The Atlantic

He Was Branded the ‘American Taliban.’ Now He’s Getting Out of Jail.

John Walker Lindh was the first American to face charges related to the War on Terror. Dozens have followed.
Source: Tariq Mahmood / AFP / Getty / The Atlantic

John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” is leaving prison. When the young Californian began serving his sentence for the crime of supporting the group—nearly two decades ago—he was 21, and America was fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of the post-9/11 War on Terror. Now, the United States is holding negotiations with the group to try to get troops out of the country, and has even considered paying Taliban emissaries’ expenses to get to peace talks.

Lindh’s incarceration has spanned nearly the entirety of America’s post-9/11 wars. Early on, many Americans saw him as the face of terror, even though he was never convicted of plotting attacks against them. He had joined the Taliban in the summer of 2001, months before the U.S. was at war with the group, to help it fight in its own civil war. He had stayed with the group after 9/11, and had been present at a prisoner uprising that killed the 32-year-old CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, the first American to die in the new war. By then, George W. Bush had declared that the U.S. would make no distinction between al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s international terrorist network that had perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, and the Taliban, the Islamist fundamentalist government in Afghanistan that had sheltered al-Qaeda while it plotted. Americans were shocked to see one of their own on the other side.

The frenzy of Lindh’s notoriety—such as when his filthy and bearded face appeared on the of in 2001—has long since faded, especially after the homegrown attacks of the past two decades. If anything, he seems a relic of an earlier time, when Afghanistan still dominated front pages and the Iraq War and the rise of ISIS were in the future. But the case of Lindh, who became the first American detainee to be brought home and tried in the War on Terror, has foreshadowed two of today’s most urgent problems in the ongoing counterterrorism struggle. For one thing, the idea of a young, financially comfortable American converting to Islam and leaving home to fight alongside a militant fundamentalist group,

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