A Profile of John Walker Lindh — The American Taliban

John Walker Lindh in January 2002. Image Courtesy of the Associated Press.

On February 9, 1981, the man who would become known as “The American Taliban” was born in Washington, D.C. John Phillip Walker Lindh is a former foreign fighter for the Taliban, often known for his involvement in the Battle of Qula–i-Jangi; a Taliban uprising which resulted in the death of CIA Officer Johnny “Mike” Span. After serving 17 years of his 20-year sentence, Lindh was released from prison under supervisory conditions on May 23, 2019.

Lindh was raised Catholic in Marino County, California, just outside of San Francisco. He is described as a bookish teenager who began studying Islam and the Middle East through his high schools’ alternative and self-directed study programs. Lindh’s initial interest in Islam has been linked to watching the Spike Lee film, “Malcolm X”, when he was 12.

However, his earnest interest in the faith and such related topics of study could have been marred by the extracurricular research Lindh engaged in as an active user of Internet Relay Chat rooms (IRC). Using the alternate identity “Mujahid”, Lindh communicated with others online largely about hip-hop music and racial topics. However, it is known that there are IRCs dedicated to the Taliban and Jihad, which indicates such online activity could have exposed Lindh to radical ideas.

Lindh officially converted to Islam at the age of 16, around the same time he dropped out of high school and was reported as participating in the IRCs. He also began attending mosques in Mill Valley and San Francisco. He reportedly became involved with Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni missionary group, at this time. This group had not previously been associated with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but has recently been investigated for links to radicalized militants. While the group was not tied to radicalization at the time of Lindh’s capture, the fact that it has been investigated in more recent years suggests Lindh may have been influenced by this group’s radical ideas.

Throughout his adolescence, Lindh’s parents experienced conflict within their marriage eventually leading to their divorce in 1999. His family instability could be noted as another influence in Lindh’s turn to Islam. His participation in the online chat rooms containing extremist messaging could also have infiltrated his ideology and affected his scholarly interest in the Middle East.

At the age of 17, Lindh decided to leave the U.S. for Yemen, with hopes to study Arabic so that he could read the Qur’an in its original language. He then traveled to Pakistan in 2000, where it is said he encountered extremist groups and training that ultimately influenced his decision to move to Afghanistan and join the Taliban.

However, Lindh claims his original motivation for joining the Taliban came from a desire to fight the mistreatment of civilians by the Northern Alliance. He reported hearing about this mistreatment through various stories; While it is not clear which outlets or messages Lindh received such information, this case illuminates the importance of eliminating misinformation and propaganda from public discourse. This can be achieved through means such as media literacy programs or more robust online security and privacy measures. Since 75% of domestic jihadists knew or were in contact with another jihadist prior to becoming radicalized, it is likely that Lindh was influenced by the information shared with other users of his IRCs or people he met while traveling and studying in Yemen and Pakistan. Whether it be through online forums or verbal conversations with other extremists, misinformation is a dangerous contributor to radicalization and should continue to be a priority in counter-terrorism work.

Since Lindh’s capture, contradictory reports have emerged as to his motivations for joining the Taliban as well as his understanding of the consequences of his involvement. During his trial, Lindh condemned terrorism and indicated he never held the desire to fight against Americans. Other reports, such as one from the National Counterterrorism Center, claim that Lindh would continue to advocate for jihad and violent extremism. The confusion and lack of clarity around the context and details of such reports must be resolved quickly in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the belief system Lindh currently holds after having spent 17 years in prison. This case exposes a large question the U.S. will face in the coming years, as more extremists and convicted terrorists are released back into society without certainty of the continued existence of dangerous ideology that could pose security risks in the future.

While there are no formal procedures for re-entry of convicted terrorists and sympathizers within the U.S. Justice system at this point, there are some recommendations and best practices set in place to deal with this increasingly prevalent situation. First, counseling focused on mental health and identification of the initial causes of radicalization can be recommended; This will not only aid the individual, such as Lindh, but also provide scholars and practitioners with a broader understanding of the life circumstances that can lead individuals vulnerable  to extremist messaging.

