Moazzam Begg is an author and the outreach director of UK advocacy group CAGE. You can follow him on Twitter @Moazzam_Begg
He survived one of the worst massacres in recent history but John Walker Lindh was known as the “American Taliban” and paid an immense price for one reason alone: he was from the USA.
During my time in Guantanamo Bay I came across several prisoners who had survived the massacre at Qala-i-Jangi, the fortress in northern Afghanistan used to detain captured Taliban fighters following the fall of the city of Kunduz. Over 500 mostly unarmed prisoners were shot, bombed, burned, electrocuted and drowned by Afghan, US and British forces. Only 86 people survived. Two of them were Americans. But the world’s media was only interested in one. John Walker Lindh and he was released from prison this week after 17 years.
Fighting for a cause
Lindh accepted Islam in his native California at the age of 16 in 1997, after being influenced by the latter part of the life of Malcolm X. The following year, Lindh travelled to Yemen to learn Arabic and understand the Quran. Later, he travelled to Pakistan to further his studies, and in the summer of 2001 crossed over into Afghanistan and joined the Taliban in their fight against the Northern Alliance. Lindh’s justification for this was to do with his beliefs. It had nothing to do with America:
“I had an obligation to assist what I perceived to be an Islamic liberation movement against the warlords who were occupying several provinces in northern Afghanistan. I had learned from books, articles and individuals with first-hand experience of numerous atrocities committed by the Northern Alliance against civilians. I had heard reports of massacres, child rape, torture and castration.”
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Lindh was on the frontlines against the Northern Alliance when the US bombing of Taliban positions began. But the bombing and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan began in late October 2001 following the attacks on September 11. Lindh didn’t attack America. America attacked Lindh – and those he was with.
America’s warlord allies
Abdul Rashid Dostum was an ex-Communist who fought on the side of Russia during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and was notorious for allying with and then betraying those he was aligned to. In 1997, Dostum’s forces were accused of killing over 2,000 Taliban prisoners. He was also personally accused of murder, torture and rape. Following the US bombing of the Taliban, hundreds of prisoners who had previously surrendered to Northern Alliance forces in Sheberghan suffocated in shipping containers during the notorious “death convoy” en route to Kunduz. They were buried in mass graves. Some of the survivors were sent to Qala. Dostum again was in charge.
The US government, however, chose to ignore his human rights record and employed Dostum’s brutality in their fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. What was to follow at Qala seemed to have been inevitable.
After being taken into custody, a foreign Taliban captive exploded a concealed hand grenade against the Northern Alliance captors. This started a reaction that one side calls an uprising while the other describes as a massacre. In an interview I conducted with one of the survivors, he told me how after being shot, bombed, electrocuted and burned, a stream was diverted into the basement where the surviving prisoners were holed up:
“The rooms were filled with corpses of brothers, their blood, excrement and waste. The water began to slowly rise and we had nowhere to escape. Anyone injured who could not stand up just drowned, right in front of us. We could do nothing. We were wounded ourselves. We saw and heard, the final gargles and gasps of breath as the water filled their lungs while they said, “Ash-hadu an laa ilaha ill-Allah”.
“Yet, even in this there was a gruesome blessing in disguise. We hadn’t drunk water for several days. We were so thirsty. The water began to rise to our chests and necks. If you were taller, you lived a little longer, the shorter ones drowned before. Yet drinking the water, which contained blood, faeces, urine, diesel – and Allah knows what else – came as relief that’s hard to describe. We had to push away the floating bodies of our dead brothers and just drank.”
From a total of 500 prisoners only 86 survived. Most of them were sent to Guantanamo. John Walker Lindh was not among them.
Once they discovered he was an American, Lindh who was shot during the fighting, was taken for questioning to different locations in Afghanistan. He was stripped, blindfolded, bound to a stretcher and transported in a shipping container and eventually sent to the USS Bataan, a US warship in the Persian Gulf. Prisoners on the ship included Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi – the captive tortured into giving a false confession that formed the justification for the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Lindh was flown to the US in January 2002 where he faced a post 9/11 American public, media and court. They were not sympathetic.
