My son, the 'American Taleban', is innocent

By mid-December in 2001, broadcast media in the United States were saturated with features and commentary about John Lindh. Photo / AP
By mid-December in 2001, broadcast media in the United States were saturated with features and commentary about John Lindh. Photo / AP

John Phillip Walker Lindh, my son, was raised a Roman Catholic, but converted to Islam when he was 16 years old. He has an older brother and a younger sister. John is scholarly and devout, devoted to his family, and blessed with a powerful intellect, a curious mind, and a wry sense of humour.

Labelled by the American Government as "Detainee 001" in the "war on terror", John occupies a prison cell in Terre Haute, Indiana. He has been a prisoner of the American Government since December 1, 2001, less than three months after the terror attacks of 9/11.

John is entirely innocent of any involvement in the terror attacks, or any allegiance to terrorism. That is not disputed by the American Government. Indeed, all accusations of terrorism against John were dropped by the Government in a plea bargain, which in turn was approved by the United States district court in which the case was brought.

Despite its proud history as a stable constitutional democracy, the US has, for 10 years, been affected by post-traumatic shock after the horrific events of September 11, 2001. I can find no other explanation for the barbaric mistreatment and continued detention of a gentle young man like John Lindh.

John is blessed with a calm and curious nature. As a child, he was more sceptical than our other two children about such things as Santa Claus.

When he was 12 years old, he saw the film Malcolm X, and was moved by its depiction of the pilgrims in Mecca. He began to explore Islam and, four years later, decided to convert.

What attracted John to Islam, I think, was the simplicity of its beliefs, and the authenticity of its source documents - the Koran and Hadith. It 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. I once told him I felt he had always been a Muslim, and only needed to find Islam in order to discover this in himself. He remained the loving son and brother he had always been. There was never a breach of any kind between us.

John had always been a good student, but his study habits improved after his conversion. He immersed himself in Islamic literature, and quickly came to the conclusion that he needed to learn Arabic in order to continue his studies.

In 1998, at the age of 17, John left home in California and travelled to Sana'a, the ancient capital of Yemen, where he embarked on a rigorous course of study. He was determined not only to become fluent in Arabic, but also to pursue an education in the old traditions of Islam. He returned home briefly in 1999, and then returned to Yemen in February 2000, just before his 19th birthday. John's mother and I supported him, emotionally and financially.

In September 2000, John told me he intended to continue his studies in Pakistan, focusing on Arabic grammar and Koran memorisation. He arrived in Pakistan in November 2000 and enrolled in a Koran memorisation programme in a madrasa.

John's letters home showed passionate enthusiasm for both Yemen and Pakistan. He loved the cultures he discovered in both countries. He was a Muslim in a Muslim world.

In late April 2001, John wrote to me and his mother, saying he planned to go into the mountains to escape the oppressive summer heat. We had no further contact from him for seven months. Unbeknown to us, he crossed the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, with the intent of volunteering for service in the Afghan army under the control of the Taleban Government.

At that time, the Taleban governed most of Afghanistan, and were engaged in a long-running civil war against a Russian-backed insurgency known euphemistically as the Northern Alliance. John was quickly accepted as a volunteer soldier, and received two months of infantry training in a Taleban military camp before being dispatched to the front lines.

To the western world, and to me as John's father after I learned where he had been, this was misplaced idealism. John's decision to volunteer for the Afghanistan army under the control of the Taleban was rash, and failed to take into account the Taleban's mistreatment of its own citizens.

But his assessment of the Northern Alliance warlords was neither exaggerated nor inaccurate. The brutal human rights violations committed by the Northern Alliance were thoroughly documented in the US Department of State's annual human rights reports throughout the 90s. They include massacres, rape (of both women and children), torture and castration.

From the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979, tens of thousands of young Muslim men from all over the world had volunteered, as John did, for military service in Afghanistan. It was comparable to the influx of young volunteer soldiers in support of the republic of Spain during the Spanish civil war.

These young soldiers performed heroically in the defeat of the Soviet Union. Their cause was openly supported by the American Government itself, particularly during the Administration of President Ronald Reagan, who took office two weeks before John's birth in early 1981.

In March 1982, President Reagan declared: "Every country and every people has a stake in the Afghan resistance, for the freedom fighters of Afghanistan are defending principles of independence and freedom that form the basis of global security and stability." In March 1983, he cited "the Afghan freedom fighters" as "an example to all the world of the invincibility of the ideals we in this country hold most dear, the ideals of freedom and independence".

In a March 1985 speech, he said: "They are our brothers, these freedom fighters, and we owe them our help ... They are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French resistance. We cannot turn away from them."

John's concern about the suffering of people in Afghanistan was shared by his own Government. On July 21, 2000, for example, the US Department of State issued a "fact sheet" that reported that the US was "the largest single donor of humanitarian aid to the Afghan people".

