John Walker Lindh's "strange trip"

April 2003

The student attending the Madrasa, a primitive Islamic fundamentalist school located in Pakistan, was older than the other boys. This tall youth was 19, almost a man. Says his teacher, Mufti Mohammed IItimas, he was a "model student."

The American's only real interest was studying. He was determined to memorize the Koran. His only pause from studying came in forays to a cyber teashop in Bannu to send emails home and reading books on Islam. He slept in his teacher's study. A place with no hot water and no electricity after 10 PM. He barraged the mufti with questions about devout Islamic life. "Should I recite verses in a soft voice or a loud one? While I am worshipping, how should I hold my hands?"

Typically, most rebellious teenagers want more freedom. John Walker Lindh rebelled against freedom. He wanted to be told exactly how to behave. He wanted an absolute value system. Lindh grew up in upper-middle class affluence in California. He was determined to fit in at the Islamic school, located outside the town of Bannu in the Northwest Province of Pakistan. Speaking with Mufti IItimas, Lindh was critical of America and the American pursuit of personal goals. "In the U.S. I feel alone. Here I feel comfortable and at home" he said.

And yet the young American. who went by the name of Suleyman al-Faris, did not enjoy socializing with others. He said it was a "waste of time." When the Mufti IItimas invited his protégé to come along to dinners, Suleyman would always decline. Perhaps he was not as comfortable as he claimed to be. Suleyman had trouble sleeping when the weather turned hot in April. He said he wanted to go into the cooler mountains. Then he vanished.

He surfaced 7 months later. Discovered by a Newsweek reporter in a prison fortress in Afghanistan. Lindh's body was caked with dirt, soot and blood. He'd been shot in the leg during a revolt by Taliban prisoners and had been hiding in a basement. Journalists roundly vilified Lindh as a traitor. President George W. Bush was more forgiving. Calling him a "poor fellow" who had been "misled."

Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld coolly stated, "We found a person who says he's an American with an AK-47 in a prison with a bunch of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. He will have all the rights he is due."

Lindh's parents were horrified. San Francisco lawyer Frank Lindh and his estranged wife, Marilyn, said their son was "sweet and shy." How could he have ended up like this?

John Philip Walker Lindh, a.k.a. Suleyman al-Faris, a.k.a. Abdul Hamid (his Taliban name), a.k.a. John Walker, is one of the more bizarre stories of the post 9-11 attacks.

He grew up in the most tolerant of places in America. Yet he was drawn to the Taliban, the most intolerant sect in Islam. Initially he converted to Islam because, as he told his parents, it's a gentle, peace-loving religion. Despite this, he became a jihadist (a holy warrior) and told our reporter that he supported the Sept 11 attacks. His parents think he's a "victim" who was "in the wrong place at the wrong time."

John Walker may remain a puzzle. But he can be partly understood as a product of a certain time and place. Born in 1981, his childhood years were spent in Marin County. Walker was named after John Lennon, the Beatle. Frank Lindh was not bothered when his two sons rejected the strict catholic manners of his own upbringing. John's mother was a child of the 60's who dabbled with Buddhism and home-schooled John for awhile. Then he was sent to an alternative high school where students could shape their own studies.

Walker discovered his passion for Islam online. He began visiting Islamic websites, asking questions like: "Is it all right to watch cartoons on TV or in the movies?" His family claims the turning point came at 16, when he read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Which is about the famous black militant and his conversion to Islam. He quizzes an online correspondent regarding the Five- Percent Nation of Islam (a small North American sect). He asks about its follower's vision of bliss and how to pursue it.

"I have never seen happiness myself." writes Walker. "Perhaps you can enlighten me...where I can go to sneak a peek at it."

He began calling himself Suleyman and wearing Islamic dress. His flowing white robes raised some eyebrows even in deeply tolerant Marin County. Walker's parents balked at calling him Suleyman. But they remained supportive and proud of John for seeking an alternative course. They didn't object to his dropping out and taking the GED.

In late 1998, Walker's parents were splitting up. Their son was becoming obsessed with memorizing the Koran and Sharia. He was convinced he needed to go to Yemen because Yemeni Arabic was closest to the pure Koran. His parents agreed to pay for it, although strapped for cash. Frank told Newsweek he wanted to support his son's commitment to learning.

Walker was disappointed to find that Islam was not as "pure" as he had believed. He complained to Mufti IItimas, that he was discouraged to find Islam divided among so many sects and factions. He felt that all Muslims should follow one code, one law. Walker, who had been apathetic towards politics in the USA, was becoming interested in the politics of radical Islam. In October 2000, suicide bombers blew a hole in the USS Cole as it refueled in a Yemen harbor. Frank Lindh emailed his son about the incident. Walker answered back that bringing the U.S destroyer into the Yemen harbor was "an act of war against Islam." Frank told Newsweek, his son's message "raised my concerns." But my days of molding him were over."