No Americans at Guantanamo
While I was still at Guantanamo, my father spoke at a conference and said that I was being held without charge or trial in Guantanamo while John Walker Lindh was given access to the courts in America. Whilst I understood my father’s sentiments the bitter truth is that Lindh fared worse than most of Guantanamo prisoners.
Most survivors of Qala were sent to Guantanamo – except for Lindh and another American, Yaser Hamdi.
Hamdi and Lindh were both US nationals captured by Dostum’s forces. Both were at Qala and both were handed over to US forces. But Hamdi also had Saudi citizenship.
Hamdi was held as an “enemy combatant” – the same designation we received – but he was kept in military brigs on US soil. However, after three years, before his case came to court, Hamdi reached a deal whereby he renounced his US citizenship in exchange for repatriation to Saudi Arabia where he was freed.
Lindh was imprisoned and initially charged with ten counts that included conspiracy to murder Americans, supporting Al Qaeda and supporting terrorist organisations. Had he been found guilty, he could have received three life sentences. Instead, he pled guilty to supporting the Taliban and carrying weapons.
At court, Lindh said “I did not go to fight against America, and I never did.” International terrorism expert and author, Rohan Gunaratna who interviewed Lindh for a court assessment said: “Those who, like Mr Lindh, merely fought the Northern Alliance, cannot be deemed terrorists. Their motivation was to serve and to protect suffering Muslims in Afghanistan, not to kill civilians.”
Despite this, Lindh received a twenty-year sentence – on the condition that he would not speak about any torture he endured and he wouldn’t sue those who carried it out.
Negotiating with Lindh’s former leaders
John Walker Lindh was at best a Taliban foot soldier in an Afghan civil war. Those who held far higher positions and ranks than him have mostly been released. There is no suggestion or evidence that he killed or harmed a single American let alone anyone else. He certainly wasn’t giving any orders.
I was held alongside former Taliban spokesman and ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. We were both released in 2005. By then Lindh had only served three years of his sentence. Zaeef visited Britain in 2011 and personally told me how the commander of US forces in Afghanistan at the time, General David Petraeus, had repeatedly asked him to facilitate negotiations with the Taliban. He told me that Petraeus wanted to find a way out of Afghanistan.
Zaeef said he was no longer in the Taliban leadership but that if Petraeus really wanted to talk to them, he just needed to follow the rockets they were firing at them and he would find the Taliban waiting at the other end.
Mullah Fazel Mazloom was the commander in charge of Taliban soldiers in Kunduz, of whom Lindh was one. After spending almost 14 years in Guantanamo, he now heads the Taliban delegation in negotiations with the US government.
On 31st May 2014, the Taliban conducted a momentous prisoner swap that captured the world’s attention. They successfully negotiated the release of five senior Taliban prisoners held by the US at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for American soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl who had been captured by the Taliban in 2009.
The prisoner exchange that took place between US Special Forces and the Taliban ended with both sides exchanging a brief but firm handshake.
The following day the “Taliban Five” – whose roles had included a governor, an interior minister, an intelligence minister and a frontline commander – were released from Guantanamo and sent to Qatar where they were freed. Among them was Mazloom.
It is with Lindh’s former commanders that the Trump administration is negotiating peace and the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan today.
My organisation, CAGE, has received some communications from Lindh over the years. Most of it has been poetry and a programme on how to study the Quran in prison. It is evident from this and from others who know him that he is a scholarly, bookish man.
There are reports that Lindh has made statements in support of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, and that he has become more politicised in prison. I’m not sure what to make of that since every former Guantanamo prisoner I know has opposed IS from the start. In fact, IS has tried to establish a foothold in Afghanistan and has been fought back by the Taliban at every juncture. Lindh has said that his views on IS were “of no consequence” and that others would know better, but If indeed he does support IS then he is sorely mistaken and needs to be corrected.
Almost two decades have passed since John Walker Lindh was captured, dishevelled, starved, beaten, bruised and burned. He was 21-years-old. The bigger question in the case of John Walker Lindh is whether he received justice all those years ago and whether the society he’s returning to today has become more just towards people like him. There, I’m afraid, the answer is a resounding no.