Lindh was born in Washington, DC, and was baptized and raised Roman Catholic. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to San Anselmo, California. As a child, Lindh suffered from an intestinal disorder. Beginning at age 12 in 1993, after briefly attending several middle schools, his family decided to homeschool him. As a teenager, Spike Lee's film Malcolm X profoundly impressed Lindh, and aroused his curiosity regarding Islam. In 1997, Lindh converted to Islam, attending mosques in Mill Valley and later San Francisco. In 1998, he went to Yemen for about 10 months, to learn Arabic for the purpose of being able to read the Qur'an in its original language. He returned to the United States in 1999, living with his family for about eight months before returning to Yemen in February 2000, then went to Pakistan to study at a madrassa.
John Walker Lindh was captured by Afghan Northern Alliance force on November 25, 2001 near Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, and was questioned initially by CIA officer Michael Spann and another, unnamed officer at General Dostum's garrison near Mazar-i-Sharif. Later that day, a violent prisoner uprising, wherein Spann was killed along with hundreds of foreign fighters, plus a US airstrike mere yards from where Lindh was interrogated killed 5 US Marines, allowed Lindh and about 300 other prisoners to escape. Lindh was shot in the right upper thigh during the uprising.
Hiding in a basement bunker, he was discovered seven days later, again by Northern Alliance troops. In an interview conducted by CNN reporter Robert Young Pelton, Lindh said that the prison uprising was started by some prisoners who had smuggled grenades into the basement, "This is against what we had agreed upon [with the Northern Alliance], and this is against Islam. It is a major sin to break a contract, especially in military situations."
Upon capture, Lindh was given basic first aid and then questioned for a week at Mazar-i-Sharif, before being taken to Camp Rhino on December 7, 2001, the bullet still within his thigh. When Lindh arrived at Camp Rhino he was stripped and he was restrained to a stretcher, blindfolded and placed in a metal shipping container. While bound to the stretcher his picture was taken by American military personnel. While at Camp Rhino he was heavily medicated.
He was later to complain that as military personnel passed the echoing cargo container around each 24 hour cycle, they hammered on its metal sides and shouted abuse and threats. He remained in severe pain from the bullet that remained in his leg. The photograph of him naked was cropped so as not to show his leg wound. On at least one occasion he was interrogated while naked, drugged and with the bullet still in his leg. On December 8th and 9th he was interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He was held at Camp Rhino until he was transferred to USS Peleliu on December 14, 2001.
He was interrogated before the operation on December 14. While on the Peleliu, he signed confession documents while he was held by the United States Marine Corps and informed his interrogators that he was not merely Taliban but al-Qaeda, though his father later asserted he was not involved in, and unaware of, al-Qaeda. On December 31, 2001, he was transferred to the USS Bataan, where he was held till January 22, 2002, when he was flown off the Bataan to begin the journey back to the United States to face criminal charges. While on the USS Bataan, Attorney General John Ashcroft, on January 16 2002, announced that Lindh would be tried in the United States.
His attorney claimed to the press that he asked for a lawyer repeatedly before being interviewed but he did not get one, and that "highly coercive" prison conditions forced Lindh to waive his right to remain silent. Although the FBI asked Jesselyn Radack, a Justice Department ethics advisor, whether Lindh could be questioned without a lawyer present, her advice that this should not be done was not followed.
- Conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals
- Two counts of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations
- Two counts of providing material support and resources to terrorist organizations
- One count of supplying services to the Taliban.
- Conspiracy to contribute services to Al Qaeda
- Contributing services to Al Qaeda
- Conspiracy to supply services to the Taliban
- Using and carrying firearms and destructive devices during crimes of violence
A photo emerged from his captivity of him being held naked and bound, wearing a blindfold. When details of the conditions of his captivity began to emerge, it was discovered that he had initially been wounded and hidden for a week with limited food, water, and minimal sleep before being captured. After being captured and taken to a room with a single, sealed-off window, Lindh reportedly had his clothes cut off him and was duct-taped to a stretcher and placed in a metal shipping container for transportation. Lindh was reportedly not allowed release from the stretcher when he needed to urinate. While being interrogated, Lindh allegedly was repeatedly denied access to a lawyer and was threatened with denial of medical aid if he did not cooperate. Lindh was held for over a week in U.S. custody before his wound was treated and the bullet removed.
The court scheduled an evidence suppression hearing, at which Lindh would have been able to testify about the details of the torture to which he claimed he was subjected. The government faced the problem that a key piece of evidence — Lindh's confession — might be excluded from evidence as having been forced under duress.
To forestall this possibility, Michael Chertoff, then-head of the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice, directed the prosecutors to offer Lindh a plea bargain, to wit, Lindh would plead guilty to two charges: — serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons. He would also have to consent to a gag order that would prevent him from making any public statements on the matter for the duration of his 20-year sentence, and he would have to drop any claims that he had been mistreated or tortured by U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and aboard two military ships during December 2001 and January 2002. In return, all other charges would be dropped.
Lindh accepted this offer. On July 15 2002, he entered his plea of guilty to the two remaining charges. The judge asked Lindh to say, in his own words, what he was admitting to. Lindh's allocution went as follows: "I plead guilty", he said. "I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from about August to December. In the course of doing so, I carried a rifle and two grenades. I did so knowingly and willingly knowing that it was illegal." On October 4, 2002, Judge T.S. Ellis, III formally imposed the sentence: 20 years without parole.
As another result of Lindh's plea bargain, a Son of Sam law was invoked. Any and all profits made from book deals or any movies about Lindh's experience will be automatically handed over to the federal government. Lindh, his family, his relatives, his associates and his friends will be unable to profit financially from his crimes and/or experiences.
Lindh's attorney, James Brosnahan, said Lindh would be eligible for release in 17 years, with good behavior. This is because, although there is no parole under federal law, his sentence could be reduced by 15 percent, or three years, for good behavior. In addition, Lindh agreed to cooperate "fully, truthfully and completely" with both military intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the terrorism investigation.
Association with Osama bin Laden
While much emphasis has been placed on John Walker Lindh's association with the Taliban, the extent of his association with al Qaeda is uncertain. According to CNN, when Lindh came to Afghanistan, he couldn't speak the local languages (Afghanistan encompasses many diverse regional and tribal tongues). Lindh spoke only English and Arabic, so he says he joined the 'Arab group.' That group happened to be al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. Lindh describes having met bin Laden at one point, observed that "bin Laden is against Islam," and that Lindh "never understood jihad [Arabic for 'struggle'] to mean anti-American or terrorism."
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