John Walker Lindh: Parents of American Taliban Tell Their Son's Story

By Democracy Now · 5 Aug 2009

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Picture: Democracy Now & Ladybugbkt
Picture: Democracy Now & Ladybugbkt

In their first extended interview, the parents of John Walker Lindh, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, join Democracy Now to tell their son’s story.

Lindh was born in Washington, DC in 1981. At the age of sixteen, he converted to Islam. In 1999, Lindh left the United States for Yemen to study Arabic and the Koran. He later traveled to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan, before 9/11, where he received military training from the US-backed, Taliban-run Afghan Army to fight against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan’s civil war. He was captured in late 2001, found emaciated and wounded, one of the few to survive a massacre by the Northern Alliance. To his parents’ relief, he was handed to US forces, but they brutalized him, as well. Donald Rumsfeld had ordered them to "take the gloves off." He was designated Detainee 001 in the war on terror. When he returned to the United States in January 2002, he was being held as a prisoner accused of conspiring to kill Americans. As part of a plea deal, Lindh pleaded guilty to serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons and was given a twenty-year sentence.


JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to a Democracy Now! exclusive. For the first time in over seven years, the parents of John Walker Lindh have agreed to sit down together for an extended interview to discuss their son, who is known by many as the American Taliban. 

The basic outline of John Walker Lindh’s story may be familiar to many listeners and viewers. He was born in Washington, DC in 1981 and later moved with his family to Marin County outside San Francisco. At the age of sixteen, he converted to Islam. In 1999, Lindh left the United States for Yemen to study Arabic and the Koran. He later traveled to Pakistan and then Afghanistan, where he received military training from the Taliban-run Afghan army to fight against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan’s civil war. 

When he returned to the United States in January 2002, John Walker Lindh was being held as a prisoner accused of conspiring to kill Americans. Newspapers around the world published photos of him naked, blindfolded and strapped to a gurney. 

On January 15, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced charges were being filed against him.

JOHN ASHCROFT: In a complaint filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, the United States is charging Walker with the following crimes: one, conspiracy to kill nationals of the United States of America overseas; two, providing material support and resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda; and three, engaging in prohibited transactions with the Taliban. If convicted of these charges, Walker could receive life imprisonment.

AMY GOODMAN: At the time, John Walker Lindh was twenty years old. Days after Ashcroft’s press conference, Lindh was allowed to briefly see his parents. His father Frank spoke to the media soon after.

FRANK LINDH: John loves America. We love America. John did not do anything against America. John did not take up arms against America. He never meant to harm any American, and he never did harm any American. John is innocent of these charges.

AMY GOODMAN: While John Walker Lindh was constantly being referred to as the American Taliban and as a traitor in the US media, the government’s case against him largely fell apart. 

As part of a plea deal, the Bush administration eventually dropped all the terrorism-related charges and the charge that he had conspired to kill Americans. In exchange, John Walker Lindh pleaded guilty to serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons. He was given a twenty-year sentence and agreed not to talk about what had happened for the duration of his sentence and agreed to drop any claims that he had been tortured by the US military. 

JUAN GONZALEZ: Since his sentence began, Lindh has never given an interview from prison. His parents, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, have also avoided most interview requests over the past seven years, but they have been quietly campaigning for their son to be released from jail. 

Today, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh join us in the firehouse studio for the hour. 

Welcome to Democracy Now! 

FRANK LINDH: Thank you. Good morning. 

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you both with us. Why don’t you start out where we did—where John was born, how he decided to convert to Islam? Talk about his early years. Why don’t we begin with Marilyn? 

MARILYN WALKER: His early years. Well, John was a quiet, shy boy, and playful and with a very—had a great sense of humor. And— 

JUAN GONZALEZ: He was one of three children? 

MARILYN WALKER: One of three. He was my middle - middle son. 

JUAN GONZALEZ: And then in - and you grew up in Marin - and he grew up in Marin County? 

MARILYN WALKER: Well, he actually - his early years were in the suburban DC area. And when we moved here, he was eleven. He had just turned - was he eleven or ten? 

FRANK LINDH: Ten, when we moved to Marin, yeah. 