The US also provided substantial economic assistance directly to the Taleban Government. In May 2001, for example, the American Government under President George W. Bush announced a grant of US$43 million to the Taleban Government for opium eradication. Secretary of State Colin Powell personally announced the grant himself in a press release and pledged: "We will continue to look for ways to provide more assistance to the Afghans."

This is not to suggest the US was entirely friendly with the Taleban. In 1999, President Clinton placed the Taleban Government under economic sanctions as a consequence of its human rights violations, particularly against women. But there were no hostilities between the US and the Taleban, and by 2001 relations were improving.

But after 9/11, 30 years of American policy abruptly changed and America swung to the opposite side.

The Taleban became our enemy. "They have always been our enemy" is what people in America came to believe.

In October 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan and aligned itself with the Northern Alliance in order to oust the Taleban Government. Colin Powell's April press release was quietly removed from the state department's website.

In early September 2001, days before the 9/11 attacks, John arrived at his military post in the province of Takhar in the far northeastern corner of Afghanistan, near the border of Tajikistan. This was the frontline in the civil war between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance. John was issued with a rifle and two hand grenades - standard issue for an infantry soldier. He performed sentry duty and did some cooking for the Taleban troops. He never used his weapons. He served with several other foreign volunteer soldiers. They were called Ansar, an Arabic term meaning "helpers".

The training camp in Afghanistan where the Ansar received their infantry training was funded by Osama bin Laden, who also visited the camp on a regular basis. He was regarded by the volunteer soldiers as a hero in the struggle against the Soviet Union.

These soldiers did not suspect Bin Laden's involvement in planning the 9/11 attacks, which were carried out in secret. John himself sat through speeches by Bin Laden in the camp on two occasions, and actually met Bin Laden on the second such occasion. John has said he found him unimpressive.

The American invasion of Afghanistan began in October 2001. Few American troops were deployed in the northern reaches of Afghanistan. The Americans relied on Northern Alliance forces as their proxy, combined with aerial bombing, to displace the Taleban forces.

The front between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance in Takhar where John was stationed quickly dissolved after the bombing commenced. Taleban troops fled in panicked retreat to Kunduz. They marched without stop for two days, covering a distance of 80km of harsh, desert terrain.

The Northern Alliance troops killed all stragglers who fell behind, often castrating them before killing them.

The soldiers at Kunduz who wished to surrender faced a terrible dilemma.

For years it had been the practice of the Northern Alliance to torture and murder prisoners of war. These crimes were legendary and well known to both the Taleban soldiers and the US Government.

John's lawyers later obtained from the American Government an unclassified cable sent from the US embassy in Kunduz on November 20, 2001, to Colin Powell and the joint chiefs of staff. The cable was labelled "priority". It bore the subject line: "Kunduz representatives appeal for a bombing halt during surrender negotiations." It said that, according to local authorities in Kunduz, Taleban soldiers trapped in Kunduz "wanted to surrender to someone who would not kill them". This was described as a "sticking point" in the surrender negotiations. The Taleban, according to the cable, had "proposed surrendering to the US or the UN". The cable confirmed that the American authorities had informed their counterparts in Kunduz that "neither was a realistic option and suggested that they seek the [Red Cross'] involvement if they had not done so already".

On November 21, 2001, the regional Taleban military leader, Mullah Fazel Mazloom, entered into face-to-face surrender negotiations with General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance. The pact was destined not to end well. Dostum was a notorious figure who had served as an officer in the Soviet occupation Government. Troops under Dostum's command were believed responsible for the mass execution of an alleged 2000 Taleban prisoners captured near Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997.

Nonetheless, a bargain was reached in which Dostum demanded and received a large cash payment, then agreed to grant about 400 disarmed Taleban soldiers safe passage through Dostum-controlled territory to the city of Herat. John, in haggard condition after the march through Takhar, was among those 400 troops.

The Taleban soldiers had no sooner laid down their arms when Dostum breached the agreement, loading the soldiers into trucks and taking them to the ancient Qala-i-Jangi fortress on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif.

As the prisoners were being unloaded in the courtyard, John heard a loud explosion when one of the prisoners detonated a grenade that he had concealed. Two of Dostum's men were killed in the blast.

Dostum's soldiers quickly regained control, but they were infuriated.

The prisoners were crowded into the basement of a sturdy, pink Soviet-built classroom building next to a horse pasture. The "pink building", as it became known, was at the centre of the events that unfolded over the next seven days. It was dark in the basement rooms into which the 400 men were crowded. To retaliate for the earlier attack, Dostum's men dropped a grenade down an air duct that wounded or killed several prisoners, narrowly missing John, who spent the night crouched in a corner unable to sleep.

