Today in 2002: “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh pleads guilty

July 15, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryNine years ago today, John Walker Lindh pleaded guilty to supplying services to the Taliban and carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony.

Lindh, captured in Afghanistan on November 25, 2001, was famously dubbed an “American Taliban” after his capture.

He converted to Islam in 1997, travelled to Yemen in 1998, and eventually, in May or June of 2001, Lindh arrived in Afghanistan “for the purpose of taking up arms with the Taliban,” according to his criminal indictment.

From then until July or August of 2001, Lindh received military training from al Qaeda, after which he joined the Taliban forces, which was fighting against Afghan Northern Alliance forces at the time.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, U.S. forces joined the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban, with the purpose of deposing the faction from power and eradicating al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan.

Consequently, the Taliban, for whom Lindh was fighting, came into direct conflict with U.S. forces.

In November 2001, Lindh and his fighting group surrendered to Northern Alliance troops.

After an unsuccessful prison uprising by fellow Taliban, Lindh and other Taliban and al Qaeda fighters were taken into custody by Northern Alliance and U.S. forces on December 1, 2001.

Following his capture, Lindh was interrogated, transported to the U.S., and ultimately charged in federal court with ten criminal offenses.

One of Lindh’s major arguments on his defense (included in his motions to dismiss the charges) was that he was a “lawful combatant” under the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (GPW), and thus entitled to immunity from criminal prosecution.

For anyone not familiar with international law, the Geneva Conventions are somewhat vague as to the exact definition of who is a “lawful combatant” and who is “unlawful.”

john walker lindhWhile President George W. Bush announced in February 2002 that the Taliban were unlawful combatants under the GPW and not entitled to POW status under the Geneva Conventions, the court still made its own determination.

Among other factors, the court found that because the Taliban had targeted civilian populations in the past (regardless of the fact that Lindh didn’t do so personally), the Taliban were not entitled to “lawful combatant” status, and nor, by extension, was Lindh.

After Lindh’s motions to dismiss were denied on July 12, 2002, Lindh entered into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors (who feared that Lindh’s confession may be inadmissible evidence as having been forced under duress).

Under the agreement, Lindh pleaded guilty to only two charges and consented to a gag order preventing him from making any public statements on the matter during his 20-year sentence.

Also, he agreed to drop any claims of torture by U.S. military personnel

Currently, Lindh is incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institution at Terre Haute, Indiana, scheduled for release on May 23, 2019 (federal law allows for a 15% reduction of sentence for good behavior).

While you may think his story may make an interesting book or movie, we’ll probably never see either, since the plea agreement forbids Lindh or his family and friends from profiting from any such deals.

Thus, the most we’ll probably see about the “American Taliban” in the future will come in the form of news and biographical stories independent from Lindh himself.