January 14, 2002
John Walker's Strange Odyssey
By Renee Sanchez
>MILL VALLEY, Calif. -- Before he became known on battlefields in Afghanistan as the holy warrior Abdul Hamid, or had shocked his doting parents by adopting the Muslim name Suleyman, John Walker Lindh walked into a mosque in this foggy hillside town near the Golden Gate Bridge five years ago eager to learn about a religion that would soon dominate his life.
He was shy and studious, a lanky 16-year-old who had a basketball hoop in his driveway but showed little interest in predictable teenage pastimes. And his strange odyssey was about to begin.
"He was a good person, a quiet person," said Abdullah Nana, 23, who often prayed with Walker on the red carpet of the Islamic Center of Mill Valley and gave him rides home because he did not have a driver's license. "He was accepted and respected for his dedication. No one like him had ever come here before."
As his devotion grew, Walker would get rid of his coarse collection of more than 200 hip-hop and rap CDs and begin wearing an ankle-length white robe.
He would forsake an easy path to college to travel alone to remote villages in Yemen and Pakistan. He would try to memorize the Koran.
And he would scorn the peace-and-love precepts of his parents to take up arms with the harshly conservative Taliban.
"When he left, he just said that he wanted to learn Arabic and follow Islam full time," Nana said. "We thought it would be beneficial for our community, because no one else here had gone to study overseas the way he wanted to. We thought he would be a pioneer."
Instead, Walker, as he called himself later, has become a puzzling prisoner of war, the lone American caught with enemy forces in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, dragged filthy and wounded from a medieval fort with other defiant al Qaeda fighters last month. U.S. military officials have Walker in custody, and President Bush is preparing to decide his fate. He could be prosecuted for treason or aiding terrorists, charges that could bring the death penalty or many years in jail.
But much of Walker's journey is still a mystery. Was he just an innocent abroad, an impressionable young scholar swept up in a movement he did not fully understand – "brainwashed," as his mother, Marilyn Walker, has suggested?
Or was he a teenage rebel with a cause, renouncing the have-it-all, progressive suburban culture from which he came and duping his parents into believing they were supporting, and financing, a purely spiritual quest?
His father, Frank Lindh, has said he was astonished to discover that his son had even gone to Afghanistan, much less to help the Taliban.
"He never came to his papa to ask for permission," he said.
But Frank Lindh's son did not sound clueless or contrite while lying on a hospital bed shortly after his capture. As a doctor tended to his wounds, a CNN correspondent asked him whether he thought he had been fighting on the right side. "Definitely," Walker replied.
He seemed dazed. But was he?
'A Birkenstock Family'
Frank Lindh had just received a master's degree in social work when he and Marilyn Walker had their second child in February 1981. They decided to name him John, partly in homage to Beatle John Lennon, who had been murdered by a deranged fan two months earlier.
The couple were renting a house in Takoma Park, settling into new roles as middle-class parents after coming of age in the counterculture of the 1960s. Neighbors say they were Sunday regulars at St. Camillus Catholic Church, took an interest in natural foods and medicines, and embraced the People's Republic politics of the community.
Both parents declined to be interviewed for this story, but answered a few questions through their lawyer. They also spoke to reporters briefly after their son's capture.
"They were kind of a Birkenstock family," said Chris Madison, who lived near them. "Very earnest, very nice, very intellectual."
"They were liberal in the classic sense," said Dan Parr, another neighbor. "They said they really wanted to let their children develop by giving them different experiences."
John showed promise. By fourth grade, he was among a select group of students in the "gifted and talented" program at Kensington Parkwood Elementary School. His parents appeared to be deeply involved in his life.
"They seemed like such a happy family," said Judy Colwell, who had a child attending the same school and became friends with Marilyn Walker.
Lindh had decided to pursue a career in law, working as a clerk in the solicitor general's office of the Justice Department by day, attending Georgetown law school at night. But he was the rare father who also found time to attend PTA meetings.
Walker, a stay-at-home mom, chaperoned school field trips and earned a little money by taking jobs at retail stores during the holiday season. She was busy raising John and two other children, a boy a few years older than him and a baby girl. She also had become something of a local activist. Neighbors recall her waging a zealous campaign to have a metal slide at a local playground removed, saying it was too dangerous for children.
But some old friends of the couple remember thinking that they might be pampering the children a bit too much – like the time, one neighbor recalled, that John told classmates that his parents had taken him to a therapist to cope with the death of a pet.
The first big change in John's life came when he was 10. Frank Lindh, who had graduated from Georgetown with honors and was working at a Washington law firm, decided to move his family west. He had accepted a job at the firm's San Francisco office and bought a multi-floor modern home on a narrow, leafy street amid the lush hills and redwood groves of Marin County, another place with a tolerant, liberal creed.
"I figured they would fit right in," Dan Parr said.
Home in a California Cliche»
The joke about Marin is that it is a California cliche», a hot-tub haven that values nothing as much as self-discovery. It is a community where the local Center for Massage Therapy is celebrating its 25th anniversary and graying lefties in fleece vests walk the streets sipping chai tea.
But it also is one of the wealthiest counties in California, a land of $300 strollers, crowded SAT prep classes, and chic cafes crackling with chatter about high-speed modems and ski trips to Tahoe.
It is also a place willing to dabble in novel educational trends. So, too, were Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker. They decided to send John to a small, new public high school that had a rare teaching philosophy: It held no classes.
