Tuesday, 24 January 2012

By Eoin Reynolds in San Francisco

JOHN Walker Lindh was born into a Catholic, Irish-American family in the sun-baked Californian hills of Marin - a wealthy Paradise to the north of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge that is largely populated by Silicon Valley millionaires.
His switch to Islam and subsequent capture after joining the Taliban forces in Afghanistan made him a national hate figure and a poster child for America's anti-Islamic right wing. But his case is not as simple as some would have us believe and now his father is asking Irish people to accept John Lindh as one of their own and see beyond the rhetoric that has made him America's most hated son.
John is one of three children born to Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker.
At age 12 he watched the film Malcolm X and was intrigued by its depiction of pilgrims in Mecca. His fascination continued and at age 16 he converted to Islam and soon resolved to learn Arabic so that he could read the scriptures in their original context. Rather than showing concern, his Catholic parents were supportive of the change. His father even told him that he believed he had always been a Muslim, and just needed to discover it for himself.
According to Frank the conversion did nothing to hinder the youngster's progress. His school grades improved and he immersed himself in study.
The photos show John at age 17, touring Ireland with his father. It was 1998 on the week that the Good Friday Agreement was passed by an overwhelming majority of Irish people. By that time John was accustomed to wearing traditional Islamic garb and despite the unusual appearance, Frank said he found Irish people to be open and accepting.
He said: "The thing about the Irish is, they're very curious. They're friendly but they're curious. They didn't hold back. They were right out with the questions. Especially our relatives. They, of course, definitely were interested... The thing I found most touching was; my mother has a lot of first cousins in Donegal, who at that time were in their late seventies or early eighties and they had adult children, but they were all, even the older ones who I expected to be a bit disapproving of John's conversion to this other religion, they weren't that way at all. I think blood is thicker than water was how they saw it and there was a familial bond. That was the deeper connection and the religious aspect was just a curiosity. They were respectful and not the least bit judgmental."
While in Ireland John visited a Pakistani mosque in Dublin and posed for photographs at famous landmarks like O'Connell Bridge. In a hotel bar somewhere in Dublin a group of children approached him and, surprised at his appearance, asked: "So what are you meant to be then? Are you in a play?"
Frank said: "I told John, "I think you may be the first Muslim they've ever seen on the entire island of Ireland". I was exaggerating of course but it certainly would have been unusual. It was a humorous thing and he has a wonderful sense of humour."
The ultimate purpose of the visit was to see relatives in Glenties and surrounding towns in Donegal where Frank's mother Kathleen Maguire was born in 1929. Her parents brought herself and her siblings away to America while she was still a child but her birth in Donegal would mean that her son Frank and his children are today entitled to Irish citizenship.
The trip was fun and they were pleased to have visited Ireland during that moment of great hope when the Good Friday Agreement was passed and peace in the north finally seemed a real possibility.
But John's future was to be far from peaceful and the quest that would turn his life, and his parents' lives, upside down was soon to begin.
Three months after visiting Ireland, John headed for the Yemeni capital Sana'a. He learned Arabic and began reading the original text of the Koran, committing large passages to memory and immersing himself in Islamic culture.
With financial support from his parents he continued his studies and in September 2000 informed his father that he was moving to Pakistan to enroll in a madrasa.
The following spring he wrote to say he was moving to the mountains and for several months his concerned parents heard nothing from him. What he had not told them in his letter was that he intended to cross the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan to volunteer for the Afghan army.
He had heard stories of grave atrocities against Muslim civilians committed by the warlords of the Northern Alliance, a military group once backed by the Russians against the US-backed Taliban. The US Department of State verified at the time that the Alliance had raped women and children and tortured, castrated and murdered civilians.
John would later tell an American court: "I felt that I had an obligation to assist what I perceived to be an Islamic liberation movement against the warlords."
While in Afghanistan he received combat training and heard two speeches given by Osama Bin Laden. On the second occasion he met Bin Laden but has told his father that he was unimpressed. He felt he was not a scholar of Islam and even fell asleep during one of his speeches. John's interest was in getting to the front lines so he could use his combat training to help save the lives of civilians.
He had overlooked the brutal human rights violations of the Taliban but his father insists his motivation was pure. He did not do it out of love for the Taliban, but out of a desire to protect fellow Muslims in need. He has likened his son's actions to those of Ernest Hemingway and thousands of others who traveled to Spain to take up arms against Franco's fascists.
He said: "I admire people who do that sort of thing. Obviously, I didn't want my teenage son doing it and he wouldn't have received permission from me to do it if he had asked. That's why he didn't ask. But you do have to admire that courage."
When John traveled to fight, an airplane attack on the Twin Towers in New York was no more than a fantastic nightmare. Nobody could have known how the catastrophic events of September 11 2001 would change everything and put John Lindh on the wrong side of a war against an American-backed army. The attacks occurred shortly after John had completed his training and arrived at the front lines. By that time he had not even fired his gun.
Suddenly the Taliban was America's greatest enemy and the Northern Alliance found themselves backed by their old foes.