In addition, existing re-entry programs for former prisoners involved with gangs could be modified in order to apply to violent extremists, with similar encouragement of study, job training, and programming elements. These programs could provide alternative life paths, sense of belonging, and new sources of information to help eliminate dependence and association with extremist narratives. Monitoring of compliance with such programs is necessary not only during their sentence but also upon release, ideally from mentors who have experienced a similar situation but have emerged de-radicalized.

The way in which the media and public reacted to Lindh’s initial case as well as his release should be used as an example when addressing the situation of Americans linked to terrorism reentering society. In both instances, headlines and sound bites were quick to villainize him and draw attention to his case. The recent terrorist attack in New Zealand comes to mind as an alternative example, when the Prime Minister, in an effort to reduce copycats and the fetishization of terrorism, refused to address the terrorist responsible and would not play the video of the attack. The narratives perpetuated by the media and popular discussion seem relevant to Lindh’s, and others who had become radicalized, return to society.

Since radicalization can stem from feelings of being an outsider or from being bullied, the mass public villainization of Lindh and other Americans linked to terrorist organizations seems to be counterproductive in achieving the type of reintegration that would be necessary to avoid a former prisoner’s retreat into extremist ideology. Not only will the systems and programs in place matter in how we handle re-entry, but the influence of the media and public discourse will matter as well, if not more.

Overall, the case of John Walker Lindh reminds America and the world not only of the spread of extremism but also the complex ways in which the world deals with extremism and terror. Through comprehensive research on an extremist’s path to radicalization, formalized mentorship and re-entry procedures, and an evaluation of the media’s influence on the re-entry process, the U.S. will have a chance to effectively manage the reintegration of former extremists back into society.

Nikki Hinshaw is a Counter-terrorism Research Fellow at Rise to Peace, a non-profit organization, and a current undergraduate student at Arizona State University. She has multiple years of experience in managing communications and marketing for organizations in all sectors, as well as in conducting research on topics relating to a variety of global social issues and public diplomacy policy and practice.

Can John Walker Lindh “American Taliban” Be De-radicalized?

The United States Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) is set to release the “American Taliban”, John Walker Lindh, after serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence.

US Special Operations Forces and the Northern Alliance arrested the “American Taliban” in November 2001 in Afghanistan. A plea bargain with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) led Lindh to accept guilt for “supporting militants who harbored al-Qaeda as it planned the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001” in exchange for two decades of incarceration.

Origins of the “American Taliban”

Lindh was raised in California and Maryland. He converted to Islam at age 16 (prior to 9/11) and travelled to study Arabic in Yemen in 1998. All this occurred two months before the establishment of Google.

After Lindh completed Arabic lessons, he moved to Pakistan where encounters with members of extremist groups (al-Qaeda, Taliban) compelled him to settle in Afghanistan. There he received training at an al-Qaeda training camp as a Taliban militant.

In the 1990s, Pakistan served as the birthplace for the Taliban and it acted as the center of further extremist development. Operational planning, recruitment, equipping soldiers and brainwashing of children that were brought from vulnerable communities in Afghanistan occurred there. Pakistan recognized the Taliban regime, harbored Osama Bin Laden and supported the Islamic Emirate legacy until the present day.

Impediments to Reintegration
The US federal prison system has a lack of de-radicalization programs thus it is difficult to predict how well Lindh will adapt to reintegration. Certainly, it will be challenging for a person with radical philosophies, such as Lindh, to let go of his grievances and circulation of the mandate of the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban.

Digital technology and communications, such as Google, complicates the scenario for Lindh too. Access to swift and boundless information provides another possible impediment to de-radicalization. Law enforcement and the intelligence community must monitor and regulate his actions. As part of his release, “Mr. Lindh will also be barred from traveling internationally and getting a passport or any other kind of travel document.”

