The Federal Correctional Complex on the edge of the southern Californian town of Victorville is a grim, inhospitable place. Its squat concrete blocks are surrounded first by walls and barbed wire fences and then by the scrubby expanse of the Mojave Desert.
The prison sits just off Route 66, the highway where Nat King Cole famously invited travellers to “get your kicks”. But this stretch of the road, lined by ugly cement factories and crumbling wooden shacks, could not be further from its romantic image.
It is here in the medium-security jail that John Walker Lindh is serving the 20-year sentence imposed after he was captured fighting alongside the Taliban on the battlefields of northern Afghanistan in November 2001.
Lindh, who was given a defence lawyer and taken before an independent civilian court, had pleaded guilty to joining the Taliban and carrying weapons but, in a plea bargain, prosecutors dropped the most serious charge against him, of conspiracy to kill US nationals.
Better known simply as the “American Taliban”, Lindh, now 25, has largely disappeared from public attention since his imprisonment in October 2002, not least because the terms of his incarceration effectively forbid him from communicating with the outside world. But the Sunday Telegraph has now been given the first account of his life behind bars, provided by a former fellow Muslim inmate and the religious counsellor who visits him in prison. They describe a devout, quiet and scholarly figure who has become a spiritual role model for his fellow Muslims. He has even earned the respect of other prisoners who once condemned him as a “traitor”, they said.
This newspaper has also obtained the first prison photograph of Lindh, who goes by the Islamic name of Hamzah. It shows a tall white man, beard down to his chest and wearing a knitted green kufi (prayer cap), standing in the back row of a group of mainly black Muslim inmates who had gathered last November for the Eid celebration that follows the fasting month of Ramadan.
According to Shakeel Syed, his religious adviser, Lindh commands such stature and esteem inside the prison that he is developing into a “softer version” of Malcolm X, the fiery black American Islamic leader who spent much of his life condemning whites as the enemy, only to mellow and preach a message of racial harmony after a pilgrimage to Mecca. “I’ve told Hamzah that he could become the new Malcolm X,” said Mr Syed, the quietly spoken director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. “I’m talking about the later Malcolm X who transcended racist sentiments and nationalism.
“When Hamzah is released, I believe he can become a bridge-builder between faiths and communities, a man who will fight against inequality and for social justice. He smiled at me when I told him that he could play that role in the future, but he is much too modest to say that he agrees.”
It would not be the first time that Malcolm X – who was assassinated in 1965, possibly on the orders of his former allies in the militant black Nation of Islam – has played a significant and inspirational role in Lindh’s life. As a 12-year-old boy, he first became interested in Islam when his mother took him to the Spike Lee movie, Malcolm X. Lindh was particularly taken, she recalled, by the final scene showing Muslims from around the world bowing down to God.
But for the foreseeable future, Lindh’s life will be dictated by the strictures of prison life as well as, in his particular case, the special administrative measures imposed upon him. He is forbidden to talk about events in Afghanistan, to speak Arabic (he was, says Mr Syed, put in solitary confinement for a few days after returning the traditional greeting “salaam wa-alaikum”), to lead prayers or to teach others about Islam. He can receive visits only from his family, lawyer and chaplain.
Like most of the other 70 Muslim prisoners – the majority of whom are black American converts to Islam – Lindh eats the vegetarian diet out of concerns that even non-pork meats have not been prepared to halal specifications. He shares a bunk-bedded cell on the prison’s ground floor with another white convert, and rises before dawn to pray for the first of five times each day. After breakfast, he goes to work in the prison library and education centre, then joins the other prisoners for lunch, before usually retiring to his cell for much of the afternoon to study the Koran and Islamic texts.
Robert Thompson (who goes by the Muslim name of Abdul Raheem), 52, was recently released from Victorville after serving eight years for bank robbery. He knew Lindh for nearly two years and also describes a pious and studious young man who is held in extremely high esteem by other prisoners. “I would safely predict that right now Hamzah is reading the Koran,” he said, during a late-afternoon interview. “I’ve never seen anyone read a book like Hamzah reads the Koran. He’s so quiet and gentle that you often wouldn’t know he’s there.
“He’s a lovely, sweet man. I don’t think that the non-Muslims know what to make of him, but they sure respect him. Some people hassled him and called him a traitor at first, but that’s long gone.”
Asked if Lindh ever expresses regret about how his life has turned out, Thompson laughed. “Of course not. We all know that everything in our lives is decreed by Allah. How can you have regrets when Allah has chosen your path. He tells us not to worry about how others perceive Muslims, that we should just focus on living a good life according to the teachings of the Koran.”
