AP Was There: The roots of the ‘American Taliban’
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — This story was first published on Dec. 21, 2001, when AP journalist Justin Pritchard reported on the American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh’s journey to the Taliban front lines. We are reprinting the story now to mark Lindh’s release after nearly two decades in prison.
John Walker Lindh’s journey to the Taliban front lines began five years ago in the wealthy suburbs north of San Francisco, where he discovered a brand of Islam known for its missionary zeal.
The clean-cut teen-ager who explored mosques near his Marin County home turned up this month in Afghanistan as a bearded, 20-year-old warrior willing to die for the Taliban’s conception of a “pure” Islamic state.
He shocked some of his countrymen by admitting that he served with Arab fighters financed by Osama bin Laden and that he attended a training camp run by the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Lindh has been locked up by the U.S. military, and his fate probably will be determined by President Bush.
How could a baptized Roman Catholic who had been exposed to Buddhism through his mother wind up on the run with the Taliban and bin Laden’s al-Qaida fighters? The last several months of Lindh’s life are not well known, but his spiritual quest began simply enough: He discovered Islam at age 15 and liked what it had to offer.
Inspired by “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” — himself a Muslim convert — Lindh began researching the faith, first through Internet chat rooms and soon after with visits to at least three mosques in the San Francisco Bay area.
Acquaintances say he quickly encountered “tablighi jamaat,” a movement roughly translated as “preaching society” that encourages Muslims to contact those whose faith is drifting and steer them back into the orbit of a mosque. There are millions of devotees around the world.
Followers personally petition Muslims to pursue spiritual renewal and live as Mohammed did in seventh-century Saudi Arabia, according to an expert on tablighi jamaat, Barbara Metcalf, who teaches history at the University of California at Davis.
Devotees are studiously apolitical, according to Metcalf. She said their calls for jihad are less a call to arms than a struggle for self-mastery. In Lindh’s case, authorities say, there is no evidence Lindh was drafted into bin Laden’s self-proclaimed holy war on the United States.
“It doesn’t appear that he was actively recruited or that there’s a network in the Bay Area to recruit people to fight for the Taliban or any jihad,” FBI spokesman Andrew Black said Wednesday.
The focus of tablighi jamaat on personal sacrifice is common to many religions. Its rejection of religious establishment resembles Protestantism, while its missionary mandate is akin to Mormonism.
It must have seemed ideal to Lindh, who was thirsty for a deeper knowledge of Islam.
“You get five, six guys at your disposal to answer questions,” said Ebrahim Nana, who knew Lindh when the boy worshipped at the Islamic Center of Mill Valley.
In 1997, soon after he began attending the Mill Valley mosque, Lindh went to a weekend retreat for tablighi jamaat followers at the Santa Clara County fairgrounds, Nana said. He recalled a detective calling the Islamic Center, saying Lindh’s mother had reported him missing.
“I remember his mother thinking that he had been kidnapped by some cult,” Nana said. “She didn’t know anything about Islam.”
In time, Lindh blurred barriers between the mosque and the rest of his life. He grew a beard, began to wear an Islamic robe and cap and wanted to be known as “Suleyman.”
“He wanted something pure, and he was definitely questing at an early age,” his father, Frank Lindh, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We encouraged him to look.”
In time, Lindh found a tablighi jamaat hub at the Islamic Center of San Francisco. He also went to Masjid Darussalam, one of the city’s largest mosques. A mosque official, Souleiman Ghali, said Lindh’s father showed up about six weeks ago, carrying a picture of the son he had not heard from in more than four months.
Frank Lindh also had a letter from the head of the Pakistani religious school. That fact made Ghali think he stayed with tablighi jamaat last year.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, anybody going to Pakistan is going to hook up with the jamaat,” said Ghali, an American citizen born in Lebanon. “You don’t reserve a spot in the Hilton. You’re part of a connected group, and that’s the tablighi jamaat.”
After graduating from an independent studies high school at 16, Lindh departed for Yemen in 1998 to study Arabic with his parents’ blessing. He returned home in 1999, after 10 months in Yemen.
He stayed in Marin County for about eight months but apparently felt lonely and unsettled. In February 2000, he returned to Yemen and eventually moved to Pakistan, where he studied at an Islamic school near the Afghan border.
It was there he fell in with the Taliban, Lindh told the CNN crew as he was being treated for wounds suffered during the deadly prisoner revolt in Mazar-e-Sharif.
“I started to read some of the literature,” Lindh said. “My heart became attached to the movement.”
He defended the Taliban, who took power in Afghanistan in 1995 after a bloody civil war. He declared the Taliban’s cause the right one and said jihad was “exactly what I thought it would be.”