A Long, Strange Trip To The Taliban

The student was old for the Madrasa, the primitive Islamic fundamentalist school in a remote corner of Pakistan. Most of the students were children, boys who had yet to reach adolescence. But this tall, bearded youth was 19, almost a man. He was a "model student," says his teacher, Mufti Mohammad Iltimas. The American had no interest in girls or parties or world events. His only real interest was studying. He seemed fixated, determined to memorize every word of the Quran, all 6,666 sentences of the ancient holy book that dictates every aspect of a devout Muslim's life, behavior and being. His only respite from studying, apart from the occasional foray to the cyber tea shop in Bannu to ship e-mails home, was books on Islam. He slept on a rope bed in his teacher's study, in a place with no hot water, and no electricity after 10 p.m. And he peppered the mufti with questions about the devout life: "Should I recite verses in a soft voice or a loud one? While I am worshiping, how should I hold my hands?"

Most teenagers, when they rebel, say they want more freedom. John Walker Lindh rebelled against freedom. He did not demand to express himself in different ways. Quite the opposite. He wanted to be told precisely how to dress, to eat, to think, to pray. He wanted a value system of absolutes, and he was willing to go to extreme lengths to find it. Lindh, who grew up surrounded by upper-middle-class affluence in California, was determined to fit in at the Islamic religious school, an austere one-story building in a tiny village outside the town of Bannu in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. Speaking with Mufti Iltimas, Lindh was critical of America as a land that exalted self above all else. Americans were so busy pursuing their personal goals, he said, that they had no time for their families or communities. In the Islamic world, by contrast, he felt cared for by others. "In the U.S. I feel alone," he said. "Here I feel comfortable and at home."

And yet the young American, who went by the name Suleyman al-Faris, did not seem to enjoy the company of others. As the local mufti, Iltimas was constantly being invited out for lunches and dinners, and he would ask his protege to come along. Suleyman would always decline, saying that socializing was a "waste of time." Suleyman was perhaps not as comfortable as he claimed to be. True, the villagers sent him food and did his laundry free of charge. But when the weather turned hot in April, he had trouble sleeping. He began to suffer from rashes and the incessant dust. He said he wanted to go into the cooler mountains. Then he vanished.

He did not surface for seven months. When he did, discovered by a NEWSWEEK reporter who first broke John Walker Lindh's story on our Web site and in last week's magazine, it was at a prison fortress in Afghanistan. Lindh's body was caked with dirt and soot, and his hair was matted with sweat and blood. Shot in the leg during a revolt by Taliban prisoners, he had been hiding in a basement from American bombs. John Walker, as he later referred to himself to CNN journalists, was roundly vilified as a traitor. Talk-show hosts and tabloid headline writers described him as "a rat" and widely suggested that he should be shot for helping instigate America's first combat death, that of CIA operative Johnny (Mike) Spann. President George W. Bush seemed more forgiving, calling Walker a "poor fellow" who had been "misled." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, 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." Walker's parents, San Francisco lawyer Frank Lindh and his legally estranged wife, Marilyn, were horrified. Their son was "sweet" and "shy," they said. How could he have ended up trapped in a siege with a gang of terrorists?

The story of John Phillip Walker Lindh, a.k.a. Suleyman al-Faris, a.k.a. Abdul Hamid (his Taliban nom de guerre), a.k.a. John Walker, is one of the truly perplexing and intriguing mysteries of the post-September 11 universe. He grew up in possibly the most liberal, tolerant place in America, yet he was drawn to the most illiberal, intolerant sect in Islam, the Taliban. He told his parents he was converting to Islam partly because it was a gentle, peace-loving religion, yet he became a self-described "jihadist," a holy warrior, and told our reporter that he "supported" the September 11 terrorist attacks. His parents say he's a "victim" who was "in the wrong place at the wrong time." But how, if he was really such a "good boy," did he get there?

John Walker, to use the name that has stuck, may remain a psychological puzzle. But he can be at least partly understood as a product of--or, more precisely, a reaction against--the culture and mores of a certain time and place. He was born in 1981, a year after the end of the so-called Me Decade that gave rise to a host of self-improvement and self-realization fads. His adolescent years were spent in Marin County, north of San Francisco. Marin County has been gently mocked by the cartoon strip "Doonesbury" as the epicenter of the self-esteem movement, a land of hot tubs, Rolfing and est, a bastion of moral relativism where divorces were for a time listed alongside marriages in the newspaper. Walker was named John after John Lennon, the Beatle. His father says he was not bothered when his two sons rejected the "strict Catholic manner" of his own upbringing. His mother was a child of the '60s who dabbled in Buddhism and home-schooled John for a time. He was sent to an elite alternative high school where students were allowed to shape their own studies and had to check in with their teacher only once a week.

