John Walker Lindh served 17 years of a 20-year federal prison sentence. File Photo courtesy Alexandria County Sheriff's Department | License Photo
May 23 (UPI) -- John Walker Lindh, the man who became known as the "American Taliban" as the first U.S. citizen captured for leaving the United States to join an Islamic militant group, was released from federal prison Thursday after serving most of his 20-year sentence.
Lindh left the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind., on probation early Thursday after serving 17 years, although some authorities are still concerned he harbors militant beliefs. His attorney told CNN Lindh will live in Virginia.
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Northern California, Lindh traveled to Afghanistan in 2000 to study Arabic in Yemen as a teenager after converting to Islam at age 16. He later traveled to Pakistan to learn with an Islamic humanitarian group. During his time in Afghanistan, Lindh said he provided services as a soldier to the Taliban, trained at two al-Qaida camps and fought against Northern Alliance troops in the country's civil war. He said at one point he met Osama bin Laden, was given a role as an al-Qaida terrorist and advance knowledge about the plot that would become the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Northern alliance soldiers captured Lindh after the attacks, in 2001 at the age of 21, during the battle for Kudunz. U.S. authorities linked him to the death of CIA agent Johnny "Mike" Spann during an uprising Qala-i-Changi. Spann was killed and several U.S. special forces members were injured in a violent Afghan prison uprising. The incident led U.S. authorities to believe he'd conspired to kill Americans, although he denied any role in Spann's death and his attorney argued he never participated in any fighting.
After the uprising Lindh was discovered by a military medic and transferred to U.S. military custody. After returning to the United States, he pleaded guilty to charges of providing support to the Taliban and carrying a rifle and grenade related to his actions with the terrorist group, and was sentenced in 2002 to 20 years in federal prison.
At his sentencing, which took place more than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, he denounced the actions of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida as being against the teachings of Islam and said he would never have joined the Taliban militia if he'd had a full understanding of their mission.
"I have become aware of the relationship between the leaders of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's organization," he said at the time. "Bin Laden's terrorist attacks are completely against Islam, completely contrary to the conventions of jihad and without any justification whatsoever. I have never supported terrorism in any form and never would."
Some authorities are concerned that Lindh, now 38, has potential to cause harm now that he's again free. Judge T.S. Ellis III set a series of conditions for Lindh's release; he's barred from using the Internet or owning a web-capable device without permission from his probation officer. If he is allowed to use such a device, he must do so under constant supervision and use only English communications. He is also prohibited from traveling internationally and obtaining a passport.
The restrictions stem from Lindh's past militant actions, as well as concern he still holds militant attitudes -- a worry underscored by letters he wrote to KNBC-TV in Los Angeles four years ago praising the Islamic State terror group and saying it's doing a "spectacular job." The letters were released for the first time this week.
"The Islamic State is clearly very sincere and serious about fulfilling the long-neglected religious obligation of establishing a caliphate through armed struggle, which is the only correct method," he wrote.
In the correspondence, Lindh said he still pursues Islamic knowledge and referred to himself as a political prisoner.
The letters contributed to a 2016 intelligence report by the National Counter Terrorism Center that said Lindh has "continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts." It noted that he's made statements to reporters and other media supporting the Islamic State and expressing plans to "spread violent extremist Islam" after his release.
Spann's father has petitioned for an investigation of his son's death, in light of the intelligence report.
"What I am asking to happen is that they do an intense investigation, a through investigation of those reports to see if he actually has done that," John Spann told CNN.
Lindh's release has also been opposed by Sens. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who wrote a letter to Bureau of Prisons chief Hugh Hurwitz saying there's no adequate coordinated federal approach to prevent convicted terrorists from returning to violence upon their release.
"Our highest priority is keeping America safe, secure and free," they wrote. "To that end, we must consider the security and safety implications for our citizens and communities who will receive individuals like John Walker Lindh who continue to openly call for extremist violence."