By JUSTIN HUGGLER

It will be a strange sort of homecoming.

John Walker Lindh, the American who joined the Taleban, met Osama bin Laden face to face and fought alongside al Qaeda troops as the US bombs rained down in Afghanistan, was on his way home yesterday - to face trial.

Mr Walker is an al Qaeda volunteer. But the cages of Guantanamo Bay, where the other al Qaeda suspects are being held, are not for this young Californian. He will be held under somewhat different conditions in a jail in Alexandria, Virginia.

Nor for him is the military commission that will decide the fate of the other al Qaeda prisoners. Mr Walker will face a somewhat different standard of justice, before a US civilian court. Because Mr Walker is an American.

He was perhaps the only American who knew in advance of September 11 that something terrible was about to happen. Mr Walker knew because in June last year, he was training at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, where he was told by an instructor that bin Laden had sent operatives to carry out a suicide attack in the US.

Mr Walker stunned America when he emerged, barely able to walk, from a dark, fetid, flooded basement - out of one of the darkest episodes of the war in Afghanistan, the slaughter of more than 150 Taleban prisoners-of-war under US bombs after they staged a prison revolt in Mazar-i Sharif.

It was only when the survivors in the basement shot dead an Afghan recovery worker that we knew that anyone had survived three days of air strikes on the prison. Few of us believed it was possible to survive in the stench of rotting human flesh that came from that basement.

But an even more extraordinary revelation was to come as Mr Walker emerged blinking into the light. Americans could barely believe that a US citizen was fighting for the Taleban. Yet there was Mr Walker's face, heavily bearded and wild-eyed with fear, staring at them out of their television screens.

His face keeps coming back to haunt America. It is Mr Walker who appears in the extraordinary video footage of CIA agents interrogating the foreign Taleban volunteers who had surrendered in the Qalai Jangi fortress in Mazar. Mike Spann, a CIA agent who was to be killed hours later in the revolt, crouches before Mr Walker and snaps his fingers in front of his face. Off camera, a second CIA man says: "He needs to decide if he wants to live or die. If he wants to die, he's just going to die here. He can ****ing die here." Shortly after, the prison revolt started.

The charge sheet against Mr Walker contains more startling revelations. Not only did he fight alongside the Taleban, but he was a member of an al Qaeda brigade run by bin Laden, according to the charges. The young American met bin Laden at least once, and spoke with him in a small group.

Now many Americans are baying for revenge on a man they consider a traitor. The authorities say there isn't enough evidence for a treason charge, which could carry the death penalty. But Mr Walker could face life in prison under charges including conspiring to kill Americans and aiding a terrorist organisation.

Mr Walker was flown from a US warship in the Arabian sea to a base in Kandahar yesterday, and was expected to be quickly sent on to America. When he gets back to the country where he was born and brought up, it will be to jail, to await trial before a district court in Alexandria, Virginia.

It will be very different from his affluent, middle class upbringing in the US. According to his family and former friends, Mr Walker was a typical American kid. He played American football and basketball. His father was an attorney, his mother a housewife. John was named after John Lennon. When he was ten, the family moved from Maryland to California.

And when Mr Walker was 16, he converted to Islam reportedly after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. He went to Friday night prayers at an Islamic centre. He changed his name to Suleyman al-Faris.

Then, in 1998, he left America to study Arabic and Islam in Yemen, which has been identified as a possible base for some al Qaeda groups. Mr Walker's father Frank Lindh says he was not concerned at the time. The young man travelled to Yemen again in 2000.

In October that year, he moved to a a madrassah in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan - a recruiting ground for the Taleban. His family lost touch with him.

In May last year, according to the US charge sheet, Mr Walker joined a training camp for Harakat ul-Mujahideen, an Islamic group active in Kashmir, identified by the US as a terrorist organisation, planning to fight against Indian forces in Kashmir. He quickly left the camp and travelled to Afghanistan to join the Taleban. When he got there, according to the FBI, he was told he would have to join a brigade of Arabs, because he did not speak any Afghan or Pakistani language, but did speak Arabic. The Arab brigade, he was told, was run by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.

He was sent to al Qaeda training centre at al-Farooq, where recruits were addressed by bin Laden on several occasions. At least once, Mr Walker met with the al Qaeda leader in a small group.

According to the charge sheet, Mr Walker learnt at the camp that bin Laden was planning suicide attacks in the US. He met Abu Mohammed al-Misri, a senior figure at the camps, who asked him if he wanted to travel outside Afghanistan and carry out attacks on US interests. Mr Walker chose instead to fight on the front line in Afghanistan.

When the American bombing began, he was sent to the front line near Taloqan. When Taloqan fell as the Taleban started to collapse, Mr Walker and the other foreign fighters fell back on Kunduz. Foreign Taleban are believed to have killed hundreds of Afghan Taleban trying to defect to the Northern Alliance in Kunduz.

Eventually, Afghan Taleban leaders negotiated the surrender of Kunduz. Mr Walker was one of around 400 foreign fighters who agreed to surrender to General Rashid Dostum. Which is how Mr Walker found himself on his knees in Qalai Jangi fortress, face to face with the CIA's Mike Spann.

- INDEPENDENT

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