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PEOPLE IN THE NEWS

John Walker: American Taliban Fighter

Aired December 22, 2001 - 07:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: Next on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS: a studious kid who seemed like most others in his suburban neighborhood.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREW CLEVERDON, CHILDHOOD FRIEND: He lived in that white house right there. We used to play catch out in the front yard.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: His liberal parents encouraged their son to find his own path.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL JONES, FAMILY FRIEND: The mother opened up his world to Buddhism and the American Indian religions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: He found his path, one that led him to a place few could have predicted.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRANK LINDH, FATHER: I don't like where he ended up. I don't like the fact that he was with the Taliban.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Captured on the side of the Taliban, held prisoner as an enemy of his own country.

The story of John Walker, now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DARYN KAGAN, HOST (voice-over): The bloody showdown started inside a 19th century fortress outside of Mazar-e Sharif on November 26.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's hundreds of dead here, at least.

KAGAN: There, hundreds of Taliban soldiers taken captive by Northern Alliance fighters staged a violent uprising. Six days later, bodies littered the ground around the prison compound. Only 86 Taliban prisoners survived. One of the captives who emerged from the fortress ruins gave his name as Abdul Hamid, but his real name was John Walker.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're an American citizen, right?

JOHN WALKER: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, right now you are a prisoner.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAGAN: He spoke English with an accent, yet he was born and raised in the United States.

WALKER: I haven't spoken English with native speakers in several months. I've been speaking Arabic. So I've been living overseas for about two years or so.

KAGAN: The grimy image flashed around the world filled many Americans with revulsion, even hate. Twenty-year-old John Walker, a U.S. citizen, told reporters he supported the September 11 attack and the Taliban.

WALKER: I started to read some of the literature by scholars and the history of the movement, and I thought -- my heart became attached to them. I wanted to help them one way or another.

KAGAN: Just hours before the uprising began, John Walker had come face to face with another U.S. citizen.

Johnny Mike Spann was a CIA agent who interrogated Walker after his capture inside the prison compound. But Walker refused to cooperate.

Shortly after the interrogation, Taliban prisoners with hidden grenades rushed the Northern Alliance guards.

WALKER: They started fighting with -- starting with a grenade, and one of them grabbed a Kalashnikov from one of the army forces, and so the fighting began.

KAGAN: Spann was killed in the revolt. Walker was wounded, but he managed to weather six days of ferocious fighting before being flooded out of an underground bunker and surrendering.

WALKER: When they poured the water into the basement, I think the vast majority of us were drowned. So that morning -- and we were standing in the water, the freezing water, in the basement for maybe 20 hours.

KAGAN: The unexpected capture of an American alongside Taliban fighters sparked heated debate in the U.S. over Walker's fate. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If he's an American citizen, he would, one supposes, have some rights.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is he a traitor?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We found a person who says he's an American with an AK-47 in a prison with a bunch of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. And he has been characterizing his circumstance. And you can be certain he will have all the rights he is due.

MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), NEW YORK CITY: Serious consideration should be given to the maximum penalty that the law allows. And when you are -- commit treason against the United States of America, particularly at a time in which the United States is in peril of attack and further attack, I believe that the death penalty is an appropriate remedy to consider.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KAGAN: The image of a Taliban American in custody roused emotions in the U.S. It was also emotional for John Walker's parents. They hadn't heard from their son in nearly seven months.

LINDH: We saw actual footage of John speaking into the camera, talking from this hospital situation in Afghanistan, and it was very, very upsetting for us to see.

KAGAN: For John Walker, the journey to Afghanistan and the Taliban's rigid and austere life was a long way from his permissive and privileged upbringing. He was born in 1981, named after John Lennon. The Beatle had died just a few months before.

John Walker grew up the middle of three children in a comfortable suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. His Irish Catholic father, Frank Lindh, worked as a lawyer for the Department of Justice. His mother, Marilyn Walker, was a home health care aide. The family went to mass at nearby St. Bernadette's Catholic church. Neighbors say that John was no different from other kids his age.

