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

Iltimas packed Lindh's suitcase for him, but the young man said, "I want to leave my things here with you." He took only a small backpack and wore sunglasses and a white shalwar kameez--a long tunic over loose-fitting pants--as he waited for Hayat to arrive on his 2001 Honda 150-cc motorcycle to pick him up. "When will you be back?" Iltimas asked his student. Lindh, he says, was silent. He wonders whether Lindh didn't want him to know where he was going or when he would be back. "A Muslim is never a liar," Iltimas says. The next time he heard of Lindh was from Hayat. The young American, said the powdered-milk entrepreneur, was in Batracy, a small village in the rugged mountains of Mansehra, north of Islamabad--a gateway into the militant training camps that stage attacks in Kashmir. From there, it was on to Afghanistan.

The video is riveting. "do you know..." cia agent Johnny (Mike) Spann begins, addressing the bedraggled prisoner in front of him. "Do you know the people you're here to... Hey, look at me. Do you know that the people you're here working with are terrorists? They killed other Muslims. There were several hundred Muslims killed in the bombing in New York City. Is that what the Koran teaches? I don't think so. Are you going to talk to us?" Lindh remains silent. Almost immediately afterward, the cia officer was slain by other prisoners in an uprising that riveted the world, as allied control of northern Afghanistan seemed to hang in the balance. While his fellow Taliban prisoners set upon the Americans and their Northern Alliance allies, Lindh took off running. He sought safety in the basement of a fort from which several Taliban soldiers would sporadically fire upon the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance would use burning oil and then freezing water to roust the holdouts. After seven days Lindh and his fellow fighters surrendered.

On Dec. 1, after the rebellion had ended, Marilyn Walker turned on her computer and chanced on a website bulletin touting the discovery of an American Taliban. And then she saw a photograph of her son. She was terrified but at the same time relieved. She had spent months writing letters to Pakistan, including one in Urdu, trying to determine if he was alive. And now she knew he was. But he was no longer just her son: the young man she believed to be gentle and sensitive had become, in the eyes of the world, the American Taliban, a traitor to his country.

Frank continues to believe in his son's idealism, saying the al-Farooq camp where he is said to have trained with al-Qaeda was for "Saudi teenagers [who] would come down for summer, do their jihad military service... Many of them never had any intention actually of going to the front lines." Says Frank: "John went [into Afghanistan] to help the mujahedin, as he understood the people Ronald Reagan called the 'freedom fighters.'" But in America's eyes, those freedom fighters have become terrorists.

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