Walker's Brush With Bin Laden

As an American among the Taliban, John Walker Lindh was an oddity, to say the least. But the young convert to radical Islam repeatedly proved his loyalty to the cause, undergoing spiritual education in Pakistan, then moving up to weapons and explosives training in two separate Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. NEWSWEEK has learned that he was eventually trusted enough to live in the secretive Farouk camp in the mountains near Kandahar, where bin Laden often moved among the troops--and where at least one of the September 11 hijackers had trained. There Walker was once invited to a small meeting with bin Laden himself.

Then, in the months before September 11, sources tell NEWSWEEK, Walker was presented with a choice: according to statements Walker gave FBI interrogators after his capture, Al Qaeda leaders told him he could either begin an intensive round of terrorist instruction--"martyrdom training," a Justice Department official called it--or take to the battlefield and fight as a Qaeda soldier against the Northern Alliance.

Walker told U.S. interrogators he chose to fight, a decision that is now at the center of the debate over his fate. He fought willingly alongside the Taliban and voiced approval of the September 11 attacks; but if Walker is to be believed, he avoided training that could have sent him to kill Americans. That has complicated the government's attempts to find the right charge to fit his alleged crimes. Attorney General John Ashcroft recommended that Walker be handed over to U.S. Marshals and tried in civilian court--most likely under a federal law prohibiting support to terrorist groups. That crime carries a potential life sentence, but not the death penalty. Late last week, however, some officials were pushing for charges that could result in execution. "There's still a lot of missing pieces," says one official working on the case. "We're trying to figure out exactly what he did."

Walker is now being held in solitary confinement aboard the USS Peleliu in the middle of the Arabian Sea, virtually unaware of the chaos his capture has caused. As cable-TV shows endlessly play video of his bearded, soot-stained face, Walker may not even be aware that his anguished parents have written him a supportive letter--and hired a high-priced lawyer to defend him. Since his capture on Dec. 2, Walker has been extensively questioned, first by U.S. military officials and then by the FBI. On Dec. 9, agents were dispatched to read Walker his Miranda rights. But the government says Walker waived his right to counsel, and continued to spin out details of his six-month odyssey as a holy warrior--even referring to bin Laden with a respectful honorific. Has he shown any remorse? "Not much," says one official familiar with Walker's account.

Walker's case wasn't helped last week when CNN aired a gripping tape of an interview with Walker conducted right after his capture. In a heavily affected Arabic accent, Walker distanced himself from the prison riot that led to the death of CIA agent Mike Spann. He said his captured colleagues had made a "mistake" and committed a "sin against Islam" when they violated their promise to surrender and unleashed hand grenades against their Northern Alliance guards. But he went on to describe himself as a member of Ansar, a group of non-Afghan fighters who, he said matter-of-factly, were "funded by Osama bin Laden." That statement alone could make it hard for Walker's lawyers to argue that he didn't know what he was doing--or whose orders he was following.

Some administration officials still believe that Walker should be tried for treason, since he allegedly took up arms against Americans. But treason is hard to prove. The Constitution requires two witnesses to an "overt act." To get around that problem, some lawyers have floated the idea of invoking an obscure statute allowing civilians to be court-martialed for "aiding the enemy." The law was last used during the Civil War, when two Missouri women were convicted of supplying "victuals" to Confederate bushwhackers.

President George W. Bush, who said last week that Walker faces a "grim future," seems in no rush to make a decision. (The president's father took a hard line. "Make him leave his hair the way it is and his face as dirty as it is," George H. W. Bush mused in an ABC interview, "and let him go wandering around this country and see what kind of sympathy he would get.") Administration sources tell NEWSWEEK that officials may want to delay charging Walker if he has information that could help prosecute Qaeda leaders, or even bin Laden. For now, at sea and beyond his lawyer's reach, the American Taliban may be more useful as a witness than as a defendant.