The next morning, Sunday, November 25, was sunny and warm at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress. Video footage shows a seemingly calm scene as the prisoners, with arms tied behind backs, are led out of the basement and made to kneel in rows in the horse pasture beside the pink building. The main sound on the film is the chirping of hundreds of birds. Dostum's men were rough. Some prisoners were kicked and beaten with sticks. John was hit in the back of the head and nearly knocked unconscious. Nonetheless, he hoped they would be released for the agreed upon journey to Herat.

Although there were no US or British troops at the fortress that morning, two American intelligence agents were present, dressed in civilian clothes. They circulated among the prisoners, occasionally giving instructions to Dostum's guards. One of them, Dave Tyson, was dressed in a long Afghan shirt and carried a large gun and a video camera. The other, Johnny "Mike" Spann, a former marine, was dressed in a black shirt and jeans. He was also armed. As they moved among the prisoners, they singled out captives for interrogation. They never identified themselves as American agents, and so they appeared to John and the other prisoners to be mercenaries working directly for General Dostum.

John was spotted and removed from the body of prisoners for questioning.

The moment was recorded on video and later seen by millions on television.

In the video, John sits mutely on the ground as he is questioned about his nationality.

"Irish? Ireland?" Spann asks.

John remains silent.

"Who brought you here? ... You believe in what you are doing that much, you're willing to be killed here?"

Still no reply.

Tyson to Spann [for John's benefit]: "The problem is, he's got to decide if he wants to live or die, and die here. We're just going to leave him, and he's going to [expletive] sit in prison the rest of his [expletive] short life. It's his decision, man. We can only help the guys who want to talk to us. We can only get the Red Cross to help so many guys."

John was then returned to the main body of prisoners, while others were still being brought out of the basement and forced to kneel in the horse pasture. Then, suddenly, there was an explosion at the entrance to the basement, shouts were heard, and two prisoners grabbed the guards' weapons.

According to Guardian journalist Luke Harding's account: "It was then ... that Spann did a Rambo. As the remaining guards ran away, Spann flung himself to the ground and began raking the courtyard and its prisoners with automatic fire. Five or six prisoners jumped on him, and he disappeared beneath a heap of bodies."

Spann's body was later recovered by US special forces troops. He was the first American to die in combat in the American-Afghan war. He was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.

As soon as the uprising began, the Northern Alliance guards turned their weapons on the 400 bound prisoners, killing or severely wounding scores of them. Some prisoners tried to stand and run; they were gunned down. It was a slaughter. John tried to run, but he was shot in the right thigh and fell to the ground. For the next 12 hours he lay motionless, pretending to be dead.

There were two groups of Taleban prisoners in the fortress: those who chose to fight and those who hunkered down in the basement of the pink building and tried to survive. John was in the latter group. The prisoners who fought put up a fierce resistance, looting buildings for weapons and ammunition, firing from windows, rooftops, and ditches. Using a satellite phone, Dave Tyson, who had just seen his colleague killed, telephoned the US embassy in Tashkent, shouting: "We have lost control. Send in helicopters and troops." US air controllers stationed outside the fortress walls called in air strikes, which struck with devastating impact inside the fortress.

More air raids were staged the next day, Monday, when a huge 900kg bomb was dropped. It missed its intended target, the pink building, and hit Dostum's soldiers. This "friendly fire" incident brought an end to the air strikes.

By Wednesday, the last of the resisting Taleban fighters had been killed, and Dostum's soldiers were once again in full control of the fortress. Luke Harding was allowed into the compound with some other journalists, and he found a horrific scene: "We had expected slaughter, but I was unprepared for its hellish scale ... It was hard to take it all in."

On Wednesday and Thursday, Dostum's troops engaged in a sustained effort to kill the Taleban survivors who remained in the basement of the pink building, which they were afraid to enter themselves. More grenades were dropped down the air ducts and RPGs were fired directly into the basement.

John received shrapnel wounds in his shoulder, back, ankle and calf, in addition to the bullet still lodged in his thigh. At one point, fuel was poured down the air ducts and a fire was ignited in which some fuel-drenched prisoners were burned to death. John, choking on the black smoke, lost consciousness. He awoke with the taste of petrol in his mouth and loud explosions in the hall, as more rockets and grenades ricocheted through the basement.

On Friday, Dostum's troops tried yet another tactic. They flooded the basement with cold water. Unable to stand on his own, John braced himself on a stick and a fellow soldier for the next 24 hours to avoid drowning in the waist-deep water, which was full of blood and waste.

On Saturday, December 1, the Red Cross arrived at the fortress and the 86 Taleban who had survived the week-long ordeal, who for several days had been trying to surrender, were finally allowed to exit the basement. When they emerged into the bright sunlight, they encountered a confusing horde of journalists, Red Cross workers, Dostum's soldiers, and British and American troops.

