The California man who became known as the “American Taliban“ after his battlefield capture in Afghanistan in 2001 was freed early from his federal sentence on Thursday, despite official concerns that he retains a radical ideology and still poses a risk to U.S. interests.
John Walker Lindh, now 38, was released Thursday from the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, under a series of post-release restrictions recently imposed by a federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia. He served more than 17 years after pleading guilty to providing support to the Taliban. The plea deal called for a 20-year sentence, but Lindh got out early for good behavior.
His early release was opposed by the family of Mike Spann, who was killed during an uprising of Taliban prisoners shortly after interrogating Lindh in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it “unexplainable and unconscionable“ in a Fox and Friends interview, and called for a review of the prison system’s early release policies.
Concerns that Lindh still harbors radical ideology prompted a judge to impose additional restrictions on Lindh’s post-release supervision. Lindh eventually acquiesced to the restrictions, which include monitoring software on his internet devices; requiring that his online communications be conducted in English and that he undergo mental health counseling; and forbidding him from possessing or viewing extremist material, holding a passport of any kind or leaving the U.S.
Probation officers never explained why they sought the restrictions but it is clear that authorities retain misgivings about Lindh. In 2017, Foreign Policy magazine cited a National Counterterrorism Center report that Lindh “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.“
On Wednesday, NBC reported that Lindh, in a letter to a producer from Los Angeles-based affiliate KNBC, wrote in 2015 that the Islamic State is “doing a spectacular job“ and “is clearly very sincere and serious about fulfilling the long-neglected religious obligation to establish a caliphate through armed struggle.“
Lindh converted to Islam as a teenager after seeing the film “Malcolm X,“ and went overseas to study Arabic and the Quran. In November 2000, he went to Pakistan and from there made his way to Afghanistan and joined the Taliban. He met Osama bin Laden and was with the Taliban on Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Lindh was captured in a battle with U.S.-allied Northern Alliance fighters in late 2001. He was present when a group of Taliban prisoners launched an attack that killed Spann.
Alison Spann, now a journalist in Alabama, posted a letter on her Twitter page that she said she had sent to President Donald Trump. In it, she called Lindh’s early release “a slap in the face“ to everyone killed on Sept. 11, 2001 and since then in the terror wars, all their loved ones, and “to the millions of Muslims worldwide who don’t support radical extremists.“
Lindh was initially charged with conspiring to kill Spann as well as providing support to terrorists. He denied any role in Spann’s death, and eventually pleaded guilty to illegally providing support to the Taliban. He ultimately served 17 years and five months, including the two months he spent in military detention. Federal inmates who exhibit good behavior typically serve 85 percent of their sentence.
Mike Spann’s mother, Gail Spann, once said that Lindh could have saved her son’s life had he warned him about the looming prisoner revolt, but “chose not to because he was a Taliban.“
“He’s a traitor to our country. He could have had an opportunity to save a great man that actually saved a lot of lives that day,“ she said.
Republican Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby and Democratic New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan also expressed concern, in a letter last week to the Bureau of Prisons.
“We must consider the security and safety implications for our citizens and communities who will receive individuals like John Walker Lindh who continue to openly call for extremist violence,“ they wrote.
The bureau defended itself Thursday in a statement that said Lindh’s release followed federal laws and guidelines. It said the bureau doesn’t discuss specific inmate release plans. But in general, it said the bureau works closely with outside agencies “to reduce the risk terrorist offenders pose inside and outside of prisons,“ and said that no radicalized inmate has returned to federal prison for terrorism-related charges.
Barakat reported from Falls Church, Va. Contributors include Associated Press writers Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, and Kimberly Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama.