John Walker Lindh was born in 1981 in Washington, DC. and moved to California when he was 10. Though raised Roman Catholic, he saw the film Malcolm X when he was 12 and was moved by its depiction of Muslim pilgrims in Mecca. John began to explore Islam and, four years later, converted. As described by his father, Lindh’s conversion seemed a natural segue for his intelligent, curious son: “[Islam] appealed to his intellect as well as his heart. To me and to John’s mother, his conversion was a positive development and certainly not a source of worry.”
Determined to pursue an education in Arabic and Islamic study, Lindh traveled to Yemen in 1998 at age 17. He returned home briefly in 1999, and then returned to Yemen and then Pakistan to continue his study. Sometime after April 2001, he traveled into Afghanistan and volunteered with the Afghan Army to fight against Northern Alliance warlords who, according to the US State Department’s own annual human rights reports in the 1990s, were committing brutal human rights atrocities across northern Afghanistan.
In late November 2001, Lindh was captured by the Northern Alliance and photos of John, blindfolded, handcuffed, tied down and naked, were splashed across CNN, Time magazine, and television sets with the headline “The American Taliban.” President Bush, and other US officials repeatedly referring to him as an “Al Qaeda fighter,” a terrorist and a traitor. In the weeks that followed, Donald Rumsfeld ordered the military to “take the gloves off” in questioning Lindh, and he suffered abuse from the US Army and was interrogated by the FBI without a lawyer present. His trial on 10 charges carrying the possibility of multiple life sentences was set to coincide with the one-year anniversary of 9/11.
Lindh agreed to a plea agreement which acknowledged that he had served as a solider in Afghanistan, in violation of the US’ anti-Taliban sanctions and a weapons charge—that he had carried a rifle and two grenades in the Afghan Army—which was used to enhance his sentence. All other counts were dropped by the government in exchange for dropping any claims and accepting a gag order about his torture. He received a 20 year sentence. In his sentencing speech, Lindh noted, “I went to Afghanistan with the intention of fighting against terrorism and oppression….I have never supported terrorism in any form and never would.”
Lindh is currently held at the CMU in Terre Haute and has filed suit with other men there that the conditions violate their religious freedoms.