The Long Persecution of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban”

5.6.19

John Walker Lindh, strapped to a gurney in Camp Rhino, near Kandahar, after his capture in December 2001, when he had already survived a massacre at the Qala-i-Janghi fort.

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The US establishment is nervous about John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.” 

A US citizen, Lindh was taken into custody by US forces in Afghanistan in December 2001, along with around 85 other Taliban fighters, survivors of a massacre — the Qala-i-Janghi massacre — that is largely forgotten. He received a 20-year prison sentence in a federal court on the US mainland in May 2002 for providing material support to terrorism, but had his sentence reduced by three years because of good behavior. 

He was released on May 23, but with restrictions imposed by a federal judge. As the Associated Press described it, “Lindh’s internet devices must have monitoring software; his online communications must be conducted in English; he must undergo mental health counseling; he is forbidden to possess or view extremist material; and he cannot hold a passport or leave the US.”

Donald Trump opposed his early release, as did Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It was reported back in 2015 that, from prison, he had expressed support for Daesh (aka Islamic State or Isis). For the Atlantic, staff writer Graeme Wood, based on prison correspondence with Lindh, claimed that he was “permanently devoted” to violent jihad, and that “public security demands nothing less than close observation [of Lindh] for a very, very long time.” 

Unhelpfully, the BBC’s “shock horror” headline was “John Walker Lindh: What happens when you release a ‘traitor’?” They and other outlets (the Washington Post, CNN) worried about what they perceived to be the lack of a de-radicalization program in the US for those released from prison after being convicted of crimes related to terrorism, but all these worries seem exaggerated to me. Lindh faces restrictions on his use of technology, and has no passport.  

Other commentators wrote about his alleged involvement in the death of CIA operative Mike Spann, shortly after he and the other prisoners were taken to Qala-i-Janghi. 

To understand what happened, we need to revisit the situation in December 2001, as hundreds of Taliban fighters, mainly from the Gulf, but also from Pakistan, north Africa and other countries, who had joined the country’s long-running civil war with the Northern Alliance, surrendered after the fall of the city of Kunduz. 

They had been told, by a Taliban general, that they would subsequently be freed, but they were, instead, taken to Qala-i-Janghi, a large, well-fortified mud fort under the control of Gen. Rashid Dostum, a leader of the Northern Alliance. 

Some of these men, however, had hidden grenades, one of which killed Spann. The suggestion was that Lindh knew the men were armed, but there is no evidence that this is the case. 

What most news reports are failing to mention, however, is that in response to what is generally called the “uprising,” the prisoners were bombed, set on fire, and, finally, flooded out of a basement over the course of a week.

As far as we know, perhaps as many as 400 prisoners died as a result of these various strategies, and all the survivors — around 86 men (and boys) in total — were sent to Guantánamo, making up over 10% of the prison’s total population over the years, and where, eventually, the authorities worked out that they were more or less irrelevant foot soldiers. 

One exception is Lindh, for whom the Guantánamo prison number ISN 001 was reserved, but was never used — because Guantánamo is strictly only for non-US citizens.

Lindh was subjected to specific abuse because he was American, as I explained in an article about him in 2011, when I stated that, after capture, “he had been moved to Camp Rhino near Kandahar, where he was stripped naked, blindfolded, bound to a stretcher with duct tape, held in a shipping container ringed with barbed wire and interrogated by the US military and the CIA, who reported regularly to Donald Rumsfeld (and where soldiers scrawled ‘shithead’ on his blindfold and told him he would be hanged).” He was also held on two ships (the USS Peleliu and the USS Bataan), and was brought to the US on January 22, 2002, and charged on February 5 on ten charges relating to his alleged involvement with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

As I also explained at the time, “In July 2002, Lindh was persuaded to accept a plea deal, which not only gagged him throughout his sentence and prevented him from challenging anyone in authority about his shameful abuse in US custody prior to his trial, but also led to a punitive 20-year sentence, announced on October 4, 2002”, at the high-security Federal Correctional Institution at Terre Haute, Indiana, in one of a number of Communication Management Units (CMUs), quite severely isolated environments for mainly Muslim prisoners, whose existence has come under intense criticism from human rights activists, as I explained in two cross-posted articles in 2011, via NPR and the Nation.