CLEVERDON: I remember playing, you know, some indoor games. I do remember being outside with him, whether we were playing football, probably basketball a little bit, soccer, kick -- you know, just playing catch, stuff like that.

KAGAN: When he was 10, John's family moved to Marin County, California, an open-minded community north of San Francisco, always out in front of the latest trends.

John learned to play the flute, bought a drum set, and toyed with the idea of becoming a professional musician. LINDH: He's a very gentle kid, very gentle, very sweet, very good brother to his younger sister, very musical, very adept at languages, and very studious.

KAGAN: He went to an alternative high school where students can shape their own studies. They check in with each teacher only one hour each week.

MARCIE MILLER, PRINCIPAL, TAMISCAL HIGH SCHOOL: This is an independent-study high school, and students come here voluntarily, and it's generally for students who are highly motivated to learn and can do much of the school work on their own.

KAGAN: As a teenager, John Walker immersed himself in rap music, listening to artists like L.L. Cool J. He would often visit hip-hop Web sites, once even posing in an e-mail as an African-American.

Identifying with other ethnic groups and cultures would become an important characteristic of John Walker's.

SHELBY STEELE, HOOVER INSTITUTION: The way to be hip, the way to be cool, is to take on a little theme of anti-Americanism, to identify with things from other cultures, to identify with black alienation. One of the fascinating things that always fascinates me is the fact that 80 percent of rap music in America's bought by white middle-class teenagers.

KAGAN: When the story of John Walker continues, how a young hip- hop fan ended up with the Taliban.

JONES: He didn't seem fanatical. I mean, he was -- he was on a spiritual quest. It wasn't like it was a wild-eyed thing, he was a student. He was a scholar.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WALKER: I was a student in Pakistan, studying Islam. And I came into contact with many people who were connected with Taliban.

KAGAN (voice-over): Three years before John Walker was found with Taliban troops in Afghanistan, he lived here, Fairfax, California, known as high-income and ultraliberal community north of San Francisco. A city laced with coffee houses and theaters, a city filled with people who believe in free expression and independent thinking.

John Walker's family seemed to fit right in.

JONES: Marilyn, the mother, although she was raised a Catholic, she opened up his world to Buddhism and the American Indian religions.

CHARLES BAHN, FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGIST: The Eastern religions particularly are attractive to people there because there's very little behavioral demands associated with them. There's a feeling of spirituality associated. And it's foreign and exotic.

KAGAN: John Walker was exposed to a variety of religions. When he was 16, he chose his own spiritual path. Walker's father says the turning point may have come when his son read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

LINDH: And he was very, very impressed with Malcolm X's character and with his -- Malcolm X's own conversion to Islam near the end of his life.

STEELE: Malcolm's conversion was a protest against America. And I think to a degree that it may well be that John Walker's conversion had something to do with that same anti-American theme.

KAGAN: John Walker transformed his passion from hip-hop music to the religion of Islam. He sold his rap collection, dropped out of high school, began to wear traditional Islamic clothes, and even changed his name.

LINDH: He adopted the Muslim name Suleiman, which we would call Solomon, but like Suleiman the Magnificent, I used to call him.

BAHN: What he was trying to do was to be accepted as a believer in Islam, because then he became part of the community, and his life had a purpose.

KAGAN: With the support of his parents, John Walker converted to Islam. He began attending this mosque in San Francisco.

ABDULLAH NANA, FRIEND: Naturally one of the -- it's actually a unique story of how he came to Islam, because most people, they have some intermediary, they have a Muslim who they spoke to, and then they were convinced about Islam. But he -- now, he studied totally on his own.

KAGAN: Abdullah Nana often prayed with John Walker. He says Walker's religious ambitions exceeded the most devoted members of the mosque.

