The Taliban Next Door

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After rifle training in an al-Qaeda camp, Walker(left) became a Taliban fighter

The strangest culture clash of the war in Afghanistan took place on a bright Sunday morning in late November. In the Qala-i-Jangi prison fortress, a few miles west of Mazar-i-Sharif, CIA agent Johnny ("Mike") Spann was sorting through 300 surrendered Taliban soldiers in an attempt to determine which of them were al-Qaeda members. Dressed in blue jeans, with an AK-47 strapped across the back of his black sweater, Spann passed through several rows of Taliban before crouching in front of a prisoner who had been separated from the rest, a mass of tangled hair and tattered clothes once named John Walker. "What's your name?" Spann asked. There was no response. "Hey," he said, snapping his fingers twice in front of Walker's dirt-caked face. "Who brought you here? Wake up! Who brought you here? How did you get here? Hello?"

Walker didn't answer. In a bit of CIA showmanship, Spann and his partner, known only as Dave, held a conversation within obvious hearing distance of Walker. "I explained to him what the deal is," Spann told Dave. Dave played the bad cop: "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 die here if he wants. He can f_____g die here. Or he's going to be f_____g spending the rest of his f_____g short life in prison. It's his decision, man. We can only help the guys who want to talk to us." But Walker still wouldn't talk.

A few hours later, Spann became the first American casualty in Afghanistan, when dozens of surrendered Taliban soldiers overwhelmed their guards and staged a revolt. During the uprising, John Walker escaped, delaying the world's discovery of an American Taliban, but only temporarily. After a week spent starving in a basement deep below the prison, Walker and 85 comrades were flushed out when their dungeon was flooded with ice-cold water. Spann was gone, but his questions for John Walker remained: Who brought you here? How did you get here?

Walker's childhood neighbors said the things neighbors always say in these situations. "They were an average American family," and John "was a sweet, quiet boy." It happens to be true. John Walker Lindh was a middle child named after John Lennon and Chief Justice John Marshall. He spent his first 10 years in Silver Spring, Md., in the happy, unremarkable manner that most parents wish for their children. "We were loud, normal kids," says Andrew Cleverdon, a boyhood friend of Walker's. "We played football and basketball, rode our bikes." John's father, attorney Frank Lindh, took the bus to his job at the Department of Justice. Marilyn Walker was a stay-at-home mom who kept her maiden name. They played with their three kids, went to Mass at St. Bernadette's Catholic Church and held a "Kentucky Derby Day" every May.

In 1991 the family moved to San Anselmo, Calif., in opulent, socially liberal Marin County. John was gentle and shy. He played the flute, had close relationships rather than a big circle of friends, and told people that he wanted to help the poor when he grew up. After a semester at a local high school, John transferred to Tamiscal High, an alternative school with 100 students and a self-directed, individualized course of study. As a freshman and sophomore, Walker studied world arts and culture, including Islam and the Middle East. Marilyn Walker had left Catholicism and become a Buddhist; John was intrigued by religion too. "She opened all those doors for her kids," says Bill Jones, a family friend, "instead of dragging her kids into Catholicism like she'd been dragged into it."

Apparently it was The Autobiography of Malcolm X that inspired Walker to convert to Islam. He talked with his parents about his plans. Frank Lindh, now a lawyer with Pacific Gas & Electric, was accepting. Marilyn Walker had reservations. "She was concerned," says Marilyn's friend Stephanie Hendricks. "You have a 16-year-old kid who gets involved in any kind of religion in a passionate way, and you're going to want to know more about it, right?"

John did not have a driver's license and was still in high school, so attending prayer services five times a day was out of the question. On Friday nights, though, he would change out of his Western clothes and attend services at the Islamic Center of Mill Valley. Abdullah Nana usually drove him there. Nana, now 23, recalls that when he first saw Walker, he stood out immediately, not simply because he was a white man in a mostly Indian congregation but also because he was "on his own," meaning already devoted to Islam and without a referral from another Muslim. The two teenagers struck up a friendship and frequently spent the 20 minutes between Walker's house and the mosque in rapt discussion of the Koran.

In 1998 Walker passed a proficiency exam and graduated early from Tamiscal High. He asked that the name on his diploma be changed to Sulayman Al-Lindh. He never picked up the certificate. Soon he told Nana that he had found an Arabic-language school in San'a, Yemen, on the Internet. "The language spoken in Yemen is closer to the holy language of the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet," explains Nana. Walker also felt it would be easier to practice Islam in a Muslim country. In December 1998 he left for the Middle East.

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