MARILYN WALKER: Ten. He just turned ten, yeah. 

AMY GOODMAN: He was home-schooled for a while through the system, because he wasn’t - he was physically not well? 

MARILYN WALKER: Right. Well, you know, he went to public school, and in ’92, I believe it was, he came down with some kind of intestinal condition, which kept him out of school, for the most part, for the next three, four years, which then he was home-schooled through the district. 

AMY GOODMAN: And when did he decide to convert to Islam? 

MARILYN WALKER: You know, in terms of when he decided, I’m not quite sure. The formal conversion was when he was sixteen. But he was inspired by a film, Spike Lee’s film of Malcolm X, and the scene where the Hajj takes place. And he was really impressed with seeing these, you know, millions of people, all colors, all races, and that really moved him. 

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Frank Lindh, your reaction when you heard he was converting to Islam and wanted to go to the Middle East to study? 

FRANK LINDH: Well, Juan, it sort of happened one thing at a time. He did convert, and Marilyn and I learned about it, actually, after the fact. But he went to a local mosque in Mill Valley, California and converted, went through this conversion ceremony, and then we found out later. 

John was raised Catholic. I’m a Catholic, Roman Catholic, so it was certainly different. But we always, I think, had a feeling that it was a good thing for John. We respect Islam and so forth, so we’ve always supported his pursuit of Islam. He’s a very spiritual person. And so, he did - yes, he converted when he was sixteen. It was about a year later that he made his decision to go to the Middle East to study Arabic, to learn to speak Arabic. 

AMY GOODMAN: Why Yemen? 

FRANK LINDH: Well, Yemen is - John did his research, and he convinced us that Yemen is really the best place to go to learn classical Arabic, kind of without a lot of modern vernacular, the traditional Arabic of the Koran. He was convinced, and we believed - still do - that that was the best place to go to learn Arabic. And he did, in fact, become fluent in Arabic. 

AMY GOODMAN: So he went to Yemen - 


AMY GOODMAN:  - came back home for a number of months. 

FRANK LINDH: He went, and his visa expired, student visa, so he came home for a few months. And then, in early 2000, we all took him to the airport in San Francisco, and he went back again. 

AMY GOODMAN: It was hard, Marilyn, for your kids, especially for your daughter, to let her older brother go. 

MARILYN WALKER: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it was - yeah, it was really traumatic for her, because John and Naomi are really very close. John took Naomi under his wing, you know, almost from the moment she was born. And so, you know, it was hard having him that far away. 

JUAN GONZALEZ: So then he returned to Yemen, and you thought he was still in Yemen. When did you discover that he had - 

FRANK LINDH: No, no, not exactly, Juan. He was in regular contact with us by email. He would go to internet cafes, and periodically he’s write to me, to Marilyn, to his sister, and so forth. And then, in November of 2000, he asked me for my permission for him to go to Pakistan to study the Koran itself. There’s a Koran memorization tradition in Pakistan. They have schools, these madrasas, that have specialized in that for several hundred years to memorize, literally, the Koran, and this is the goal of every educated Muslim. So I said, “Alright, you can go with my blessing, John.” So, from Yemen, then he went to Pakistan and enrolled in a Koran memorization school in Pakistan. 

AMY GOODMAN: So he’s in a madrasa in Pakistan - 

FRANK LINDH: Beginning, yeah, in November 2000. 

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is before 9/11. 

FRANK LINDH: Oh, long before 9/11. President Clinton was still the president at that time. 

And then, in the spring of 2001, he made a decision that he didn’t actually share with us, to go into Afghanistan to try to help defend—what he thought was doing was defending civilians in Afghanistan who were under attack by the Northern Alliance warlords, who were backed not by the United States, but by the Russians and the Iranians, and they were, in fact, committing atrocities against civilians. So John told me and his mom, with emails, “I’m going up to the mountains for the summer.” This was in late April of 2001. But what he didn’t tell us, the full truth was he intended to go over the mountains and into Afghanistan and spend the summer there. 

JUAN GONZALEZ: And at that time, the new Bush administration was providing some degree of support for the Taliban, wasn’t it? 

