John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” is leaving prison. When the young Californian began serving his sentence for the crime of supporting the group—nearly two decades ago—he was 21, and America was fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of the post-9/11 War on Terror. Now, the United States is holding negotiations with the group to try to get troops out of the country, and has even considered paying Taliban emissaries’ expenses to get to peace talks.
Lindh’s incarceration has spanned nearly the entirety of America’s post-9/11 wars. Early on, many Americans saw him as the face of terror, even though he was never convicted of plotting attacks against them. He had joined the Taliban in the summer of 2001, months before the U.S. was at war with the group, to help it fight in its own civil war. He had stayed with the group after 9/11, and had been present at a prisoner uprising that killed the 32-year-old CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, the first American to die in the new war. By then, George W. Bush had declared that the U.S. would make no distinction between al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s international terrorist network that had perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, and the Taliban, the Islamist fundamentalist government in Afghanistan that had sheltered al-Qaeda while it plotted. Americans were shocked to see one of their own on the other side.
The frenzy of Lindh’s notoriety—such as when his filthy and bearded face appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 2001—has long since faded, especially after the homegrown attacks of the past two decades. If anything, he seems a relic of an earlier time, when Afghanistan still dominated front pages and the Iraq War and the rise of ISIS were in the future. But the case of Lindh, who became the first American detainee to be brought home and tried in the War on Terror, has foreshadowed two of today’s most urgent problems in the ongoing counterterrorism struggle. For one thing, the idea of a young, financially comfortable American converting to Islam and leaving home to fight alongside a militant fundamentalist group, while shocking in 2001, has become much more common—hundreds of Americans have since tried, and mostly failed, to do so; dozens have succeeded.
Meanwhile, many jihadist terrorism convicts in the early 2000s were, like Lindh, given sentences in the 20-year range. Lindh is scheduled to get out on Thursday, having served 17 years, and when he does he will enter a three-year period of supervised release including severe restrictions on his travel and internet use. Over the next five years, according to one study, more than 60 other U.S. citizens convicted of terrorism-related offenses will be released. And it’s not clear the country is prepared to deal with them.
The group that handed Lindh over to the Americans was the Taliban’s old enemy, and a new U.S. ally, the Northern Alliance, who found him in the winter of 2001. Prosecutors initially charged him with conspiring with al-Qaeda, but he was never convicted of involvement with the group, and never even charged with Spann’s death.
The crime Lindh pleaded guilty to instead was violating a Clinton-era executive order that banned providing services to the Taliban; the service he provided was himself. He got 20 years in prison, with the possibility of early release after about 17 years for good behavior.
Lindh was living in Marin County, California, when he converted to Islam at the age of 16, inspired by watching the Malcolm X movie and moved by the notion of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. “I was very moved by the image of thousands of people praying together, perfectly equal, and perfectly humble,” Lindh wrote in his biographical statement to the court, according to a speech his father, Frank Lindh, gave later.
He left home at 19 to study Arabic and memorize the Koran, a journey that first took him to Yemen and then to northwestern Pakistan. It was there, he told a CNN journalist shortly after his capture, that he met “many people who were connected with Taliban,” and began to research the movement. “My heart became attached to them,” he said from a hospital bed, speaking English for the first time in months. “I wanted to help them one way or another.”
He claimed he had no military skills and attended “a simple training camp.” Because he didn’t speak Urdu, he went to a camp of foreigners, where Arabic was the lingua franca. That camp was also funded by Osama bin Laden, whom Lindh told interrogators he met at least once. He said bin Laden “made small talk” and thanked him and others for joining the jihad.
He later maintained that he never meant to join a fight against Americans; his aim, he said, was only to help the Taliban fight its internal enemies and protect its Islamic state. Lindh had, however, stayed with the Taliban even after the September 11 attacks, even with the knowledge that bin Laden had ordered them, and even as American bombs began to fall on Afghanistan.
After that, Lindh was captured. He presented an early test of the system just after the Bush administration had given itself the authority to detain some Taliban members as enemy combatants to whom the laws of war did not apply. But Lindh was an American, who the administration ultimately determined was entitled to constitutional rights—even though he got them after being held by U.S. authorities for nearly two months in Afghanistan and interrogated without a lawyer, at times taped naked to a stretcher.
