Adnan al-Sayegh, another Qala-i-Jangi survivor, was a “low-level” fighter in the 055 Arab Brigade who was trained at Al-Farooq. Lindh said that al-Sayegh “worked with the LeT, giving a briefing about Kashmir” and was “responsible for issuing and controlling weapons at the front lines.” Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is another al Qaeda-allied Pakistani group that wages jihad in Kashmir and has launched terrorist attacks in India. Al Sayegh was transferred to Saudi Arabia, escaped to Yemen, but then surrendered to the Saudis in 2012.

John Walker Lindh is commonly known as the “American Taliban.” While this is not entirely inaccurate, the evidence shows that Lindh was actually trained by al Qaeda and fought as part of Osama bin Laden’s pro-Taliban force. In more recent times, he has reportedly expressed his support for the Islamic State,

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

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