NANA: And he had mentioned to me his goal was actually to memorize the whole -- all the Koran.

KAGAN: It was Walker's yearning to learn Arabic and to study the Koran that compelled the 17-year-old to leave the United States and the comforts of home.

NANA: He'd actually gone on the Internet, and he was looking for Islamic schools. Eventually he'd come to his own -- on his own he'd decided that he was going to go to Yemen.

KAGAN: Although Walker's parents were separating and the money was tight, they supported their son's decision to go to Yemen and paid for the teenager's trip. LINDH: He was very devoted to it, devoted to the intellectual study and the study of Arabic. I thought that was a noble thing, and I was proud of John for pursuing that alternative course.

KAGAN: The first sign that John Walker's Islamic interests were more than intellectual or spiritual came in October 2000. Following the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, Walker sent an e-mail to his father.

LINDH: His response was that the U.S. military shouldn't be in Yemen. I felt that he was a little too strong in his opinion that way, but I know -- it reminded me, frankly, of a lot of conversations I used to have with my own father during the Vietnam War, where I had an opinion and he had an opinion.

KAGAN: But the difference in opinion didn't stop Walker's father from supporting his son emotionally and financially.

In late 1999, Walker left Yemen, came home to California briefly, and joined an even more radical Islamic group. After one more visit to Yemen, John Walker traveled to Bonir (ph), a village in Pakistan's northwest, an area known to support Osama bin Laden. Walker attended this Islamic school or madrasa, a stark one-story building with no hot water and no electricity after 10:00 p.m.

These strict fundamental schools specialize in teaching the Koran. They also provide thousands of soldiers for the Taliban.

MAULANA WAJIHUDEEN, MUSLIM CLERIC (through translator): Our aim is to spread the message of the Koran all over the world and to make Islam triumph over all other religions.

KAGAN: Walker's family continued to send money to John after he entered the madrasa. But eventually it lost touch with him.

LINDH: My last contact with John was by e-mail back in -- you know, in April, and very -- first part of May. And we have no information and no contact whatsoever with John from that day until now.

JONES: Yes, I think the schools there are very fundamentalist, and he was a very young impressionals -- impressionistic young man, and he just got swept up.

BAHN: He wanted to fit in, he wanted to be part of the group. He was convinced that they were doing some really good work for Allah.

KAGAN: When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, John Walker struggles to fit in and almost loses his life along the way.

LINDH: When I think that my boy, 20-year-old boy, was in the midst of this carnage for that period of time, my heart breaks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAGAN (voice-over): American John Walker spent the first half of 2001 studying Islam at a Pakistani madrasa like this one. The schools taught religion and often served as breeding ground for the al Qaeda training camps of Osama bin Laden.

In May, Walker sent an e-mail to his parents back in northern California. He told them he planned to head to a cooler climate. Summer was approaching, and the heat would surely be too much. And he asked for money, $1,200.

LINDH: He had told us he was going to go up into the mountains of Pakistan, and with my blessing, he did leave.

KAGAN: September 11, terrorist attacks on the United States focus new attention on Osama bin Laden and on Central Asia. Pakistan offered its support to the United States in America's attack on the Taliban, believed to be sheltering bin Laden in neighboring Afghanistan.

Anti-American sentiment ran high in Pakistan, and John Walker's family worried about their son, who they believed to be in that country.

JONES: They hadn't seen or heard from him in seven months. And they were desperate, they were afraid that he was hurt somewhere or maybe in the hospital.

KAGAN: But Walker wasn't in the hospital, or even in Pakistan. The man who had taken the Muslim name Suleiman and then Abdul Hamid, was in Afghanistan, fighting for the Taliban.

JONES: I don't understand it myself, this young man being so involved in this religion. He certainly wasn't attracted by what we know about the Taliban. How he could get sucked into this, we cannot understand.