His case is in many ways unique among the terrorism prosecutions that followed. Most of the Americans incarcerated for terrorism-related offenses in the U.S. today never left the U.S., and are serving time on charges of providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization—for instance, offering funds or services to ISIS or al-Qaeda.
Lindh was moreover convicted in the days of chaos and anger after the 9/11 attacks. “From the day of his capture,” says Karen Greenberg, the director of Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security, “the amount that he took on that was beyond any kind of facts that ever came to light is extraordinary.”
“I honestly believe that if [Lindh] had been tried later … he might have gotten a lower sentence,” Greenberg told me.
The sentence he did get was the outcome of a debate between Lindh’s family and defense attorneys on the one side, and the prosecution and Spann’s family on the other, about what Lindh was really doing in Afghanistan. To his defenders, he was a misguided kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. To his prosecutors, he had all but committed treason.
“In simple terms,” Lindh’s father, Frank, said in a 2006 speech, “this is the story of a decent and honorable young man embarked on a spiritual quest who became the focus of the grief and anger of an entire nation over an event in which he had no part.”
Frank Lindh said in that speech that his son could have done the exact same thing and attracted no notice but for the events of September 11. It was true that providing support to the Taliban was illegal even at the time Lindh joined, because the group was providing a base of operations for al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who had staged the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. It was also true that in May 2001, the U.S. had approved a $43 million humanitarian grant to Afghanistan and welcomed the Taliban’s efforts to eradicate opium-poppy cultivation.
Finally, it was true that whether or not Lindh initially intended to fight Americans, he had stayed with the Taliban even after September 11, knowing that bin Laden was responsible and that the Taliban had sheltered him. But Lindh’s defense attorneys said that he could not leave the movement at the time for fear of getting killed. And when he was found among other Taliban prisoners captured by a U.S.-allied warlord in northern Afghanistan, his unit had been in retreat. “We’re not talking about Rambo here,” James Brosnahan, one of Lindh’s defense attorneys, said on PBS after Lindh reached his plea deal. “John is not—he’s a lot of good things. He’s a nice young man. I like him a lot, but he is not a great warrior.”
David Kelley, one of the prosecutors, said he didn’t consider Lindh’s a terrorism case like others he had worked on, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombings and the plot against the USS Cole in 2000. Both of those cases involved al-Qaeda plots to kill Americans. “I did not view him ... as a terrorist who was looking to blow things up in the U.S. so much as someone who was in some respects treasonous insofar as he had taken sides with the Taliban and was providing material support to foreign terrorist groups,” Kelley wrote to me in an email.
But Lindh’s support for the Taliban following 9/11 led Attorney General John Ashcroft to state, at a press conference in early 2002 announcing his indictment, that “at each crossroad, Walker faced a choice, and with each choice, he chose to ally himself with terrorists … Youth is not absolution for treachery, and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against one's country. Misdirected Americans cannot seek direction in murderous ideologies and expect to avoid the consequences.”
In the end, the defense and the prosecution struck a plea deal in the middle of the night on a Sunday in July 2002. The justice system had completed one early test in the War on Terror. Even as the Bush administration was opening up the military tribunal system at Guantánamo Bay that would become a blight on America’s reputation, a U.S. court evaluated evidence against one of its own and secured a quick conviction.
That did not, however, settle the debate over whether justice was done.
“John Walker Lindh chose to fight with the Taliban knowing that the Taliban provided protection and support to al-Qaeda, a terrorist network. Today's sentence proves that the American criminal-justice system is a powerful and effective tool in America’s struggle against terrorism," U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty said at Lindh’s sentencing.
Brosnahan, in his PBS interview, sounded unimpressed. “To find by accident a 21-year-old fellow at the bottom of a basement who is there for religious reasons is not a great victory in the war on terrorism.”
In the meantime, more than 400 people have been convicted for jihadist-terrorism-related offenses in U.S. courts, and have received sentences ranging from the death penalty to life imprisonment to a few years behind bars.
