U.S. charges American Taliban fighter
WASHINGTON - John Walker Lindh, the restless Marin County, Calif., wanderer who journeyed halfway around the world to fight alongside the Taliban militia, was charged Tuesday with conspiring to kill U.S. citizens in Afghanistan and providing support to terrorist groups, including Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
In outlining a case that could put Walker in prison for life, prosecutors also disclosed that Walker learned three months before the Sept. 11 terror attacks that bin Laden had sent operatives to the United States to carry out unspecified suicide missions, according to the criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va.
The current charges spare Walker the death penalty, but Attorney General John Ashcroft said prosecutors would continue to seek evidence to prove a capital offense such as treason.
Senior U.S. officials conceded, however, that they have been unsuccessful in directly linking Walker to the death of CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann, who was killed during a bloody uprising at an Afghan prison compound shortly after interviewing the 20-year-old convert to radical Islam.
President Bush, who previously decided with his advisers to have the Justice Department prosecute Walker, signed off on the criminal complaint before it was filed yesterday afternoon, sources said.
Ashcroft said in a news conference that the U.S. government ''does not casually or capriciously charge one of its own citizens with providing support to terrorists,'' but that Walker ''knowingly and purposefully allied himself with terror.''
The charges indicate that Ashcroft and federal prosecutors intend to take a hard line in the prosecution of Walker, whose strange transformation from rap-loving California teen-ager to unlikely jihad warrior has captivated the nation and prompted debate about parenting and permissiveness.
''We may never know why he turned his back on our country and our values, but we cannot ignore that he did,'' Ashcroft said. ''Youth is not absolution for treachery, and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against one's country.''
In a statement released by their attorney yesterday, Walker's parents, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, complained that their son had been held for 45 days by U.S. military authorities without contact from his family. They said they have not received confirmation that any of their letters to him have been received.
''We now hope that we will see our son soon and give him the love and support he needs,'' the statement said. ''We are grateful to live in a nation that presumes innocence and withholds judgment until all of the facts are presented, and we pray for a just resolution of this case.''
The filing of charges in Alexandria would bring Walker into the same court system where prosecutors are preparing to try Zacarias Moussaoui, the French national who is the only person in the United States charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. Moussaoui, charged with conspiring with al-Qaida, could face the death penalty if convicted.
Two of the charges against Walker - conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and providing material assistance to al-Qaida - carry maximum sentences of life in prison, according to Justice officials. The other two counts would bring penalties of 10 years in prison.
The bulk of the case against Walker is based on his own admissions to FBI agent on December 9 and 10, according to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Anne Asbury. Authorities said that Walker was given Miranda warnings and signed a waiver of his right to an attorney.
Legal experts said that prosecutors can almost certainly prove that Walker provided material assistance to terrorists because he apparently admits training in two separate terrorist camps. The conspiracy charge is more challenging and will likely rest on evidence that isn't included in the complaint, such as conversations Walker may have had with others about plans to harm Americans, experts said.
Named for late Beatle John Lennon and raised in the posh San Francisco suburb of San Anselmo, Calif., Walker converted to Islam in 1997, at the age of 16, and announced that he wanted to be called Suleyman al-Faris. The next year, with his parents' blessing, Walker traveled to Yemen alone to study the Koran. He returned to the United States before making a second trip to Yemen in 2000, and has not been back to the United States since.
Walker spent the first 10 years of his life in Takoma Park, Md., where his father studied for a law degree while clerking at the Justice Department that is now prosecuting his son.
The criminal complaint portrays Walker as a willing and eager student of terrorism who trained in two countries with two separate terrorist groups and chose to fight on the front lines in northern Afghanistan.
Walker allegedly told the FBI that he first began training as a terrorist in May 2001, when he left a school he was attending in Bannau, Pakistan, and signed up with the Pakistani terror group Harakat ul-Mujahideen to fight in Kashmir. After 24 days of firearms training with that group, Walker reported in to a Taliban recruiting center in Kabul, but was referred to a group run by al-Qaida for additional training because he did not speak any Afghan dialects, according to the complaint.
The next month, while attending al-Qaida's al-Farooq training camp, ''Walker learned from one his instructors that bin Laden had sent people to the United States to carry out several suicide operations,'' according to the affidavit.
Bin Laden visited the camp as many as five times, and met with Walker and four others to ''thank them for taking part in jihad,'' according to Walker's account. Walker learned how to fire pistols, shoulder weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, and constructed Molotov cocktails, the affidavit said.
Walker said he declined an offer to conduct operations against the United States and Israel outside Afghanistan, opting for combat against the Northern Alliance forces instead. Armed with an AKM rifle, Walker and about 150 fighters made their way to the front lines in Takhar in mid-summer.
Walker said he learned about the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington on the radio. He allegedly told the FBI that he and his comrades believed that bin Laden had ordered the attacks and that more would follow.
When the United States bombed his group's position in Takhar, Walker and others retreated to Kunduz, where a surrender was negotiated. He and the other fighters were eventually taken to an old fort outside Mazar-e-Sharif called Qala-i-Janghi.
On Nov. 25, Walker was interviewed there by CIA officer Johnny Michael Spann, but did not answer Spann's questions. Walker told the FBI he was waiting on a lawn with other prisoners when an uprising began. Spann was killed and Walker, who denied any connection to Spann's death, was shot in the leg.
Investigators are still trying to determine exactly what Walker was doing during the uprising, and whether he was part of the group of prisoners who converged on Spann and killed him, sources said. If FBI agents can find evidence showing that Walker was part of the attack, a federal grand jury could indict him for treason.
Ashcroft noted yesterday, however, that ''not all conduct against the United States by U.S. citizens is susceptible to the charge of treason.'' The U.S. Constitution requires a courtroom confession or testimony by two witnesses to each overt act, according to Ashcroft and legal experts.
Walker was captured by Northern Alliance fighters who turned him over to the United States. Since then, he has been imprisoned on the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea. U.S. officials began the process yesterday of transferring him to the custody of the FBI.
Legal experts predicted that Walker's lawyers will almost certainly challenge the contention that Walker spoke voluntarily with the FBI. Attorney James Brosnahan, who was hired by Walker's parents, has said authorities have rebuffed his repeated requests to speak with Walker.