The former radical jihadi dubbed the “American Taliban” was released from prison Thursday after completing 17 years of a 20-year sentence for supporting the Taliban.
John Walker Lindh, 38, is the first American detainee in the U.S. war on terror. He was captured in late 2001, while fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, and later taken back to the U.S. He pleaded guilty to two terrorism related charges.
The Californian is among at least 427 individuals who have been charged with jihadi terrorism or related crimes since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to the think tank New America. Nearly a hundred have been freed, with up to 90 more approaching the end of their prison terms in the next five years, said Jesse Morton, a convicted ex-jihadi who runs Parallel Networks, a group that works with former extremists.
That has rekindled a debate over how to reintegrate former American jihadis into society. Unlike other Western nations, the U.S. has no rehabilitation programs for former jihadists, leaving them largely to their own devices.
Lindh’s case has drawn attention in part because of concern he continues to harbor radical Islamist views. At his sentencing in 2002, Lindh denounced terrorism and said the attacks of Sept. 11 were against the teachings of Islam. But U.S. counterterrorism officials have assessed in recent years that his views haven’t changed. A 2017 National Counterterrorism Center document obtained by Foreign Policy magazine stated that as of May 2016, Lindh “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.”
Lindh will remain on probation for the next three years with strict conditions. Among other restrictions, he won’t be allowed to browse the internet, communicate with other extremists or leave the United States.
Morton said his organization reached out to Lindh to offer reintegration services but hasn’t received a response.
A convert to Islam, Morton co-founded Revolution Muslim, a group that propagandized and recruited on behalf of al-Qaida online and on the streets of New York from 2006-2011. He spent nearly four years in prison after pleading guilty to inciting attacks against the creators of “South Park” and agreeing to cooperate with the FBI.
VOA spoke with Morton about Lindh’s release. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
VOA: Before I ask you about Lindh’s release, can you talk a little bit about your own transition out of a group that was once described as a dangerous terrorism network?
Jesse Morton: When I was incarcerated … I was able to sort of extract myself from the jihadist milieu. And instead of dabbling more into Islamist works, I dabbled into post-Enlightenment works, became reacclimated with my American culture, American upbringing, saw the West and the Enlightenment as a value in overcoming sectarianism. And slowly in prison, I was able to reform myself by looking at the mistakes that I had made. By the time I was released in 2015, ISIS (Islamic State) was a problem. I realized I had created a big monster. I had contributed largely to spreading that ideology. And now I work to combat the ideas and the ideals that I was firmly committed to.
VOA: There are allegations that Lindh espouses the same extremist views he did when he was first imprisoned. Does that make his release premature and perhaps cause for concern?
Morton: I think that we should be concerned, but I don’t think that we should be overly concerned, particularly not knowing the nuances and the individual characteristics of John Walker Lindh. And I don’t think we have to be worried about him returning to commit an act of violence. There are other things we need to worry about. For example, his stated intention that he wants to return to preaching, and a growing sort of far leftist, revolutionary, anti-American sentiment inside of a small segment of the American Muslim community that might allow him to have a platform. That would be dangerous.
VOA: Unlike some European countries, the U.S. doesn’t have a go-to deradicalization program for former jihadis inside prisons. What do we know about the prison environment in which Lindh has spent the past 17 years of his life?
Morton: He’s been there from the beginning … and so, he has watched transitions inside of the Bureau of Prisons as they’ve tried to figure out what to do with terrorism-related offenders. His was an interesting case, because he clung to Islamist views. We do have some leaked BOP memos about Lindh’s sustained radicalization. And interestingly enough, my co-defendant, Zachary Chesser, who is now doing 20 years, was housed with him. As was (radical Palestinian American preacher) Ahmad Musa Jibril, who was released in (2012), and ended up becoming a preacher in Michigan that radicalized hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals in the context of the Syrian civil war.
VOA: At Parallel Networks, you work with people like Lindh. How do you help a hard-core former jihadi transform into a law-abiding citizen?
Morton: Our priority is to keep the public safe. And the way that you keep the public safe is to make sure that (former jihadists) have access to the basic services that they need. The worst-case scenario is when a terrorism-related offender comes home and feels stigmatized, feels isolated, can’t get work, can’t get housing, and decides that radicalization is a better option. We just want to make sure that individuals disengage from the movement, whether it’s online or offline. Then we work on the ideology if they still want to. But it has to be a desire of the individual. You can’t tell someone that they need to change their beliefs. … You have to create a space that they can make those alterations. If you try to make a committed fanatic change their ideas, you’re only going to make their adherence even worse.
VOA: What is the best hope for Lindh?
Morton: Lindh is free to believe whatever he wants to, but we need to develop mechanisms as a society that make sure there can be no consequence to his sustained beliefs. At times, that may require law enforcement monitoring if it is determined that he is a risk to mobilize to violence (or something of the sort). When you have a comprehensive approach to countering violent extremism, then you can address all components of this dynamic problem. Nevertheless, it is most likely that Lindh will simply move on with his life and disappear from the public eye. Let’s hope so. We’re certainly not prepared if that is not the case.
VOA: Since the attacks of 9/11, several hundred former jihadists have been prosecuted and imprisoned in this country, and a few dozen have been released in recent years. What do you know about what has happened with them?
Morton: Most of those that have been released so far have actually been deported. Most of the people that have been released have also been the lowest-risk levels. So, we haven’t seen those that have been arrested for attempts to carry out an actual attack. The committed jihadists are coming over the next … series of years — about 70 to 90 individuals will come home over the next four or five years. And some of them are likely pretty important and influential individuals that are very different than those that have been released so far. But most of them are just living life and trying to move on. … And we’ve witnessed a few individuals do some pretty amazing work upon their return.
VOA: Is the country prepared to help reintegrate those individuals who will be released in the coming years?
Morton: No. We have no funding for any such initiative, and there’s not much of a commitment on behalf of the government. And we can’t do much about it, unfortunately.