The American forces moved swiftly after the 9/11 attacks. By October they were bombing Taliban strongholds, allowing the Northern Alliance to gain the upper hand. The Taliban resistance quickly crumbled and John found himself wandering Afghanistan with his helpless comrades.
Many commentators have claimed that by remaining with his Taliban colleagues once the American invasion began that John was betraying his country. But as his lawyer James Brosnahan explained, there is no bus from the farthest reaches of Afghanistan. There was no way for him to even surrender.
What happened to John's troop after this has been documented by The Guardian's Luke Harding and described as one of the worst massacres of the Afghan war. Calls from the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for an inquiry were dismissed by the US and UK.
Harding describes John and his comrades as desperate to surrender but terrified that they would be tortured and killed by the warlords of the Northern Alliance. American ground troops had not yet reached the front line this deep into Afghanistan.
After much negotiation they were tricked into going to the compound of one of the most feared Northern Alliance warlords: General Rashid Dostam.
A botched attempt to disarm the prisoners resulted in some of Dostam's troops being killed when Taliban soldiers set off grenades, blowing themselves and anyone within range apart. So the prisoners were bundled into some makeshift cells at the heavily armed fortress, some of them with their arms bound.
In the confusion some prisoners managed to free themselves and grabbed whatever arms they could, resulting in a massive battle between the Taliban and Dostam's troops. The uprising was then brutally crushed by American aerial bombardment. When the dust had settled hundreds of Taliban soldiers were dead, their charred and torn bodies strewn on the ground. John Lindh had been shot in the leg. A CIA agent who had earlier spoken to Lindh named Mike Spann was killed, making him the first American casualty of the war. That Lindh was part of the troop that caused Spann's death was widely used to vilify him and portray him as a traitor to his country.
That John took no part in the fighting that led to Spann's death was often overlooked by the media and leading figures including the president, secretary of defense and the attorney general. In the horror that was Qala i Jangi during that failed uprising John had spent most of the time unconscious or desperately trying to survive while hundreds of his fellow Taliban were massacred.
Once Dostam's troops had regained control, the wounded Lindh and the other surviving prisoners were taken from the scene to Sheberghen and later to Camp Rhino, a marine base south of Kandahar. The bullet was still lodged in his leg.
There he was stripped naked and tied to a stretcher with a blindfold covering his eyes. To this day his ankles and wrists wear the scars from the plastic restraints that were used to bind his limbs. For two days he was left in a metal shipping container exposed to the harsh elements of the Afghan desert. Passing troops would bang on the walls and threaten to kill him.
He was then taken for interrogation with no lawyer present and gave a statement. His parents, still in America, had hired a lawyer for him but he was not told that a counsel was available.
Finally, on December 14, he was taken on board the USS Peleliu where he was diagnosed as suffering from dehydration, hypothermia and frostbite. The following day the bullet was removed from his leg - two weeks after he was first brought into US custody.
In the end, the statement that John made during his ordeal in Camp Rhino would never be used in court. The authorities decided they didn't want the trial to go ahead and they offered John a plea bargain. He would serve 20 years in return for accepting two charges. The first was that he aided the Taliban, a regime that was under sanction by the US. The second was that he carried weapons, a rifle and two grenades, in the carrying out of that illegal act.
The plea bargain was a surprise to many who had heard the boasts of Attorney General John Ashcroft that Lindh would face multiple life sentences.
Frank Lindh is convinced the government's eagerness was inspired by their desire to keep John's torture under wraps.
He said: "These events were prior to Abu Ghraib, which revealed to the world the brutal treatment of detainees by the US military. It wasn't that they were afraid they couldn't make the charges stick. In the climate that existed post 9/11 and with everything that the president and others had said about John, they could have made anything stick. They could have said he was Charles Manson and made it stick. The reason they made the plea bargain was because they didn't want details of the torture getting out."
John and his legal team accepted the plea bargain and he was sentenced to 20 years. He is due for release in May 2019 when he will be 38 years old.
He is currently imprisoned in the Special Comms Unit in Terrehaute, Indiana. The other inmates are mostly Muslims and his father said he is using the time to immerse himself in the study of Islam. When he leaves prison he will probably become a teacher and try to live as normal a life as possible. But that life is unlikely to be in America, where many people view John Lindh as the epitome of evil.
Frank said: "We talk about that [moving to Ireland] as an option. What happened in this country, in my son's case, is completely without precedent where the president himself and members of his cabinet and members of the senate and the speaker of the house and the attorney general repeatedly said that John was a terrorist, an Al Qaeda terrorist, who was fighting against America.
"And it so poisoned the public opinion about my son that I'm afraid that he would be in jeopardy walking on the streets of any city in the United States. There are literally people who hate him with such passion that they would kill him as a consequence, not of anything that he did, but as a consequence of this furore that was built up by the president and his cabinet members against John.
"It all relates back to the fact that the 9/11 attacks happened, and then we went to Afghanistan with the ostensible purpose of capturing one person, Osama Bin Laden, and we failed. But what we did get was this kid from California named John Lindh and they, in a malicious and calculated sort of way, said he was a terrorist. In the emotional climate of the time it was enough to divert the public's attention away from the failures of the government and make people feel that the Government had achieved something worthwhile."