In 2009, an article for GQ explained the “special administrative measures” Lindh was subjected to in the CMU: “no mail, no nonfamily visitors, no Arabic.” The SAMs were “unilaterally imposed on John by then Attorney General John Ashcroft”, and, as the author of the article, John Rico, proceeded to explain, “It was designed to ensure that John Walker Lindh not speak, not share his story, not inspire potential followers, and not describe his treatment while in the custody of the US government.”

Rico added, “It was an order of uncertain legal merit (not unlike George W. Bush’s presidential signing statements), but because John was initially deemed an enemy combatant — a brave new legal status of undetermined meaning” — it was, as of 2009, “an order to which Frank and his son’s attorneys [were] careful to comply, lest they risk[ed] John being held after his prison sentence ha[d] ended. So until 2021 — now, presumably, 2019, although is no suggestion that Lindh will speak out publicly —  nothing John Walker Lindh said could be “communicated to the outside world.”

As I noted above, I find it hard to imagine Lindh posing any kind of threat with limited access to technology and no passport, but if the government is concerned they can presumably keep him under old-school surveillance — although I realise that it costs money to actually hire people to watch someone, a seemingly unpopular route for western governments in an age of permanent electronic surveillance.

Most of all, however, I wonder about the disconnect between Lindh’s alleged ongoing extremism, and the way in which his captors seemingly did nothing to try to rehabilitate him, and, instead, kept him in a situation that, presumably, would have a tendency to reinforce extremism rather than to challenge it.

I hope John Walker Lindh gets a chance to see what else life might be, as someone now 38 years old, and with 17 long years lost to prison. He is, after all, no longer the teenager who sought out jihad, captured when he was just 20 years old. As former prisoner Moazzam Begg explained to the AP after his release, “the criticism over Lindh’s early release is misguided. If anything, Lindh was imprisoned too long.”

Begg made a point of noting, accurately, that “many of the other Taliban fighters who were sent to Guantánamo as enemy combatants were released much earlier.”

As for Lindh’s letter in support of the Islamic State, Begg “noted that it was written four years ago and that Lindh might not have had full knowledge of the group’s atrocities from behind bars.” As he put it, “Nobody really knows what his views are right now in 2019.”

In a statement, Begg added, “It is now time for him to be allowed to restart his life in peace and freedom.”

I second that suggestion — and would like to note, in closing, that, although Lindh’s long sentence was harsh, at least it is now over, while the ordeal of the men still held at Guantánamo continues, with no end in sight, even though some of the 40 men still held were no more significant than Lindh was.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    I was hoping you’d write about this. Thank you!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re most welcome, Natalia!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy, do you think he’ll write a book or try to tell his story now? I know he was not allowed before … has the family given any statements so far after his release?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    I haven’t seen any comments from the family, Natalia. I imagine everyone is trying to keep a low profile, given the hysterical nature of our media.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I found this, Natalia: “the plea agreement included a provision barring Lindh from profiting from the proceeds of any book he might write about his experiences in Afghanistan”, via https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/liveonline/02/politics/west071802.htm

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Shahela Begum wrote:

    Thank you for covering this, I remember him being imprisoned when I was 14.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Now there’s a powerful perspective on how long prison sentences are, Shahela.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Shahela Begum wrote:

    Andy, 31 now … more than half of my young adult life I have been reading up on these prisoners. Very sad indeed.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Shahela – same! I remember reading about it in Time magazine.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    And, Shahela and Natalia, Lindh himself was just 20 when he was captured. He’s now 38.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalya Wolf wrote:

    thank you, Andy!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Natalya.

  13. Tom says...

    If the Atlantic’s involved, you know it’s a hit piece.

    Many of these release conditions remind me of what John Kiriakou had to go thru after he was released (for roughly 3 years). Wanting permanent conditions on Lindh is zealous prosecution. Then again, he has to always be an example. So the DOJ will use every bit of their power to keep him in line.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. Good to hear from you. I found something unerringly accurate about your comment that Lindh “has to always be an example.”

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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