In late 1999, John Walker came home to see his mother, who had worried about him. John was uneasy in America and wanted to rejoin the Islamic world. He fell in with a missionary group in California - called the Tablighi Jamaat. According to intelligence sources, the Tablighi Jamaat is sometimes used as a recruiting ground by extremist groups. A Pakistani missionary named Khizar Hiyat, took Walker under his wing. John joined Hiyat on a drive to Nevada to spread the word. After returning briefly to Yemen, Walker traveled in Pakistan for a month. Then finally choosing the madrasa outside Bannu.

It's still unclear how Walker wound up in Afghanistan. A friend from a San Francisco mosque received an email from Walker a month before he left Bannu. In it he says he was intrigued by Afghanistan and was interested in getting a bird's-eye view of how Sharia was being applied. In his search for purity, Walker gravitated towards the Taliban, the most extreme expression of Islam.

It never occurred to the Lindh's their son would become a holy warrior. Frank told Newsweek, "he was the last person you would expect to go and fight." Yet somehow, in short order, Walker was at an Afghanistanian Qaeda training camp. Using the name Abdul Hamid, firing an AK-47 and crossing paths with Osama bin Laden. When the USA retaliated after the September 11 attacks, Walker went to fight against the Northern Alliance in Konduz. Walker recounts his own story to a Newsweek reporter as he lays wounded and stunned after the revolt at Qula Jangi prison.

The Taliban started revolting immediately after arriving at the prison. The prisoners were placed in the basement and left overnight. Walker recounts, "Early in the morning they began taking us out, slowly, one by one, into the compound...Our hands were tied, and they were kicking and beating some of us. Some of the mujahedin were scared, crying. They thought we were all going to be killed." He also saw, "two Americans...taking pictures with a digital camera and a video camera. They were there for interrogating us."

The interrogators were Mike Spann and another CIA operative, only identified as "Dave." An Afghan cameraman shot a video showing Walker sitting sullenly before the two CIA men. Spann starts asking questions: "Who brought you here? Wake up! Who brought you here to Afghanistan? How did you get here?" Then Spann and Dave play out a scene, speaking loudly so Walker can overhear. "The problem is he needs to decide if he wants to live or die...We're just going to leave him, and he's going to f--king sit in prison the rest of his f--king short life. It's his decision man."

Spann tries to gain empathy from Walker. "There were several hundred Muslims killed in the bombing in New York City. Is that what the Koran teaches? I don't think so. Are you going to talk to us?" The prisoner does not respond.

Soon after that footage was shot, "someone either pulled a knife or threw a grenade at the guards or got their guns and started shooting," recalled Walker. "As soon as I heard the shooting and screaming I jumped up and ran about one or two meters and was shot in the leg." The mob beat, shot and then killed Mike Spann. It was believed that Dave was rescued by American Special Forces.

The prisoners continued to hole up in the basement. The Northern Alliance tried to burn them out. Then drowning them out with thousands of gallons of water. After 6 days, Walker and 85 beleaguered others finally surrendered.

Walker had not been in touch with his parents since he left the madrasa in May 2001. After September 11, Frank and Marilyn were desperately worried. Frank started visiting San Francisco mosques, showing a photo of John. Lindh anticipated the worst. "I would look at the moon and just wonder if John was somewhere seeing it too" he says. "I didn't have the sense that he was."

When Frank Lindh finally viewed the videotape of his son on a hospital gurney, he sobbed. Marilyn was also in shock. Her son, she said, had been "brainwashed." Meanwhile Frank made the rounds of the TV talk-show circuit. "I don't think John was doing anything wrong. We want to give him a big hug and a little kick in the butt for not telling us what he was up to." As for Walker's comment to Newsweek that he "supported" the September attacks, the family's defense is that their son was not privy to western media. He only knew the Taliban version, which may not have reported the true atrocities.

In case the government did not share the same compassionate view of his son's activities. John Lindh hired James Brosnahan, one of the best trial lawyers in America. The government has not yet decided the fate of Walker, who was being held at Camp Rhino outside Kandahar last week. One source said that Attorney General Ashcroft and other top officials were "disgusted" with Walker's actions and want to "make an example of him." He could possibly be tried for treason, but that crime is difficult to prove.

In a Newsweek poll, 41 percent of Americans think Walker should be tried for treason. Walker may have some useful knowledge to bargain with. The CIA would like to learn more about Al Qaeda's recruiting. Walker may be able to negotiate a plea bargain, if he can inform on the terror network. Facing an American jury in the current atmosphere could be another unwise choice for a young man who has already made some seriously bad ones.

Note: News summary: based upon a Long, Strange Trip to the Taliban, Newsweek/December 17, 2001


Copyright © 2003 Rick Ross.

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