AP Was There: American Taliban Fighter in US custody

BURT HERMAN
FILE - This file image taken Dec. 1, 2001, from television footage in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, shows John Walker Lindh, right, claiming to be an American Taliban volunteer. Lindh, the young Californian who became known as the American Taliban after he was captured by U.S. forces in the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, is set to go free Thursday, May 23, 2019, after nearly two decades in prison. (AP Video, File)

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (AP) — This story was first published on Dec. 2, 2001, when AP journalist Burt Herman reported on the discovery of American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan. We are reprinting the story now to mark Lindh's release after nearly two decades in prison.

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An American who fought with the Taliban is in the custody of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after being discovered among captured Taliban troops and al-Qaida fighters.

In Islamabad, Pakistan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said the man identified himself as John Walker.

"He's representing himself as an American citizen. We're checking on that," spokesman Keith Kenton said. "I have no reason to believe that he isn't."

Army Lt. Col Jim Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman, said in Washington that the man was injured and being given medical assistance by U.S. forces.

He could not provide further details about the man, nor would he immediately confirm whether the man was indeed a U.S. citizen.

The man was among a group of around 80 Taliban fighters holed up for six days in a basement of the Qalai Janghi fort, hiding from northern alliance soldiers who had put down a riot by Taliban prisoners in the fortress.

The revolt, which began Nov. 25, was put down after three days of bloody fighting; the men straggled out of the basement Saturday after norther alliance fighters filled it with water to force them out.

There were conflicting news accounts of the man claiming to be an American.

In an interview posted on Newsweek magazine's Web site yesterday night, his parents identified him from photos as John Philip Walker Lindh, 20, of Fairfax, Calif.

CNN reported that Walker, a convert to Islam, had suffered grenade and bullet wounds. Newsweek said Walker had identified himself as Abdul Hamid.

In the Newsweek interview, Marilyn Walker described her son as a "sweet, shy kid" who had gone to Pakistan with an Islamic humanitarian group to help the poor. She said reports of his capture were the first news she had received of her son's whereabouts since he left a religious school in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, where he had been studying the Quran, seven months earlier.

"If he got involved in the Taliban, he must have been brainwashed," Marilyn Walker, a home health care worker, said. "He was isolated. He didn't know a soul in Pakistan. When you're young and impressionable, it's easy to be led by charismatic people."

The mother said Walker was born in Washington, D.C., and his father was Frank Lindh, a lawyer. Lindh and Marilyn Walker are divorced. The parents did not return messages last night requesting comment.

Other residents of the leafy suburban neighborhood where Walker grew up were shocked at the news today.

"The last thing in the world I expected to see was Fairfax, Calif., connected to the Taliban," said Russell Deaker, a Fairfax resident eating at the Koffee Klatch.

"If he was pointing a gun at any of my soldier friends, put him on trial. If not, put him in a mental ward and bring him home," Deaker said.

Ed Wall, owner of Marin Coffee Roasters, down the block from Walker's house, also said Walker should face serious consequences if he proves to be mentally fit.

"Something had to be wrong. On the other hand, if this is his belief, then that's how he's got to be treated," Wall said. Walker is "obviously somewhat disturbed, in my opinion."

Foreign militants — mostly Arabs and Pakistanis — have fought alongside the Taliban against the northern alliance, some of them members of the al-Qaida network of Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

The Taliban and foreign fighters who revolted at Qalai Janghi had been brought to the fortress after surrendering the northern Afghan city of Kunduz.

Scores of Taliban were killed in the battle, in which northern alliance fighters were assisted by U.S. special forces and air strikes by American warplanes. An American CIA officer was killed in the fighting.

On Saturday, the last 80-odd Taliban emerged from their hiding place. Some were visibly weak and thin after days without food or water, and at least one was taken out on a stretcher. Many were being treated in hospitals in the nearby city of Mazar-e-Shariff.