If John Walker Lindh’s story was unique in 2000—a young, educated, middle-class American bafflingly going off to fight in some other country’s war—it has become much more common. Americans have made up a very small group of the foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State. George Washington University’s Program on Extremism has identified 72 U.S. residents who left to join jihadist groups in Iraq or Syria since 2011, and perhaps 250 or 300 more who tried. Fourteen have come back, according to the study, and most of them have been arrested and charged.
As Kelley, the prosecutor, suggested, there’s a difference between joining an organization overseas and plotting to blow things up in the U.S., even if these things sometimes coincide. Since 9/11, the deadliest jihadist terrorist attacks in the United States have been almost entirely homegrown, conducted by American citizens or permanent residents with no overseas training. The U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, for example, killed 13 people in a shooting at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, reportedly inspired in part by the internet sermons of the radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, himself a U.S. citizen, who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike. Omar Mateen, whose 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando killed 49 people in the deadliest jihadist-inspired terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11, was also likely radicalized online, the FBI said at the time.
Hasan is on death row following his conviction by a military court-martial; police shot and killed Mateen during his attack. Others, though, whether because they were convicted of less serious offenses or because they cooperated with investigators, have served their time, gotten out, and rejoined society.
Bryant Neal Vinas, like Lindh, traveled to South Asia to join a militant group—unlike Lindh, he traveled specifically to join al-Qaeda and did so as the War on Terror was well under way, in 2007. He discussed with al-Qaeda members specific plots against Americans, including blowing up the Long Island Rail Road. He became an FBI informant following his capture in 2008 in Pakistan, and ended up leaving prison less than nine years later.
Najibullah Zazi trained in bomb-making with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, came back to the United States, and plotted to bomb the New York subway system. He was arrested in 2009 in the U.S. He, too, received a shortened prison term for extensive cooperation with federal investigators—his 10-year sentence ends this year.
Lindh was never high up enough in the Taliban to try to negotiate a shorter sentence for intelligence cooperation, a person who was close to the case in 2002, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, told me. Lindh did agree to provide information about al-Qaeda and other groups to the government. But “because John was literally the lowliest of foot soldiers, he just didn’t know much,” this person said.
Vinas and Zazi pleaded guilty to plotting attacks in the United States, a step Lindh was never convicted of taking. Yet they each will end up serving roughly half the length of Lindh’s sentence.
Lindh is one of dozens of American prisoners convicted of terrorism crimes following September 11 who will be getting out over the next five years. Because his conviction came so early and his sentence was so severe, the end of his sentence will correspond with that of higher-level offenders who received long prison terms.
“We have a number of high-level extremist offenders that are coming out of institutions now,” Kevin Lowry, the former chief U.S. probation officer for the district of Minnesota, told me. Lowry was the architect of the first disengagement and deradicalization program in the United States in 2016; Minnesota has had an unusually high number of jihadist-terrorism cases, since al-Shabaab, a Somali al-Qaeda affiliate, and ISIS have heavily recruited from the state’s Somali immigrant population. But he says there’s no similar initiative at the federal level, and few other state-level programs. “As a country, as a system, we’re not prepared to the level that we should be to accommodate these cases.”
That’s partly because there aren’t that many terrorists in the U.S., or in its prisons. The few hundred people currently serving time for terrorism-related offenses are a tiny fraction of the more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States.
This is a good thing. But it also means the United States does not have much experience or data about how terrorism convicts reintegrate into society after leaving jail.
The reason this worries some who follow the issue is that, according to one study, nearly half of federal prisoners get rearrested within eight years, though the recidivism rate for extremist prisoners might be lower—there is not a lot of data on the issue. Still, as Mitch Silber, the former director of intelligence analysis at the New York City Police Department, and his co-author Jesse Morton (himself a former extremist), point out in another recent study, at one point roughly a fifth of people released from Guantánamo were estimated to have engaged in terrorist activity again afterward. “Thus,” Silber and Morton write, “the recidivism rate among violent extremist offenders within the U.S. is unlikely to be zero.”