That evening John and the other survivors were taken to a prison hospital in Sheberghan, where John was carried on a stretcher and set down in a small room with about 15 other prisoners.

CNN correspondent Robert Pelton came in with a US special forces soldier and a cameraman. Despite John's protests, Pelton persisted in filming John and asking questions as an American medical officer administered morphine intravenously.

By the time he left soon after, Pelton had captured on videotape an interview in which John said that his "heart had become attached" to the Taleban, that every Muslim aspired to become a shahid, or martyr, and that he had attended a training camp funded by Osama bin Laden.

The CNN interview became a sensation in the US.

By mid-December, virtually every newspaper in America was running front-page stories about the American Taleban, and the broadcast media were saturated with features and commentary about John. Here was a "traitor" who had "fought against America" and aligned himself with the September 11 terrorists.

Beginning in early December, President Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, members of the Cabinet and other officials then embarked on a series of truly extraordinary public statements about John, referring to him repeatedly as an "al-Qaeda fighter", a terrorist and a traitor. I think it fair to say there has never been a case quite like this in the history of the US, in which officials at the highest levels of the Government made such prejudicial statements about an individual citizen who had not yet been charged with any crime.

John endured abuse from the US military that exceeded the bounds of what any civilised nation should tolerate, even in time of war. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld directly ordered the military to "take the gloves off" in questioning John.

After being flown to Camp Rhino, a US marine base about 110km south of Kandahar, he was taunted and threatened, stripped of his clothing, and bound naked to a stretcher with duct tape wrapped around his chest, arms, and ankles. John's wrists and ankles were bound with plastic restraints that caused severe pain and left permanent scars - sure proof of torture.

Blindfolded, he was locked in an unheated metal shipping container that sat on the desert floor. He shivered uncontrollably in the bitter cold. Soldiers outside pounded on the sides, threatening to kill him.

He was then interrogated at length and then placed back in the container. On December 14 he was put on board the USS Peleliu. The next day the bullet was finally removed from his leg in a surgical procedure - more than two weeks after he had been transferred to the custody of the US military.

In June 2002, Newsweek obtained copies of internal email messages from the Justice Department's ethics office commenting on the Lindh case as the events were unfolding in December 2001.

The office specifically warned in advance against the interrogation tactics the FBI used at Camp Rhino, and concluded that the interrogation of John without his lawyer present would be unlawful and unethical.

This advice was ignored by the FBI agent who did the interrogation.

Interestingly, in a December 10 email, one of the Justice Department ethics lawyers noted: "At present, we have no knowledge that he did anything other than join the Taleban."

The Government brought 10 counts against John in its overblown indictment. "If convicted of these charges," Attorney General Ashcroft boasted, "Walker Lindh could receive multiple life sentences, six additional 10-year sentences, plus 30 years."

The most serious count was a charge of conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the death of Mike Spann.

The case of United States of America v John Philip Walker Lindh was set for trial before Judge T S Ellis III. On January 24, the judge said he was setting a trial date for late August, meaning he would be on trial on the first anniversary of 9/11.

John's lawyers filed a motion to "suppress" the statements that had been extracted from him under duress at Camp Rhino. A hearing was scheduled in July 2002, which would have included testimony by John and others about the brutality he had suffered at the hands of US soldiers. On the eve of the hearing, the Government prosecutors approached John's attorneys and negotiated a plea agreement. It was apparent they did not want evidence of John's torture to be introduced in court.

In the plea agreement John acknowledged that by serving as a soldier in Afghanistan he had violated the anti-Taleban economic sanctions imposed by President Clinton and extended by President Bush. This was, as John's lawyer pointed out, a "regulatory infraction". John also agreed to a "weapons charge", which was used to enhance his prison sentence. In particular, he acknowledged that he had carried a rifle and two grenades while serving as a soldier in the Taleban army.

All of the other counts in the indictment were dropped by the Government, including the terrorism charges the Attorney-General had so strongly emphasised and the charge of conspiracy to commit murder in the death of Mike Spann.

At the insistence of Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, the plea agreement also included a clause in which John relinquished his claims of torture.

The punishment in the plea agreement was by any measure harsh: 20 years of imprisonment, beginning on December 1, 2001, the day John came into the hands of US forces in Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden is dead. John Lindh, now 30 years old, remains in prison. He spends most of his time pursuing his study of the Koran and Islamic scholarship. He also reads widely in a variety of non-fiction subjects, especially history and politics. He remains a devout Muslim.

As a father, I am grateful that John survived his ordeal, and I am pleased that he maintains his good-natured disposition. I am especially proud of the dignity he displayed throughout his ordeal overseas and in court.

Other than his lawyers, the only visitors John has been permitted during all his years in prison are those of us in his immediate family. We treasure these visits, although we are not allowed any sort of physical contact with John, and are kept separated from him by a glass partition.

Observer

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