A young American teenager who made his way to Osama Bin Laden and revealed information to al-Qaeda will not cease unless he is de-radicalized. It is foolish to simply trust a loyal member of a terrorist group to renounce those attitudes.

For instance, in 2002, he denounced the 9/11 attacks as “completely against Islam” and tearfully told the judge “I have never supported terrorism in any form, and I never will…I made a mistake by joining the Taliban.” He maintained, “Had I realized then what I know now, I would never have joined them.”

This is in direct opposition to recent statements. In a 2017 report, Lindh “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.” Was he further radicalized in the prison system during the US Iraq War in 2003 and later the Arab Spring?

Sober Reality and Solutions

Lindh can be de-radicalized and re-enter society if he is provided with necessary mentoring from those of a similar background while under supervision. If not, two possible reasons foretell why he will not exit his previous life of the 1990s-2000 so easily. First, he accepted his own version of Islam and joined the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. The Taliban view of Islam is harsh, extreme and is not Islamic. So, religiously, he is not going to change unless he is sent to a Muslim scholar to teach him the true Islam.

Second, his loyalty to the Taliban and al-Qaeda may not easily end because one feature that unites membership of terrorist organizations (ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and Taliban, etc.) is their dedication to the mission. They assert a lawful war “jihad” against the United States and allies is right.

Particularly, after 9/11 and the Iraq War, this concept became significant to justification of their actions. Simple operations such as detonating a bomb in a populated area or maneuvering a bus to kill innocent people contribute to a larger lawful war. To them, this is acceptable because their religion, Islam, is under threat by the “crusaders,” “capitalists,” and “infidels.”

There are 346 people convicted of terrorism since 2001 and 88 have since been released. For every convicted extremist facing release, the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies should devote significant attention to individual files and monitor the person 24/7 to prevent any attempt of violence.

Next, US government agencies should fund and support the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE, PVE) organizations so they can mentor and support Lindh as well as other related cases as part of the reintegration process.

The FBOP, DOJ, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and local governments have not yet developed a reintegration strategy to help foreign fighter extremists to reunite with his/her society. There is a substantial need for a comprehensive strategy in the prison system to begin de-radicalization and following programs to aid their reentrance into society.

De-radicalization is the very first step in connecting former extremists to society by helping the individual change his/her ideas and attitudes. It’s a system where the individual receives the opportunity needed to begin a new life, whether it’s granting access to job platforms, libraries, and training, or even an interpersonal or personal relationship to help heal the person’s grievances, beliefs, and confusion. In the case of Lindh, it’s imperative that he gets the support he needs in order to leave behind the radical thoughts and support for groups like ISIS and the Taliban. An engagement as simple as a conversation with a Muslim living in his community can help make a difference in his life.

Jesse Morton, a former extremist, assisted the FBI to arrest more radicals while he was “de-rad”. Jess left his radical thoughts behind as he went through a series of transformations in his life. First, the FBI agents support and non-judgmental demeanor towards him. Later, his employment as a Research Fellow on Extremism at the George Washington University. An finally, today, his organization, Light Upon Light, to counter extremism. Jesse Morton is one of the best examples that de-radicalization is possible and successful. The two individuals share enough similarities and commonalities to suggest that the de-radicalization process for Jesse will work for Lindh.

Ultimately, Lindh needs to understand that the groups (Taliban, ISIS) he advocated and fought for are wrong. To do so, he needs outside help the same way Jesse Morton did. Lindh converted to Islam as a teenager and shortly after joined the Taliban. Soon after that, he was arrested and placed behind bars for 17 years. He doesn’t fully understand the true meaning of Islam or what it means to live in a society where Muslims can pray, protest and work alongside non-Muslim peers in peace, acceptance, and appreciation.

Ahmad Mohibi is Founder and Director of Counter-terrorism at Rise to Peace, a non-profit organization, and a national security expert. He is a published author, journalist and news commentator on TOLONews, and an alumnus of George Washington University and George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi