Middle East

'American Taliban' John Walker Lindh released early from US prison


His early release after 17 years has sparked fierce criticism, including from US Secretary of State Pompeo.

John Walker Lindh, the US Muslim convert who came to be known as the "American Taliban" after being captured while fighting in Afghanistan in 2001, was released on Thursday after serving 17 years in a federal prison.

The US Bureau of Prisons confirmed his early morning release from the federal high security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

John Walker Lindh leaving the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex early in the morning on May 23, 2019 in Terre Haute, Indiana (Getty Images)
John Walker Lindh seen leaving the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex in Indiana.
Getty Images

His lawyer Bill Cummings told CNN that 38-year-old Lindh, suspected by some of still harboring radical Islamic views, will settle in Virginia under strict probation terms that limit his ability to go online or contact other Islamists.

Known as "Detainee 001" in the US War on Terror, Lindh's early release on an original 20-year sentence has resurrected memories of the September 11 attacks, when he became for many Americans one of the faces of the jihadist threat against the United States.

But his release also underscores that, almost two decades later, the US remains mired in a fight with the Taliban with no end in sight.

Other than that he will settle in Virginia, the state abutting the US capital Washington, there was no information about Lindh's plans.

His family, which lives near San Francisco, California, has not recently commented on his case and could not immediately be contacted.

His release comes amid concerns that he may not have abandoned support for hardline Islamic thinking while incarcerated.

In a letter this week to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, two senators asked how his alleged threat would be contained, citing unproven allegations that he "openly" supports extremist violence.

"We must consider the security and safety implications for our citizens and communities who will receive individuals like John Walker Lindh," they said.

Early release

Lindh, 38, earned a three-year early release from the Indiana prison for good behavior.

The quiet son of a middle-class couple, he converted to Islam at age 16 and travelled to Yemen in 1998 to study Arabic.

This file image taken Dec. 1, 2001, from television footage in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, shows John Walker Lindh, right, claiming to be an American Taliban volunteer (AAP)
John Walker Lindh, right, claimed to be an American Taliban volunteer in 2001.

After returning home for several months, Lindh went back to Yemen in 2000, and then on to Pakistan to study further in a madrassa, or religious school.

In mid-2001, ostensibly drawn by stories of the mistreatment of Afghans, he enlisted in the Taliban's fight against the Northern Alliance.

After the United States intervened in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Lindh was one of hundreds of Taliban fighters captured by Northern Alliance forces on November 25.

He revealed his American identity to two CIA officers.

One of them, Johnny Micheal Spann, was killed in a prisoner revolt hours after he interrogated Lindh, making him the first American killed in post-9/11 conflict in Afghanistan.

While Lindh had no role in Spann's death, his case became politically and emotionally entwined with it.

Once back in the United States, he was branded a traitor and accused of murdering the CIA officer.

Lindh was quickly charged with multiple counts of terrorism and conspiracy to kill Americans, with politicians and generals demanding he be given the death penalty.

But in July 2002, he pleaded guilty to much-reduced charges of illegally aiding the Taliban and carrying weapons and explosives in the commission of that crime.

Remains a devout Muslim

By most accounts, Lindh clung firmly to Islam throughout his imprisonment.

He spent years with a few dozen other Muslim prisoners in the Communications Management Unit of the Terre Haute prison, where their contacts with outsiders, media and information were tightly controlled.

An internal 2017 report from the US National Counterterrorism Center, obtained by the Foreign Policy website, said that Lindh "continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts."

The claim was not supported by any public evidence. But Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a researcher at the George Washington University Center for Extremism, says that while in prison Lindh became close to Ahmad Musa Jibril, an Arab-American who, since his 2012 release, has preached an extremely conservative version of Islam that is popular among jihadists.

Restrictions on internet use

He will face extremely tough conditions in his three-year probation.

Lindh, who gained Irish citizenship while in prison, cannot obtain a passport or travel abroad.

He can only possess or use an internet-capable computer or phone with official permission, and the device has to be monitored continuously by authorities.

He will also remain under tough scrutiny from a society where many believe he should be imprisoned for life.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who previously led the CIA, denounced his release.

Lindh is "still committed to the very jihad that he engaged in that killed a great American and a great officer," Pompeo said on Fox News.

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