Mr Syed’s suggestion that Lindh could play a bridge-building role – especially comparing him to the controversial character of Malcolm X – will anger those Americans who still regard him as an enemy of his own people. Few, however, feel that more strongly than Johnny Spann, an Alabama lawyer, whose son, Mike, was the CIA agent killed during an uprising by Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners at the fort in Afghanistan where Lindh was being held. “That uprising was well-planned and Lindh must have known it was going to happen. He could have saved my son’s life, but he said nothing,” Mr Spann told the Sunday Telegraph. “Lindh was al-Qaeda, not Taliban. The Taliban were Afghans, the foreigners were al-Qaeda. He trained with al-Qaeda and spent time with bin Laden. He was fighting with people who hated America and were responsible for terror attacks against America. They could even have killed his own folks.”
Before the prison revolt, Mike Spann was filmed attempting to question Lindh. His clothes and face filthy, his long hair matted and bedraggled, Lindh defiantly refused to speak as he knelt before the CIA agent. The images shocked America and stunned his parents, who had heard nothing from him for many months.
Lindh had made his way to Afghanistan after first studying in the Yemen and then at a radical madrassa (religious school) in Pakistan. It was a long journey, supported along the way by his family, from the affluent environs of Marin County, often caricaturised as “hot-tub haven “, north of San Francisco, where he was raised as a Roman Catholic. He was, by all accounts, a quiet teenager, with a basketball hoop in the drive and an interest in hip-hop music. Under phoney log-on names, the boy who was named after John Lennon declared himself “Hip-Hop’s Christ” and claimed: “I’m much more than merely a master, in fact I’m faster than the last flash flood disaster.”
At some point in his teens, Lindh apparently transferred his interest from hip-hop sites to Islamic ones. He converted to Islam at a local mosque aged 16. Thomas Maguire, his cousin, also converted as a teenager, but said that Lindh found the rigorous path of Islam easier to follow. “John exhibited a glowing innocence that propelled him to openly investigate the truth of Islam,” Maguire (known as Musa) wrote on a Muslim website. Maguire, who now hosts an English-language talk show on an Egyptian cable television network, praised Lindh’s “unswerving” faith and thoughtfulness. In words that would unnerve many Americans, he also described his cousin as “one of the greatest success stories in the modern propagation of Islam in the West”.
Connell Maguire, 88, Lindh’s great-uncle, told the Sunday Telegraph that he felt his nephew was able to adapt easily to prison life. “If anyone was cut out for it, it’s John,” the retired US Navy chaplain said. “He’s such a student and I get the impression from his letters that he is taking advantage of his time there to study hard. But he’s not lost his sense of humour. When one of my letters was late, he wrote back and joked that it must have been held up because of its salacious content.”
Certainly nobody doubts Lindh’s commitment to Islam and devotion to Koranic studies. Indeed, it is his grounding in the subject that helps give him such stature among the Muslim inmates, nearly all of whom have converted in prison and lack his Arabic language skills and knowledge of religious teachings.
“The others would love Hamzah to lead prayers and teach them,” said Mr Syed. “He is a natural leader, but he is forbidden to take on that role. One of his greatest regrets is that he cannot teach prisoners who ask him for help.”
In the climate after the September 11 attacks, the court sought to restrict any scope for Lindh to influence inmates, amid concerns about the spread of religious extremism in prison. Indeed, Richard Reid, the convicted British “shoe bomber”, became a Muslim in prison in Brixton, while Jose’ Padilla, who is accused of planning to detonate a “dirty bomb” in the US, was introduced to Islamic extremism behind bars in Florida.
Lindh’s parents, Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker, who divorced in 1999, visit their son in prison most weekends (he was imprisoned in Victorville because it is near their homes in the San Francisco Bay area). They give no media interviews, partly for fear that unguarded words could cause problems for their son, but Mr Lindh, a lawyer for a big utilities company, broke his silence in a speech in January. He swallowed back tears as he told the audience that his son was “a decent and honorable young man embarked on a spiritual quest”. He insisted his son was involved in a local Afghan conflict between the Taliban and Northern Alliance. “He never fought against America. He never fired a gun at an American,” he said.
He urged President George W Bush – whose own father described Lindh as a “poor, misguided Marin County hot-tubber” – to listen to his son’s appeal for a reduction in what he said was a “disproportionate” sentence issued at a time when the pain of the 9/11 attacks was still fresh. “Being viewed through the prism of those attacks has caused this young man to be vilified as a terrorist and a traitor,” Mr Lindh contended.
It is an argument that cuts no ground with Mr Spann, another parent whose life was for ever changed by events in northern Afghanistan in November 2001. In a bluntly worded open letter, he wrote: “As an American, and one of many parents who have lost a child to war in order to protect our country, I appeal to you to not allow Frank Lindh to achieve a pardon for his al-Qaeda terrorist, traitor son.”
Lindh’s last words to the public came in a tearful 20-minute statement to the court in 2002, in which he apologised for his actions. “I did not go to fight against America, and I never did,” he insisted. “I understand why so many Americans were angry when I was first discovered in Afghanistan. I realise that many still are, but I hope that with time and understanding, those feelings will change.”
John Walker Lindh will be eligible for parole in another 13 years. Whether that is enough time for the US public to find a little sympathy for the man that many simply call the “American Talib” remains to be seen.