FRANK LINDH: Yeah, I think fair to say, Juan, more than “some degree.” We were the largest single donor of money to the Afghan government. In the first few months of the Bush administration in early 2001, we contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Taliban government. Our government did. And these were—this was all public. Secretary of State Colin Powell in April, around the same time John went, had a press conference and a public announcement about a grant of $46 million to the Taliban government. But that was just one of several grants that we made during that time. 

AMY GOODMAN: So John Walker Lindh went to fight alongside the US-backed Taliban forces against the army of the Northern Alliance, which was run by General Dostum, who has now become the chief secretary - chief security aide to President Hamid Karzai. But very - 

FRANK LINDH: Well, that’s a lot of - yes, but, I mean, I think we all agree that John didn’t do the right thing. I mean, it was a mistake - I think a mistake for him to go and get involved in another country’s civil war. I mean, if he had consulted with me, I would have said, “No, John. Stay away from that.” But he did, yes. He didn’t go and fight against America. He went and aligned himself with the side that we were, and had been, supporting in that civil war. 

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to break for a minute, and then we’re going to come back, let people digest that part of the history, because I think even that is not very well known, particularly the part that John Walker Lindh went to Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. We’re speaking with John Walker Lindh’s parents, Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker, for the hour. Stay with us. 


AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle singing “John Walker Lindh.” Steve Earle sang this in our firehouse studio. 

And if you’d like to see the photographs of John Walker Lindh and his family, you can go to also our website at, where the video and the audio podcasts will be and the full transcript of today’s broadcast. […] 

Our guests for the hour, in their first extended interview on television, Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker, the parents of John Walker Lindh, who’s in prison for twenty years. He’s in Terre Haute. But we’ll get to that. Juan? 

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, before the break, you were telling us that you - in the spring of 2001, you had heard from him that he was going to the mountains. When was the next time you heard from him? 

FRANK LINDH: He had said he was going to the mountains of Pakistan to get away from the heat in the city where he was. We literally didn’t hear anything again from John for seven months. We had no further contact through the summer and the fall, and it was only after he was apprehended by US forces at this Qala-e-Jangi fortress that we learned that he had in fact gone to Afghanistan and then survived a whole series of ordeals. 

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play an excerpt from the documentary Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death. It was produced by Jamie Doran. It begins with the battle of Qala-e-Jangi in late November 2001 that John Walker Lindh survived.

JAMIE DORAN: Qala-e-Jangi, a giant mud-brick fort on the outskirts of Mazar, which Dostum made his military headquarters after capturing the city. A section of the main building was made available to American Special Forces and CIA personnel, who had arrived to interrogate the prisoners.

The Taliban were housed in this block before being taken out, one by one, and made to sit in long lines across the fort interior, their arms tied behind their backs. Chechens, Arabs, Pakistanis and Uzbeks. Only a few were Afghans. Amongst the prisoners was John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, who attempted to conceal his identity from two CIA officers.

CIA OFFICER: The problem is, he needs to decide if he wants to live or die. He can die here. I mean, if he don’t want to die here, he’s going to die here, because we’re just going to leave him, and he’s going to stay in prison for the rest of his life. Short life. It’s his decision. We can only help those guys who want to talk to us. We can only get the Red Cross to help so many guys. If they don’t want to talk to us, we can’t.

JAMIE DORAN: Just an hour or so after these pictures were taken, one of them, Mike Spann, would be dead, following an uprising amongst the prisoners.

NORTHERN ALLIANCE SOLDIER: [translated] At one point, two of them broke out. They grabbed a weapon from a guard and killed one of our soldiers. Then they grabbed grenades and threw them, killing many more. We’re going to hit them hard. We won’t let them survive. They are surrounded by us. There’s only one way left for them: fight or be killed.

JAMIE DORAN: Up to this point, the British had denied that their Special Forces were operating inside Afghanistan. But the SAS and the SBS can clearly be seen leading the attack, while US Air Force personnel call in plane strikes.

By the morning of the third day of fighting, every Taliban on the surface of the fort had been killed, many still with their arms tied behind their backs.

SIMON BROOKS: I mean, you can see it&r

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