Walker discovered his passion for Islam online, after sampling other possibilities. At the age of 14, under the handle "doodoo," he was visiting Web sites for hip-hop music with particularly crude raps on sex and violence. In one e-mail posting, he scorned a critic of hip-hop as a "worthless d--krider." In one e-mail at the height of his fascination with hip-hop, he appeared to pose as an African-American, writing, "Our blackness should not make white people hate us." But as he got older, he veered to a very different direction. He began visiting Islamic Web sites, asking questions like "Is it all right to watch cartoons on TV or in the movies?" His family says the turning point may have come at the age of 16 when he read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which describes the conversion to Islam of the famous black militant. Some Internet postings examined by NEWSWEEK show that young Walker soon became pretty militant himself. In a 1997 message to a hip-hop site, he demanded to know why a rapper named Nas "is indeed a 'God'? If this is so," Walker indignantly asks, "then why does he smoke blunts, drink Moet, fornicate, and make dukey music? That's a rather pathetic 'god', if you ask me." He quizzes an online correspondent about the Five Percent Nation of Islam--a small North American sect--about its adherents' 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." Selling off his hip-hop CD collection on a rap-music message board, he converted to Islam.

He began wearing Islamic dress, a long white robe and pillbox hat, and calling himself Suleyman. His flowing robes raised some eyebrows, even in Marin County, which is deeply tolerant of almost any form of self-expression. "It was like watching Jesus Christ walk down the street," says a former neighbor. "That's not your normal Marin attire, unless it's purple." Walker's parents balked at calling him "Suleyman" (he remained "John" to them), but they tried to be nonjudgmental, even supportive, about his conversion. They were "proud of John for pursuing an alternative course," says his father. They did not object when he dropped out and took the high-school-diploma equivalency exam.

At about this time, late 1998, Walker's parents were splitting up. Frank went to live with a friend, Bill Jones, and Marilyn moved to a nearby apartment with young daughter Naomi. Their teenage son became obsessed with memorizing the Quran and the Sharia, Islam's elaborate, fixed rules for living and worship. He became convinced that he needed to go to Yemen because Yemeni Arabic was the closest to the "pure" language of the Quran. His parents, though strapped for money because of their separation, agreed to pay for it. Frank later told NEWSWEEK that he wanted to support his son's "passion" and "commitment to learning."

Walker was troubled to discover that Islam was not quite as "pure" as he had hoped. He later complained to his mullah, Mufti Iltimas, that he was disappointed during his stay in Yemen to find Islam divided among the Sunni and Shiites and many other sects and factions. All Muslims should follow one code, one law--the absolute truth of every word of the Quran, he believed. Walker, who had been oblivious to politics in the United States, began to absorb some of the politics of radical Islam. In October 2000, when suicide bombers blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole as the American destroyer was refueling in the Yemeni harbor of Aden, Frank Lindh e-mailed his son to lament that some of the 17 young sailors killed in the blast were the same age as his son. Walker wrote back that bringing the U.S. destroyer into a Yemeni harbor was "an act of war" against Islam. His son's message "raised my concerns," Frank told NEWSWEEK, "but my days of molding him were over."

Frank disagreed with his son, but he didn't cut off the money. In late 1999 John Walker came home, mostly to see his mother, who had worried about him. John felt uncomfortable in America, however, and wanted to rejoin the Islamic world. In California he fell in with a large Islamic missionary group, the Tablighi Jamaat, which, according to intelligence sources, is sometimes used as a recruiting ground by extremist groups. Walker was taken under the wing of a Pakistani missionary named Khizar Hiyat, who had invited the impressionable Walker to join him on a drive to Nevada as he was spreading the word. After a brief return to Yemen, Walker traveled with Hiyat in Pakistan for a month before choosing the austere madrasa outside Bannu.

It is not clear how Walker wound up in Afghanistan. A friend from a San Fran-cisco mosque told NEWSWEEK that he received an e-mail from Walker a month before he left Bannu for the "cooler mountains" in May of this year. "He was intrigued by Afghanistan," said the friend. "He said he was interested in getting a bird's-eye view of how Sharia was being applied." (In Bannu, Walker turned down the offer of an air conditioner as decadent, but he took an additional $1,200 from his father.) In his search for purity, Walker gravitated to the most extreme expression of Islam, the Taliban.

