Is Law Enforcement Able to De-Radicalize Extremists Like John Walker Lindh?
John Walker Lindh, an American former Taliban fighter, is set to be released from prison today. He served 17 years of a 20-year sentence in federal prison for carrying a weapon and grenade under Taliban leadership. Although he was never convicted of terrorism, nor charged with the death of the Central Intelligence Agency officer John Spann who was killed when Lindh’s fellow Taliban prisoners revolted in a prisoner of war camp, he was a subject of controversy in the early years of the Global War on Terror. Many officials worry that law enforcement is not equipped to de-radicalize extremists and are concerned about the release.
According to the National Counterterrorism Center, Lindh has not renounced extremism and remains a devout Muslim. During his imprisonment Lindh was reportedly a quiet inmate. In 2010 he and another prisoner successfully sued the government to allow Muslim inmates to pray as a group in his unit.
Lindh received Irish citizenship in 2013 and had expressed an interest in moving there after serving his sentence, but he must still serve three years of probation. According to the Washington Post, Lindh’s attorney says he must remain in the Eastern District of Virginia for three years according to the conditions of his parole.
Lindh was raised in Marin County, California, and converted to Islam at 16 years old. A year after converting, he dropped out of high school in 1998 and traveled to Yemen to study Arabic. He moved to Pakistan where he became enamored by the Taliban and the civil war in Afghanistan. Lindh joined the Taliban in the summer of 2001 hoping to help their fight against the Northern Alliance, a coalition of Afghan warlords who would ultimately drive the Taliban out of power with the assistance of United States Special Forces in the early 2000s. He attended a training camp for foreign Taliban recruits where he claimed to have met Osama bin Laden at least once.
Before Lindh could fight, he was captured along with an estimated 500 other Taliban fighters, and taken to a 19th-century fort in northern Afghanistan called Qala-i-Jangi, Dari for “War Prison.” Less than two hours after the CIA’s Spann interviewed Lindh, who went by Sulayman al-Faris at the time of his capture, the Taliban prisoners orchestrated an uprising. Spann was killed in the early moments of the fight by Taliban prisoners who’d snuck grenades into the fort, becoming the first casualty of the War on Terror after 9/11. A surviving CIA officer borrowed a satellite phone from a reporter in order to call for reinforcements, and a battle raged for five more days, ending only after the Northern Alliance commander flooded the basement of the building with cold water. Eighty-six Taliban prisoners—including Lindh—emerged from the frigid dungeon, and Lindh was immediately separated and taken back to the U.S., the moment caught on camera by a CNN freelancer.
Lindh faced 10 charges, which, if he were to be convicted, came with three life sentences. He initially pled not guilty to all charges, but ultimately accepted a deal from the Department of Justice and pled guilty to two charges: supplying services to the enemy and carrying explosives during the commission of a felony. He also agreed to a gag order and to drop claims that he had been mistreated by American forces during his capture and return to the U.S.
Lindh’s release has alarmed many, included at least two U.S. senators, who worry that law enforcement are unprepared for helping Lindh and other incarcerated extremists transition out of prison. The family of John Spann has been vocal since his death that they want Lindh to remain in prison and wrote a letter to the court earlier this week that argued against his release. During an interview on Fox & Friends the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described his release as “unexplainable and unconscionable.”
Jesslyn Radack, the former Department of Justice attorney who found herself embroiled in controversy over whether Lindh’s rights had been violated during his interrogation, told the BBC that she hopes, “he’s able to come out and quietly restart his life.”