American Taliban Took Odd Route

Abdul Hamid
An image taken from Afghan television footage of the man who calls himself Abdul Hamid, right.
Times Staff Writers

Even here in the heart of famously tolerant Marin County, John Walker cut an atypical path.

He attended an alternative high school. He converted to Islam at 16 after reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” He raised eyebrows among neighbors by strolling leafy residential streets in traditional Muslim garb. A white youth from the suburbs who took to Islam with a fervor eclipsing all but the most devout, he was a curiosity even to members of his new religion.

Now, at age 20, when many young Americans might be settling on a college major or thinking about a career, Walker is making international headlines, dubbed “the American Taliban” by the media worldwide.

He was among the last Taliban fighters captured after the bloody prison uprising at a fortress near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif last week. U.S. officials say he is one of three prisoners believed to be Americans among pro-Taliban soldiers who took part in the revolt, which claimed the life of a CIA operative. He identified himself to a reporter as Abdul Hamid.

His parents figure Walker was brainwashed. His friends say they never saw it coming.

“John is the last person you would expect to be a fighter,” said his father, San Francisco energy lawyer Frank Lindh. “He is a very sweet person and very devout in a religious sense.”

Although his father said his son’s American name is John Walker Lindh, in media interviews in Afghanistan, the young man has given his last name as Walker.

Although Pentagon officials have not confirmed the identities of any of the three claiming to be Americans, Walker’s father said he has no doubt that the haggard prisoner of war whose image has been flashed on television screens is his son.

In a few brief interviews with a U.S. news outlet, Walker offered no road map to the long, strange trip he has taken. He said simply that he was “a jihadi,” one involved in a holy struggle, and that he embraced the Taliban because “they are the only government that actually provides Islamic law.”

The second of three children, he was born John Phillip Walker Lindh, named after John Lennon, the Beatle who was killed a year before his birth. His family lived in Silver Spring, Md., before moving west.

Andrew Cleverdon, 19, grew up with him in the Washington suburbs and remembers a kid who used to play football and with GI Joes. But he said Walker seemed to have no particular fascination with the military.

“I would hate to be in his shoes right now,” Cleverdon told Associated Press. “I was a little shocked.”

Teen Transferred to Alternative School

Walker’s teenage years were spent in the wealthy Marin County enclave of San Anselmo, in a neighborhood that features a mix of 60-year-old cottages and houses such as the new 3,000-square-foot trilevel where he and his family lived. Residents described the neighborhood with its narrow, tree-shaded streets as a mix of longtime locals and 1960s radicals who found success.

Walker lasted about a semester at Redwood High School, then transferred to an alternative public school next-door. At Tamiscal High, an elite independent-study center for 100 artistically oriented musicians, dancers and others, Walker was allowed to chart his own scholastic course, checking in with teachers on a weekly basis.

Principal Marcie K. Miller described him as an above-average student. During his tenure there, Walker took all the basic courses for a college-bound student.

Though raised a Roman Catholic, Walker developed an interest in Islam about this time as he read a classic American biography: that of Malcolm X, the African American activist who converted to Islam and was transformed from convict to political leader and cultural icon.

Walker embraced the religion, changing his name to Sulayman al Faris. His father said Walker began visiting a mosque in Mill Valley, just a few miles down the highway from the family’s home. Later, he turned to the San Francisco Islamic Center.

“He found this other spiritual path, and I have always supported that,” his father said.

Neighbors on Monday said they had watched as the young man--whom they described as a thin, academic-looking boy--slowly changed as he entered high school. One neighbor said Walker began growing a beard and wearing traditional Islamic robes and turban.

Youth Made Lasting Impression at Center

Walker found a home at the Islamic center in Mill Valley. Ebrahim Nana, a director at the facility, said he first met Walker in late 1997 at prayer meetings. He noticed something different about the resolute young man.

“Most people come here with questions, they’re curious, but he came and said right away that he had done his independent study and was ready to accept Islam right then and there. That really struck me as unusual.”

Within weeks, Walker was attending regular prayer meetings at the center. One member bought him a traditional Islamic phobe, or robe, and a turban, which he always wore. He made friends with other teens at the center.

“He was shy but dedicated,” said Abdullah Nana, Ebrahim’s son, who befriended Walker. “Here was this young white kid from the suburbs who was very dedicated and who wore the traditional clothing, doing even more than some of the other kids whose parents were Muslim.”

In 1998, Walker graduated early by taking a high school equivalency test. He set off to Yemen at age 17 to learn Arabic and pursue religious studies.

Abdullah Nana said he doesn’t recall that Walker ever talked about jihad, or holy war, or professed violence. He said he last saw Walker two years ago when the young man returned from Yemen.

“He was the same, but even more intense,” Nana recalled. “He had even begun to know some of the Arabic language.”

Little more than a year ago, Walker told his parents he was going to Bannu, Pakistan, to continue his studies with the Tablighi Jamaat movement there.

The Jamaat is widely perceived as apolitical, though media reports from Pakistan suggest that some senior members have ties to radical Islamic factions. The group is the one joined by British rock musician Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam. A revivalist movement that originated in India, the Jamaat has traditionally stressed personal piety.

Frank Lindh said he lost touch with his son in May as Walker was studying at a religious school in Pakistan. At the time, the young man sent an e-mail saying he was going to the mountains to escape the summer heat and would be in touch only infrequently, Lindh said.

When his son still had not made contact after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lindh said, “my anxiety went sky-high.”

He put together a folder with information on his son and began visiting Bay Area mosques, seeking help in finding him.

At each mosque, the father said, they assured him, “You truly have nothing to worry about.”

Lindh said his son never spoke of going to Afghanistan. It may explain his months of silence, the father said.

“In Islam, they have a very strict commandment that you obey your mother and father--you don’t disobey a direct instruction,” Lindh said. “John purposely did not get in touch to ask for my blessing to go to Afghanistan because he knew that I would not consent to that.”

Father Is Grateful but Also Concerned

Lindh said that he is grateful that his son, who reportedly is now being held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is alive but that he is concerned about his son’s future.

President Bush’s recent order authorizing military tribunals for terrorism suspects applies only to people who are not U.S. citizens. But laws also provide that an American can lose citizenship by serving in the armed forces of a foreign state that is engaged in hostilities against the United States.

“There is no evidence that we know of that he has done anything wrong,” said his father. “We are trying through every means we can to reach him, and we are also trying to get him legal counsel.”

Marine Corps Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said Walker’s legal status was under review. “I can assure you he is being treated humanely,” Lowell said.

Later Monday, appearing on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Lindh said the family has had no communication from the U.S. government and has been unable to contact Walker. “We don’t know where he is,” Lindh said.

Lindh said he was “very troubled” by his son’s statement to a reporter that he supported the Sept. 11 attack, but he noted that Walker had just emerged from the frightening prison ordeal.

“We want to see John. We want to give him a big hug. I also want to give him maybe a little kick in the butt for not telling me what he was up to.”

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Alonso-Zaldivar reported from Washington and Glionna from San Anselmo. Staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this report.