The Making Of John Walker Lindh

How did a quiet, bright young boy from suburban America end up alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan? This is a story of love, loathing and an often reckless quest for spiritual fulfillment

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Correction Appended: March 24, 2003

The original version of this article stated that Khizar Hayat had claimed to TIME that he had had a homosexual relationship with John Walker Lindh in Pakistan. Hayat denies telling TIME his relationship with Lindh was sexual.

At 1 in the morning on the day John Phillip Walker Lindh was born, his father Frank drove home from the hospital, listening to the radio in the quiet of his car: it was a dramatic rendition of When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Before falling into bed, Frank captured the moment in his diary: "Earlier this evening," he wrote, "we had a new son, a robust, pink, knowledgeable little sucker whom we'll call John after John Lennon (the musician) and John Marshall (the judge)." It had been a hard labor, but his wife Marilyn had "performed beautifully, with not a bit of medication. So I toast to my new son John, may his life be long and fruitful..."

He awoke the next morning with "the thrill of John's birth still upon me--it seems strange, at first, to refer to these little creatures by the names we give them, but in time, they do come to be the names."

By the time John Walker Lindh came marching home almost 21 years later, he had come to be many other names as well. He was doodoo and John Doe in his teenage Internet messages, when he posed as a black rapper and denounced white kids who acted black. He was Dr. J, Hine E. Craque and Mr. Mujahid (holy warrior), as he posted in chat rooms inveighing against Zionists and homosexuals. He was Suleyman al-Lindh, the name he took when he declared himself a Muslim and began wearing white robes and cap around the streets of San Anselmo, Calif. His Taliban brethren knew him as Abdul Hamid.

There would eventually be other names. He is the Traitor to the general public, which sees a Taliban soldier who attended the training camps and allegedly shook the hand of Osama bin Laden. He is a Lost Soul to his family's friends and defenders, who see a brilliant kid from a nice family who went off to find purity and peace and found fanaticism and war. But a Time investigation of his path to jihad, relying on dozens of witnesses, reveals an even more complex person than the caricatures would allow. When Lindh is sentenced this Friday as part of a plea bargain, a judge will have to decide which of his identities matters most in determining how much of the rest of his life he should spend in jail.

Great parenting job" is how Lindh's mother recalls the anonymous threat she received. "You should be shot with the same gun used to shoot your son." People who don't know Lindh's parents have certainly heard a lot about them: reports typically characterize them as the hippie liberals from Marin County so tolerant of a child's quest to find himself that he ultimately found himself with a bullet in his leg in an Afghan jail. But people who knew the family, grew up with them, first in Maryland and later in California, are often fiercely protective and quick to defend them. "I don't want to see one more bit of pain on this family or on this young man," says Bill Gilcher, a former neighbor in Maryland. "I think it's really too soon to make him a poster child for liberal, valueless, middle-class America."

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