On this day in 2002, John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” accepts a plea-bargain deal in which he pleads guilty to one count of supplying services to the Taliban and carrying weapons. Under the terms of the deal, Walker Lindh agreed to serve 20 years in prison and cooperate with the American government in their investigation into the terrorist group al Qaeda. In return, all other charges against him were dropped, including one count of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals.
The previous year, Walker Lindh, an American citizen, gained infamy across the country when he was found by U.S. forces in Afghanistan during the U.S. invasion that followed the September 11th attacks. It was soon found that Lindh had served as a Taliban solider. He was one of only about 80 prisoners to survive a prison uprising in Mazar-e-Sharif that had been put down by a combination of Northern Alliance and U.S. troops. Hundreds of prisoners, as well as a C.I.A. agent named Johnny Spann, were killed in the riot.
John Walker Lindh was born outside of Washington, D.C., and moved to Marin County, an affluent San Francisco suburb, when he was 10 years old. A precocious student, he attended Tamiscal High School, an elite alternative institution where students design their own curriculum. He performed well academically and was said to have a talent for languages and music. He reports becoming interested in Islam as an adolescent after learning about the life of Malcolm X. At 16, he converted to Islam. He soon began using the name “Suleyman,” wearing traditional Muslim dress, and attending services at a local mosque. In July 1998, he traveled to Yemen to learn Arabic. It was the beginning of a journey that would land him in the custody of U.S. Special Forces.
After returning to California briefly in February 2000, Walker Lindh again left for Yemen. Eight months later in October 2000, he traveled to Pakistan to study at a madrasah, a fundamentalist Islamic school. While at the school, he became interested in the Muslim struggle against the Indian government in the disputed Kashmir region. He joined a radical Islamic group and underwent military training, but left when he became disenchanted with the cause. It was then that the Taliban–the notorious ultra-conservative Islamist group that ruled Afghanistan from 1998 to 2001–caught his attention. “I was in [Pakistan’s] Northwest Frontier Province. The people there in general have a great love for the Taliban. So I started to read some of the literature of the scholars and my heart became attached to it. I wanted to help them one way or another.” Walker Lindh became so enamored with the Taliban cause that he asked to join them.
Because he spoke Arabic but not any local Afghan language, Walker Lindh was assigned to al Qaeda, an Arab group in league with the Taliban, and attended their al Farooq training camp two hours outside of the Afghan city of Kandahar. His training included lessons on weapons, maps, battlefields, and explosives. He also briefly met and says he was “thanked” by Osama bin Laden for his service. After training, he was sent to the front lines of the Taliban’s battle with the Northern Alliance for control of the country. When the U.S. invaded, Walker Lindh walked 100 miles to the town of Konduz, where he and about 3,000 other Taliban fighters were taken prisoner and sent to Mazar-e-Sharif.
Walker Lindh spent three weeks holed up in the prison’s basement with other Taliban detainees before giving himself up on November 29. He was held on the Navy ship USS Bataan before being transferred to Kandahar and eventually to the United States.
As part of his plea agreement, Walker Lindh would be tried as an enemy combatant if he were ever again found to be associating with terrorists. In the meantime, he pledged to continue to study Islam and the Koran while in jail.