Tamiscal High School, which opened in 1991, was designed for academically elite and creative students, a select group of highly motivated self-starters. John Walker made the cut. He had to take the same courses as any other high school student in California, but the curriculum was more rigorous and far-flung. And he had to show up only once or twice a week for one-on-one meetings with teachers.
"The kids here are not flaky or wacky, they're very serious," said Bill Levinson, superintendent of the local school district. "It's not easy. The biggest challenge is that you don't depend on teachers telling you what to do."
John had to study world cultures and try his hand at poetry and read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," the story of an aimless petty criminal whose life is transformed by his conversion to Islam. Lindh has said that the epic tale seemed to captivate his son.
The teenager began spending his unscripted days asking questions about Islam in Internet chat rooms and expressing moral doubts about some of the rap musicians he had liked. On one Internet posting under his name, he questioned why one rapper whom someone else in the chat room apparently had called a "god" deserved such adoration.
"If this is so," Walker wrote, "then why does he smoke blunts, drink Moet, fornicate and make dukey music? That's a rather pathetic 'god,' if you ask me."
His family was changing, too. Frank Lindh had taken a job as a staff attorney for corporate giant Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and Marilyn Walker, once an avid Catholic, began practicing Buddhism.
But Jay Murphy, who lived next door, said the family seemed content. "They were kind people, very intelligent," he said. "They were all doing their own thing."
In 1997, at 16, John Walker dropped out of Tamiscal. His family says it was because he had an intestinal illness. He took and passed a state proficiency exam to earn a high school diploma. Then he announced that he was changing his name and converting to Islam.
Family friends say that both of his parents struggled at first with the decision, then were struck by how committed he seemed to be. Lindh has said that his son reminded him of a "Catholic seminarian." Marilyn Walker worried about some Islamic views on the rights of women but believed local mosques were not militant.
"They were very supportive," said Bill Jones, a friend of Frank Lindh. "It was all very spiritual. He wasn't angry, and it had nothing do with politics."
The family was not apolitical, however. About that time, Marilyn Walker took their 9-year-old daughter, Naomi, to a small local demonstration denouncing U.S. bombing raids over Iraq. The Marin Independent Journal ran a photo of the girl standing amid a few dozen protesters waving signs at passing traffic that read, "Don't Kill Iraqi Kids."
Not long after John Walker converted to Islam, he told his family that he wanted to live and study in Yemen, at a school where he could learn a dialect of Arabic that would allow him to read the Koran in its original language. Again, his parents obliged.
But it was no longer a happy household. Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker separated. She moved into a nearby apartment. He rented a room from Jones.
John left home for the first time. He would not return for nearly a year.
First Sign of Trouble
In hindsight, the first sign of trouble may have been an e-mail Frank Lindh has said he received from his son in the fall of 2000, after the USS Cole was bombed while it idled in a port in Yemen. The terrorist attack, which U.S. officials blamed on Osama bin Laden, killed 17 U.S. sailors. Lindh told John how upset he was by the incident.
From overseas, the son sent back a surprising message. Lindh has told reporters that his son wrote that the U.S. ship should not have been docked in an Islamic country.
By then, the teenager had embarked on his second extended stay in the Middle East. After his first trip to Yemen, he had returned home to Marin for about eight months in 1999. But Nana, his friend at the Mill Valley mosque, remembers that he was restless and said that he no longer felt comfortable in a place where Islam was not a way of life. Walker spent much of his time visiting other mosques in the San Francisco Bay area.
Family friends say his parents were not worried. He was talking about going to medical school, then returning to Pakistan to aid the poor – "on a mission of mercy," Jones said.
Not long after the Cole bombing, John Walker told his parents he was traveling to Pakistan, to attend another religious school. Accounts from the time that he spent there are sketchy, but a school official has told reporters that Walker was an intense, solitary student. After his capture, Walker told CNN that during his studies his "heart became attached" to the Taliban because the movement had strong support in the region.
"I started to read some of the literature of the scholars, the history of the movement," Walker said. "I wanted to help them one way or another."
Last April, Walker told his parents in an e-mail that he was still studying the Koran and might travel "someplace cooler" for the summer. Lindh has said that his son did not mention Afghanistan, or hint that he had any other plans but to study.
He had not been home in more than a year. But he asked his father for money.
Lindh wired $1,200.
He did not hear from his son again for eight months.
'I Am in Safe Hands'
"Dear Mama and Papa," Walker, a bedraggled new captive of the U.S. military, began in a brief letter to his parents a few weeks ago. "I apologize for not contacting you in such a long time. I realize this must have caused you a lot of grief. I am currently alive and well in Afghanistan and I am in safe hands. I cannot give you many details about my situation but it would be good to hear from you all."
He had just survived a bloody uprising of captured al Qaeda fighters in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. Johnny "Mike" Spann, a CIA officer who had been questioning prisoners, including Walker, was killed when the riot erupted.
From a hospital bed, Walker told CNN that he did not see or take part in the uprising because he was hiding in a basement of the fort with dozens of other captured Taliban fighters. They did not surrender until Afghan and U.S. forces bombed the compound, then dumped burning oil into the basement, then flooded it with cold water.
In a groggy interview, which CNN broadcast last month, he also said that he had been in Afghanistan for six months, had been assigned to a branch of Arab fighters in the Taliban army, and had trained at several camps in the country.
With only a faint American accent, a world away from the comforts of his former life and the mild-mannered mosque where his spiritual search began, Walker said that he had volunteered for the fighting.
"It's exactly what I thought it would be," he said, softly.
Research editor Margot Williams and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2002, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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