From Gitmo to Counterterrorism, Failing to Learn the Lessons of John Walker Lindh

His release reminds us of the failure of military tribunals and Trump's retreat on domestic terrorism.

May 29, 2019
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John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban,” left federal custody last week the way he entered it 18 years ago: amid a chorus of warnings about the danger he poses to the nation and a series of lamentations about the limitations of federal terrorism law. There was the leak of the letter of his reported fealty to ISIS. The digging up of old stories about his letters from prison. The predictable tsk-tsking about Islamic radicalization from elected officials who nevertheless continue to support an administration that has consistently weakened the efforts of federal law enforcement agents to root out domestic terrorists.

But Lindh, released from federal prison in Indiana last Thursday after serving 17 years on a material support for terrorism conviction, never was an appropriate poster child for America’s post-9/11 war on terror. From the moment he copped a plea deal in 2002 until today, he’s always been more of a reminder of the utter failure of the military tribunal process set up after the Twin Towers fell. The two men who choreographed the attacks — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh — have never been tried or convicted. Lindh, found hiding in a basement in Afghanistan during a prison uprising, got 20 years and now goes on to the rest of his life.

Reasonable people forever will disagree about the severity of Lindh’s sentence and the passionate air that surrounded it or about what kind of symbol Lindh deserves to be. Even though he has served his sentence as the law requires, and even earned a few years off of it, the American people aren’t likely to ever forgive him for staying with the Taliban after the attacks of September 11, 2001. That he never really gave the Taliban “material” support as we would normally define the word has never mattered in his story. He was the boy who stayed, and then never repented, and now faces an uncertain future full of post-release restrictions.

But no reasonable person can say that it is okay that America hasn’t fully and fairly tried Binalshibh and Mohammed as we approach the 20th anniversary of their capture. The tribunal system at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been an embarrassing failure from its very inception — a stain forever on the reputation of the military, the courts, Congress, and officials in successive administrations since 2002. Not only have these men, and dozens more, never been tried at Gitmo, there is no reason to think they ever will be. Instead, officials there are preparing to morph Gitmo into a prison for the elderly as the detainees morph into old men.

In this sense. Lindh’s birthright spared him. He got to be prosecuted as a U.S. citizen in a civilian U.S. court with an excellent lawyer before an impartial and competent judge. No citizen, especially no citizen embedded with the Taliban in the months after 9//11, has a right to expect more. There were men who were not born in America who were sent to Gitmo who did about as much to support the Taliban — that is to say, as little to support the Taliban, or far less — as Lindh had done. Some of these men have been released from Gitmo. Others will never be. Some may have re-radicalized after prison. Some, let’s face it, may have become radicalized for the first time.

The fervent discussion about the possibility of Lindh’s continuing radicalization, also serves mostly as a reminder of the ways in which the Trump administration has scaled back or undermined efforts to identify, apprehend, and prosecute domestic terrorists, especially right-wing, white-supremacists. I have no way of knowing whether these radicals are more or less dangerous to me today than Lindh is. You probably don’t, either. But the idea that government officials should be focused on the latter and not the former is absurd given the threat of domestic terrorism today compared with the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Given all we’ve learned from the war on terror since 2001, we should be wiser today than we seem to be. We should have figured by now out a way to give the terror detainees a fair trial that comported both with military law and constitutional principles. We should have figured out by now a way to de-radicalize terrorists, or terrorist-wannabes, so that they pose less of a threat of violence. We should remember and recognize as a matter of national policy the dangers we create for our own military personnel when we countenance war crimes or otherwise violate the rules of warfare and international law.

If it seems like a lifetime ago that Lindh made his plea deal and went to federal prison, it’s no surprise why. A generation now has grow up since September 11, 2001. This fall, babies born on that awful day will be eligible to vote and to serve in the military and therefore to fight in America’s endless war abroad. Lindh himself was just 20 years old when the hijacked planes ushered in a new era in American history, which means he has spent almost half his life in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. The country he was released back into last Thursday is quite different from the one he left. So is the government. What that means for Lindh is up to him to decide.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Joe Raedle/Getty)