May 23, 2019 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 183

When Al-Qaeda’s American Adam Met The Taliban's American Johnny

May 23, 2019 | By Steven Stalinsky, Ph.D.*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 183

In 2001, shortly after receiving training at Al-Qaeda's Al-Faruq training camp in Afghanistan, a young American, Adam Gadahn – who would go on to become a senior Al-Qaeda figure and right-hand man to both Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri – met another young American, who was born in a suburb of Washington DC but grew up in California like Gadahn himself. The man was John Walker Lindh. At Al-Faruq, Lindh underwent training, and also attended a lecture by bin Laden.

The two met shortly before Lindh was arrested. Reportedly, Gadahn played matchmaker, trying to help Lindh find an Afghan wife, as he himself already had.[1] Their acquaintance would be highlighted later in an infamous video released by Al-Qaeda's Al-Sahab media arm titled "An Invitation to Reflection and Repentance." The video showed Gadahn ripping up his American passport and renouncing his U.S. citizenship – to protest, he said, the imprisonment in the U.S. of Lindh; of "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of terrorist plots against the U.S. and known as the "godfather" of radical Islamist movements; of high-ranking Al-Qaeda figure and terror operative Abu Zubaydah, and of other jihadis.[2]

Lindh, who was captured by the U.S. in Afghanistan as an enemy combatant in November 2001 and who took part in a Taliban prisoner uprising in which CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed, was tried and, in a plea deal, pleaded guilty to fighting alongside the Taliban and was sentenced to 20 years.

He was released today from the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana after serving 17 years of that sentence, 2 1/2 years early. The Department of Justice's Bureau of Prisons said that his early release was attributed to his "good conduct" during his imprisonment. Now,  under restrictions set by a federal judge, his Internet devices must have monitoring software; his online communications must be conducted in English; he must undergo mental health counseling; he is forbidden to possess or view extremist material; and he cannot hold a passport or leave the U.S.  In a Fox interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo termed Lindh's early release "unexplainable and unconscionable" and called for a review of prison system policies.

According to Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism, during his time inside, Lindh became close with the Michigan-based preacher and leading American Islamist Ahmad Musa Jibril, who is popular with English-speaking pro-ISIS and pro-Al-Qaeda circles and is known to have radicalized individuals who went on to carry out deadly attacks. In 2005, Jibril was convicted, together with his father, on 42 counts of an indictment charging them with bank fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and more. Released in 2012, he still has a formidable online presence even though he was banned from using the Internet for three years because of a probation violation.[3]

A January 2017 report "for official use only" by the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the imprisoned Lindh, now Abu Sulayman al-Irlandi (because of his family ties to Ireland, where, according to interviews with his father, he had hoped to be released), "told a television news producer" in March 2016 "that he would continue to spread violent extremist Islam upon his release." Two government assessments of him that were leaked in 2017 painted a picture of an unrepentant extremist who remained radicalized behind bars. The documents stated that Lindh "made pro-[Islamic State] statements" and "has continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.”

Many tried to stop the release from happening. Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL.) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) sent a letter on May 17  to the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons expressing concern over it and over the release of other terrorist offenders. "We write to express concern over the anticipated release of convicted American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and request information about what steps the U.S. government is taking to ensure public safety," it said, adding: "As many as 108 other terrorist offenders are scheduled to complete their sentences and be released from U.S. federal prisons over the next few years. Little information has been made available to the public about who, when, and where these offenders will be released, whether they pose an ongoing public threat, and what your agencies are doing to mitigate this threat while the offenders are in federal custody."

The letter concluded: "[W]e 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." It also asked how it can be assured that neither Lindh nor others will pose a risk or threat of terrorism upon release. CIA officer Spann's family members have also protested, including with a letter to President Trump by Spann's daughter.

Surely, now that Lindh's release has gone through, jihadis worldwide will be celebrating, and many others imprisoned for terrorism-related crimes worldwide will have new hope that they too will be released one day.


*Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of MEMRI.


[2] Ibid, pp. 123-128.

[3], June 5, 2017; MEMRI JTTM report Legacy Of Extremist Michigan Cleric Ahmad Musa Jibril – Beloved By ISIS Militants And Supporters – Lives On Despite Court-Ordered Social Media Ban, June 7, 2017.

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