John Walker Lindh Released From Prison

John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban," has been released from prison but the war in which he was captured goes merrily along.

After serving 17 years of his sentence, John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban” who was among the first people captured in the Afghan War, has been released from Federal prison. Lindh’s release came early due to Federal Bureau of Prisons policy, but it’s not without controversy:

President Trump said Thursday that he had tried to stop the release of John Walker Lindh, known widely as the “American Taliban,” from an Indiana prison, but that there was no legal way to do so.

Mr. Lindh was freed on probation after serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence for providing support to the Taliban, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He was captured during the invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and returned to the United States the next year.

Mr. Trump said at an afternoon news conference that he was unhappy about Mr. Lindh’s release, but that the “best lawyers in our country that work for government” had told him there was no way to legally stop it.

“The lawyers have gone through it with a fine tooth comb,” Mr. Trump said. “If there was a way to break that, I would have broken it in two seconds.”

He added that Mr. Lindh, who he asserted had not “given up his proclamation of terror,” would be closely monitored.

The bureau provided no further details about Mr. Lindh’s release from the prison in Terre Haute, Ind., citing a policy against revealing inmate release plans for “safety, security and privacy reasons.” A lawyer for Mr. Lindh, William Cummings, declined to comment.

The New York Times had previously reported that Mr. Lindh, 38, was scheduled for release on Thursday. At the time, Mr. Lindh, his parents, lawyers and prosecutors had all declined to discuss his plans. But CNN has since reported that, according to Mr. Cummings, Mr. Lindh will live in Virginia.

Mr. Lindh was 17 when he left his home in California in 1998 to study Arabic in Yemen. He made his way to Pakistan in 2000 and later to Afghanistan, where he served as a Taliban volunteer at a Qaeda training camp.

After his capture, Mr. Lindh was held at a prison near Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, where an uprising claimed the first United States casualty of the war, a 32-year-old C.I.A. officer named Johnny Micheal Spann.

Mr. Spann was killed after questioning Mr. Lindh, though the government offered no evidence that Mr. Lindh had participated in the revolt. At trial, he pleaded guilty to charges of providing support to the Taliban and carrying a rifle and grenade.

Johnny Spann, Mr. Spann’s father, remains disappointed in the outcome of Mr. Lindh’s trial.

“We’ve got a traitor that was given 20 years and I can’t do anything about it,” Mr. Spann, a real estate dealer in Winfield, Ala., previously said to The Times. “He was given a 20-year sentence when it should’ve been life in prison.”

Under the conditions of his release, Mr. Lindh is barred from owning an internet-connected device without permission from the probation office.

He is also barred, unless otherwise approved, from any online communications not in English and may not communicate with any known extremists.

Mr. Lindh is prohibited from owning a passport and from international travel, too, a ban that prevents the immediate possibility of a move to Ireland. Mr. Lindh obtained Irish citizenship through his grandmother while in prison.

Under the terms of his release, he must also undergo mental health counseling.

While Lindh was sentenced to roughly 20 years in prison, he is being released a few years early due to Federal Bureau of Prisons policy that gives prisoners credit for “good behavior.” Basically, these rules mean that a Federal prisoner who serves his time without any infractions on his record will be released after he or she has served 85% of their sentence. This is a policy that generally applies to all Federal prisoners regardless of what they are charged with, and it appears from the available from the record that Lindh qualifies under this early release program.

Some have argued that Lindh should not be eligible for early release given that there are signs that he has not fully repudiated the jihadist beliefs he espoused after being captured shortly after the beginning of the Afghan War. When he was sentenced in 2002, Lindh condemned terrorism “on every level, unequivocally.” He also said that he had been wrong to join the Taliban and that he now realized that what they and al Qaeda stood for was wrong. However, there have been some reports in recent years that suggest that he has not fully rejected those beliefs. Two years ago, for example, a report published in Foreign Policy stated that Lindh “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.” A report that same year from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, meanwhile, stated that Lindh had made comments favorable toward ISIS. However, as several legal commentators and others with experience regarding Bureau of Prisons policy, what a prisoner believes is generally not considered grounds for denying them eligibility under the Bureau’s early release program. Nonetheless, the fact that Lindh may still be sympathetic to jihadist views is concerning and arguably should be ground for enhanced surveillance during the time he is on parole to make sure he is not trying to make contact with ISIS, Taliban, or al Qaeda contacts overseas.

The release of Lindh some three years prior to the end of his sentence of 20 years in prison does not come without some degree of controversy. In addition to President Trump’s comments, and regret that there was no apparent legal avenue that would have kept Lindh in custody, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the release “unexplainable and unconscionable.” Additionally, the father of John Michael Spann, the Central Intelligence Agency officers who were killed in the battle during which Lindh was captured, has lobbied office holders regarding the release and argued that Lindh has not proven himself worthy of early release. Finally, there has been talk on Capitol Hill about passing legislation that would make people convicted of terrorism charges from receiving the same credit for “good behavior” that other Federal prisoners are eligible for.

Lindh was captured in November 2001, roughly one month after the start of the war in Afghanistan and two months after the September 11th attacks that prompted that war. This makes his release somewhat ironic in that the war in which he was captured is still going on despite the fact that he has served 85% of his 20 year sentence. Indeed, one suspects that the war will still be going on in 2022 when Lindh would have otherwise been released without early release. There’s something wrong about that.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, National Security, Terrorism,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. gVOR08 says:

    So he’s being released under normal procedures after 17 years. I’m trying to figure out why this is a news story. (Rhetorical issue. I get the psychology. But it’s irrational.)

    In a few months people who weren’t born when this war started will have to start registering for the draft.

  2. Gustopher says:

    20 years for being a twit still seems harsh, and with charges like “holding a rifle” it’s clear that there wasn’t evidence that he was more than a twit.

    Steve Earle wrote a fine song about him in 2002, which pissed people off because it humanized him.

    Somehow, I still think of it as a relatively new song. I guess I’m just getting old.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Let the bedwetting commence.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:


    I guess I’m just getting old.

    Ain’t we all.

  5. Kathy says:

    You’d think this one man alone could bring America down.

    If this be so, then just turn off the lights, and let China take over.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: As we learned when Obama tried to shut down Guantanamo, they’re all super-geniuses with laser beam eyes.

    I commented above @gVOR08: on the psychology of this. Trying people as juveniles has little to do with the crime, it has to do with them being, well, juveniles. But we try them as adults if the crime is bad enough to draw a lot of public attention. Same psychology led to Guantanamo. We can’t treat them as criminals or POWs because they’re baaaaaad.

  7. Tyrell says:

    @Gustopher: This criminal will probably go below the surface and they will eventually lose track of him. Then no telling what he will do, but could very well link up with a terrorist cell in this country. I would not want him roaming around here, or any place in this country. They should have thrown the key away.
    “We run a great risk of repatriating these
    individuals back into society and we run a great risk of them returning to their terrorist brothers” Douglas Wise, former Deputy Director of Defense Intelligence Agency.
    It seems they never learn the painful lessons from letting our guard down and then we pay dearly for it.