KAGAN: On November 26, 49 days into the war on terror in Afghanistan. Taliban prisoners staged a riot at a prison camp just outside Mazar-e Sharif. There in the basement of the Afghan prison, wounded, weary, and barely alive, 20-year-old American John Walker.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONNA KELLEY, CNN ANCHOR: And there's a startling story that's emerging. U.S. officials tell CNN that a man we're going to show you who fought alongside Taliban forces is an American.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAGAN: Exactly how Walker wound up with forces fighting his country remains sketchy, although he tried to explain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) WALKER: I came into contact with many people who were connected with Taliban. I lived in the region in Northwest Frontier Province. The people there in general have a great love for the Taliban.

ROBERT PELTON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Was your goal to be shahib, a martyr?

WALKER: That's the goal of every Muslim.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LINDH: He's really not much more than a boy. That he went through this horrible experience in the prison, and who knows what leading up to that, as parents and as family, we're very troubled and very concerned for his welfare.

KAGAN: Others are not so concerned with Walker's welfare, but many have opinions as to what to do with him from a legal standpoint.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He has supported the Taliban. They are supporting the terrorists...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the fact that he had a gun doesn't satisfy the requirement...

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He's being given all his rights, which are far more than the rights of the Taliban or the al Qaeda extended to anybody living there.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KAGAN: The case of John Walker launches a list of questions. Did he commit a crime? If so, which one? Should he be prosecuted in a military or federal court? And if he provides the U.S. with credible information, could that in turn be used against him in a court of law?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll make the decision on what to do with Mr. Walker...

KAGAN: President Bush is considering a variety of recommendations, including charging Walker with treason, which could carry the death penalty. Another possibility, the charge of assisting terrorists. It's a lesser charge that carries a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in prison for each count, or life imprisonment if death resulted from the offense.

A final decision has not been determined, but it is expected soon.

EUGENE FIDELL, INSTITUTE OF MILITARY JUSTICE: Well, I think he is under the government's microscope in a real way. Whether he will ultimately be prosecuted, though, is probably an open question, because his value to the government may be much greater as an intelligence source or as a witness than as a defendant.

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: History has not looked kindly upon those who have forsaken their countries to go and fight against their countries...

KAGAN: Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA, says that history shows that those who fight against their country suffer severe consequences.

EUGENE VOLOKH, LAW PROFESSOR, UCLA: It is a rare thing, especially for Americans, to fight on the side of our enemies during wartime. That's setting aside situations like the Civil War and other rebellions, where there were domestic, domestic treasons like that. In the context of a foreign war, fortunately Americans don't do that sort of thing. But when they do that, yes, indeed, the book tends to be thrown at them.

KAGAN: But treason is difficult to prove. According to Article III of the U.S. Constitution, "No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court."

VOLOKH: I think that there is a lot of very justifiable anger and Walker and contempt for Walker, and the desire that justice be meted out to him. But how it is that the public will react to particular government actions depends on what the evidence shows and what that -- what the government presents as its case to the public. I don't think that public opinion is set in cement on this right now, because so much turns on facts that we don't know much about.

KAGAN: John Walker currently awaits his fate on board a U.S. Navy ship in the Arabian Sea. Walker's family, meanwhile, had hired a prominent trial attorney, James Brosnahan, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the 1987 Iran-Contra case.

BAHN: In a storybook world and a movie world, the good guys wear the white hats, the bad guys wear the black hats. It's not so simple in the real world.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALKER: I haven't eaten in about -- more than a week.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAGAN: It's certainly not a simple situation for John Walker's family, which wrestles with the question, what happened?

LINDH: At no point did I expect anything like what we now have. I don't like where he ended up, I don't like the fact that he was with the Taliban. I'm not a Taliban person. And I want to have a good talking with my son to find out what was going on.

KAGAN: A shocked father, maybe. But the son, John Walker, indicated there were no surprises for him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PELTON: Was this what you thought it would be? Was this the right cause, or the right place?

WALKER: It's exactly what I thought it would be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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