It never occurred to Frank and Marilyn that their son would become a holy warrior. "He was the last person you would expect to go and fight," Frank told NEWSWEEK. Added Marilyn: "He would freeze. He's totally not streetwise." Yet somehow, in fairly short order, Walker was at a Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, using the nom de guerre Abdul Hamid, learning to fire an AK-47 and crossing paths with none other than Osama bin Laden. According to his interview with CNN, Walker fought with Pakistanis in Kashmir in the summer of 2001. When the United States struck back after the September 11 attacks, Walker was sent to fight against the Northern Alliance in Konduz. Sold out by their leader, Walker and several hundred other Taliban marched 100 miles, surrendered and then were herded into container trucks and shipped to a fortress prison near Mazar-e Sharif. Walker's own story of what happened next, first told to NEWSWEEK reporter Colin Soloway as Walker lay wounded and stunned after the revolt and siege at Qala Jangi prison, is hair-raising:

The Taliban began revolting as soon as they arrived at the prison. Two of the mujahedin threw grenades, hidden in their robes, killing two Northern Alliance generals. "After that they put us in the basement and left us overnight," recalled Walker. "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." Walker saw "two Americans... taking pictures with a digital camera and a video camera. They were there for interrogating us." The Americans were Mike Spann and another CIA operative later identified only as "Dave." A video taken by an Afghan cameraman shows Walker sitting cross-legged, slumped silently before the two CIA men. Spann squats down and starts asking questions: "Who brought you here? Wake up! Who brought you here to Afghanistan? How did you get here?" Then Spann and Dave conduct some theater, speaking loudly so Walker can hear. "The problem is," says Dave, "he needs to decide if he wants to live or die... We're just going to leave him, and he's going to f---ing sit in prison the rest of his f---ing short life. It's his decision, man." Spann tries to evoke some empathy from the prisoner. "There were several hundred Muslims killed in the bombing in New York City. Is that what the Quran teaches? I don't think so. Are you going to talk to us?" Walker makes no response.

Shortly after this footage was shot, "someone either pulled a knife or threw a grenade at the guards or got their guns, and started shooting," recalled Walker in his interview with NEWSWEEK. "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 CIA's Spann was beaten, shot and killed by the mob. Dave was believed to have been rescued by American Special Forces and British SAS troopers. The rebellious prisoners holed up in the basement, and American bombs began to fall. The Northern Alliance tried to burn them out by pouring in diesel fuel and lighting it, and then to drown them with thousands of gallons of water. Finally, after six days, Walker and 85 bedraggled others surrendered.

Walker's parents had not heard a word from their son after he left the madrasa at Bannu in May 2001. Marilyn had written her son, "I really need to hear your voice," but she got no answer. Frank came up with an elaborate rationale for his son's silence: under Islamic custom, John would have to obey his father, so he never asked for permission before joining up with the Taliban. After September 11, Frank and Marilyn were worried sick; Frank began visiting mosques in the San Francisco area, showing a photo of his son in full Islamic dress. Lindh says he dreaded 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 at last saw the videotape of his wounded and battered son being loaded onto a hospital gurney, he sobbed uncontrollably. His friends had to hold him up. Marilyn also seemed to be in shock when NEWSWEEK interviewed her the next day. Her son, she said, had been "brainwashed." When the TV satellite trucks showed up outside and the death threats began, she fled with her daughter to an undisclosed location. Frank, meanwhile, embarked on the TV talk-show circuit. He steadfastly refused to be judgmental. "I don't think John was doing anything wrong," he told CBS's "The Early Show." To ABC's "Good Morning America" he said, "We want to give him a big hug and then a little kick in the butt for not telling us what he was up to." He gently chided his son for not "coming to Papa" for permission. As for Walker's comment to NEWSWEEK that he "supported" the September 11 attacks, Lindh suggested that his son may have been in shock (he may have been otherwise addled; Walker said he had been a heavy hashish user, according to one Northern Alliance source). The family's latest defense is that their son did not have access to Western media, only the Taliban version of September 11, which may not have reported the atrocities and civilian death toll.

Just in case the U.S. government did not share this benign view of his son's activities, Frank Lindh went out and hired one of the best-known trial lawyers in America, James Brosnahan, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the Iran-contra case. Though Walker's family is begging for information, the government has not decided what it plans to do with Walker, who was being held at Camp Rhino outside Kandahar last week. (A military spokesman said he is being cared for and given "three hots and a cot.") One source said that Attorney General John Ashcroft and other top Justice Department officials were "disgusted" with Walker's actions and want to "make an example of him." Because he is a U.S. citizen, he is not a candidate for the military tribunals that will be set up to try Al Qaeda and other terrorists. He could possibly be tried for treason, but that crime is hard to prove--there must be two witnesses to convict. Walker's fellow Taliban may not be the most credible in court. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 41 percent of Americans believe that Walker should be charged with treason and put on trial for fighting with the enemy; an additional 42 percent say he should be tried only if there is specific evidence of his fighting against Americans. Walker may have some useful intelligence to bargain with. Though he was but a lowly foot soldier, the CIA would like to learn more about Al Qaeda's recruiting. Sources say that Walker has proudly informed his interrogators that he was not merely Taliban but Al Qaeda. If Walker can inform on the terror network, he might be able to negotiate a plea bargain. Passions may cool, but facing an American jury in the present atmosphere could be one more unwise decision for a young man who has already made some seriously bad ones.