John Walker Lindh, the first person to be convicted of a crime in the “War on Terror,” left prison a free man Thursday after 17 years behind bars, his lawyer confirmed.
The Northern California native was captured months into the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a war that has now lasted longer than his incarceration. The revelation that a young American had joined the group that harbored the 9/11 terrorists was a national shock.
Lindh pleaded guilty in 2002 to aiding the Taliban and carrying weapons. Prosecutors were unable to prove, however, that he went beyond fighting the Taliban’s Afghan enemies by aiding terrorists or trying to kill Americans.
“I did not go to fight against America, and I never did,” Lindh told U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III in Alexandria at the time. “I have never supported terrorism in any form, and I never will. . . . I made a mistake by joining the Taliban. Had I realized then what I know now, I would never have joined them.”
Lindh’s plea agreement capped his sentence at 20 years; he was released early for good behavior. Although that credit is built into the law for all federal prisoners, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) has called for Lindh to be kept in prison and said he had President Trump’s support.
The family of CIA operative Johnny “Mike” Spann, who was killed in a riot at the Afghan prison where Lindh was held, has been vocal in denouncing his release, although prosecutors and Ellis have said there was no evidence Lindh was involved in Spann’s death.
In a letter to the court Monday, Spann’s father asked Ellis to investigate a 2016 intelligence report that, according to the publication Foreign Policy, said Lindh has “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.”
NBC News on Wednesday reported that Lindh had written to a network affiliate in 2015 and said he believed the Islamic State was “doing a spectacular job.” The report said Lindh sent three letters to the station and in one said the terrorist group was “very sincere and serious about fulfilling the long-neglected religious obligation to establish a caliphate through armed struggle, which is the only correct method.”
Lindh has served his time in a unit of Terre Haute Federal Correctional Institution in Indiana, where interactions are highly restricted and monitored.
Officials would not say what time of day he would be released. The morning release was first reported by CNN.
“For safety, security and privacy reasons, we do not comment on individual release plans,” a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons said. “Mr. Lindh is being released in accordance with applicable statutes and BOP regulations.”
In prison, he has remained religiously doctrinaire. Going by Yayyah Lindh, he successfully challenged a policy of strip-searching detainees in his unit before visits, because in Islam “a male person is prohibited from exposing the area of his body between the navel and the knees.”
He also won the right in court to cuff his pants above the ankles and participate in daily group prayer.
“This is mandatory and not optional,” he wrote in a 2009 letter to the prison authorities of his religious obligations.
Lindh now must serve three years of supervised release, during which he cannot hold a passport, use the Internet without monitoring, view extremist or terroristic material, communicate with known extremists or converse online in any language other than English without prior approval. He must undergo mental health treatment.
He initially opposed the imposition of those conditions but ultimately acquiesced without a challenge. They were requested by his probation officer, according to an order from Ellis, “given the rare nature of the defendant’s crime and his unique personal history and characteristics.”
Lindh’s family and attorneys declined to comment. But in a question-and-answer session after the guilty plea, defense attorney Tony West said Lindh wanted to get a college degree and doctorate.
West also said prosecutors initially wanted to bar Lindh from ever leaving the country again. Lindh refused to sign any agreement that prevented him from making a pilgrimage to Mecca.
“I would hope that he would make a good transition,” Paul McNulty, former U.S. attorney, said in advance of Lindh’s release, adding that it was understood at the time of the plea that the Taliban supporter would qualify for early release on good behavior. He said the Justice Department was “confident” in its initial, stronger charges against Lindh but thought the plea agreement was “a fair and just resolution of the case.”
Lindh’s attorney, William Cummings, said Lindh must reside in the Eastern District of Virginia to comply with probation. He said Lindh aims to lie low and keep out of trouble; his family has been concerned about death threats.
Lindh, 21 at the time of his arrest, was raised outside San Francisco by a Catholic father and Buddhist mother. He converted to Islam as a teenager after reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and went to the Middle East to study Arabic and religion.
He became increasingly fundamentalist in his views. Living in Pakistan, he wrote his family, “really makes me look upon American society with pity.” At a madrassa there, he later told CNN, his “heart became attached” to the Taliban. He joined the group in Afghanistan, committing to the fight against the Northern Alliance for a “pure Islamic state.”
He trained at an al-Qaeda camp where he met Osama bin Laden, but he told the FBI he declined to join the group or participate in attacks on the United States and Israel. His jihad, he said, was in Afghanistan.
“Bin Laden’s terrorist attacks are completely against Islam,” he said at his sentencing, “completely contrary to the conventions of jihad and without any justification whatsoever. . . . Terrorism is never justified and has proved extremely damaging to Muslims around the world.”
This is a developing story.
Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.