In Europe, where terrorism-related sentences tend to be shorter—much to the chagrin of American officials—more people have gotten out, and more programs for monitoring and rehabilitating former extremists have been tested. Germany, for example, has deradicalization programs for all kinds of extremists, from jihadists to neo-Nazis, involving counseling and specialized risk-assessment tools to try to predict any returns to criminal extremism after release. The United States lacks anything comparable nationally, though general programs exist to help prisoners reintegrate after they leave.
So what? Federal probation officers have plenty of experience processing a wide variety of criminals—gang members, white extremists, and organized crime bosses included. That experience could very well be applicable to extremism cases. Just like crime bosses, for example, one concern about extremist convicts is that they can incite violence without ever personally conducting it themselves. “I will say there are many high-risk people that have promoted terrorism, that have incited, recruited, directed others to carry out acts of terrorism,” Lowry said. Whether or not they get directly involved in violence, “it still adds up to people being killed.”
Which also brings us back to the very debate that raged when John Walker Lindh was captured and that has never quite been settled: To what degree should terrorism be considered an “ordinary” crime? “I think that terrorist groups are gangs with an ideology,” Silber told me. “So the gang programs are to some degree the model.” Some states have programs that pair a gang member who expresses willingness to renounce his or her views with a mentor in prison who has gone through the same process. Vocational training is also offered. “Some of these programs exist now, so taking that and tweaking it so that there’s an opportunity to violent extremist offenders is a way to do something without reinventing the wheel,” Silber said.
A spokesman for the federal Probation and Pretrial Services Office said in a statement that probation officers had discussed extremism cases with the Department of Homeland Security and are in regular conversations with the Bureau of Prisons about the releases of people convicted of terrorism-related crimes.
To the extent that ideology makes terrorism a different kind of crime, it’s not illegal to hold certain beliefs—and a prison sentence can’t be extended just because a prisoner hasn’t changed his mind. In Lindh’s case, a leaked Bureau of Prisons document from 2017 described in Foreign Policy alleges that he made pro-ISIS statements to reporters; in a 2016 email exchange with his father described in the same article, he declines to renounce jihad.
The Bureau of Prisons would not comment on Lindh’s purported statements. “We do not discuss a specific inmate's conduct while in prison,” the Bureau said in an emailed statement. “The BOP has policies, procedures, and practices for monitoring communications of inmates with known or suspected ties to domestic and foreign terrorism and shares information with law enforcement as appropriate.” Lindh also declined via a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson to comment for this story.
Some of the tools probation officers use to assess the risk of recidivism don’t necessarily work for terrorism convicts, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and don’t exhibit the same risk factors as some other violent offenders, such as a prior criminal history or a lack of education. On the other hand, probation involves extensive monitoring, and it’s precisely monitoring by law enforcement that has disrupted many alleged terrorism plots within the United States since September 11.
“Having worked with a number of these individuals immediately after their release from prison, they have ankle bracelets, they’re reporting to their probation officer very frequently, they’re prohibited from being online, they’re prohibited from going to certain locations,” said Silber, who has worked with Vinas. “The probation officers have a pretty tight leash on them.”
That leaves open the question of whether society is ready to take Lindh back, and what that means for terrorism convicts set to leave prison in the coming years. Lindh will arguably be the highest-profile extremism-related prisoner released in the United States since September 11. The coming releases of other terrorism-related convicts haven’t yet attracted much public attention, but if Lindh’s case is any indication, the politics of those will likely be volatile. Republican Senator Richard Shelby, who represents Alabama, the Spann family’s home state, has called Lindh a threat to national security, opposed his release, and urged President Donald Trump to do the same. Spann’s parents have publicly opposed Lindh’s release, with his mother telling the Alabama legislature, “I do not want him out.” Spann’s father this week called for an investigation into Lindh’s purported pro-ISIS comments.
Lindh himself has worried about whether he will be able to live a normal life again, according to the leaked email exchange with his father. He mused about claiming asylum in Ireland, where he has acquired citizenship, but the terms of his supervised release do not allow him to hold a passport or leave the United States without permission. So Lindh is once again unwittingly providing a test of the U.S. system, which is structured on the assumption that convicts can serve their time and then resume life outside. And once again, the U.S. isn’t quite ready for the challenge he poses.