John Walker Lindh — known as the “American Taliban” — is scheduled to be a free man on Thursday after serving 17 years in prison. He was still pushing for global jihad as recently as 2017.
Experts worry he might still be radicalized. So, what now?
The now 38-year-old was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 after a prison uprising that killed CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, marking the first fatality of the Afghan war. It was less than three months after 9/11, and Lindh, who grew up in California, became a lightning rod for American anger.
Nearly two decades later, it’s believed Lindh might still hold radical beliefs. During his 2002 sentencing, he condemned “terrorism on every level, unequivocally.” But the magazine Foreign Policy in 2017 reported, via leaked government documents, that there were major concerns about Lindh’s beliefs. A 2017 report by the National Counterterrorism Center said he “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts” and a 2017 Federal Bureau of Prisons intelligence assessment said he made statements in support of the Islamic State.
In a 2015 letter to a producer at LA news outlet KNBC, Lindh wrote that ISIS did represent Islam and that they were “doing a spectacular job."
"The Islamic State is clearly very sincere and serious about fulfilling the long-neglected religious obligation of establishing a caliphate through armed struggle, which is the only correct method,” he wrote at the time, according to KNBC.
Under the conditions of his parole, Lindh will be under strict supervision, with these limitations:
- He won’t be able to go online or own an internet-capable device without permission from a parole officer
- If he ever gets permission to use the internet, his activity will be constantly monitored and he’ll be allowed to communicate in English only.
- He won’t be allowed to travel internationally
Lindh converted to Islam at 16 and traveled to Pakistan in 2000. He later went to Afghanistan and volunteered as a Taliban soldier. He was 20 years old when captured, and evidence never linked him to Spann’s death. Lindh was charged with providing support to the Taliban.
While Lindh’s case is high-profile, it also hints at a larger issue as dozens of people convicted of terrorism-related charges could soon be up for release. There’s no real system to integrate these people into society.
"Right now there is no program to rehabilitate and reintegrate them, give them the type of skills that will make it less likely they will recidivise to some type of criminality," Mitch Silber, former director of Intelligence Analysis at the NYPD, told CNN.
Jesslyn Radack, a lawyer who worked for the Department of Justice when Lindh was captured, told the BBC she felt Lindh’s sentence was harsh and she hoped “he's able to come out and quietly restart his life."
Spann’s family, meanwhile, have condemned Lindh’s early release. He was sentenced to 20 years. Spann’s daughter Alison wrote a letter President Donald Trump saying it felt like his early released was a “slap in the face.”