WASHINGTON – John Walker Lindh, the young Californian who took up arms with the Taliban against the United States, will be brought back to the U.S. soon to face the federal charges filed against him, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Wednesday morning.
Walker, currently held on a U.S. Navy ship in the Arabian Sea, will be transferred "in the very near future," Ashcroft said. He would not give further details.
The 20-year-old Walker, who uses his mother's maiden name, was charged Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia with conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens abroad, providing material support and resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations and engaging in prohibited transactions with the Taliban.
"He chose to embrace fanatics, and his allegiance to those terrorists never faltered," Ashcroft said in announcing the charges. "Terrorists did not compel John Walker Lindh to join them. John Walker Lindh chose terrorists."
The Alexandria, Va.-based federal court — known in the Washington-area legal community as the "Rocket Docket" for its speedy proceedings — will also be the venue for the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the French national who so far is the only individual charged directly in connection with the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
After weeks of deliberating Walker's fate, the Bush administration opted against a military trial or civilian charges that would carry the death penalty.
Ashcroft, on the morning interview shows Wednesday, said that if new evidence emerges of treason or other crimes carrying the death penalty, "then it would be possible for those charges to be brought against him." But he admitted that proving Walker was treasonous would be difficult.
"The Constitution imposes a high evidentiary burden to prove the charge of treason" — a confession in open court or testimony by two witnesses, Ashcroft said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush "is supportive of the process put in place. He is confident that the process will end in justice."
The charges were recommended to Bush by the National Security Council, which considered advice from the Justice Department, the Pentagon and the State Department.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has questioned the administration's proposals for military tribunals, said he supported the "difficult and complex" decision to place Walker case in the civilian criminal justice system.
Friends have described Walker as an bright young man who wore full-length robes to high school in a Marin County suburb of San Francisco and went by the name "Suleyman" following his conversion to Islam at age 16.
After his capture at the end of the Qalai Janghi fortress prisoner uprising in late November, Walker's divorced parents, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, asked the public to withhold judgment about their son. They issued a statement through their lawyer late Tuesday that said they are praying for a "just resolution" of his case.
"We are grateful to live in a nation that presumes innocence and withholds judgment until all of the facts are presented," the statement said.
Largely based on Walker's own statements, the criminal complaint filed against him detailed his evolution from teenage Muslim convert in Northern California to Taliban warrior on the front lines in Afghanistan.
After two periods in 1998 and 2000 when he studied Islam in Yemen, Walker traveled to Pakistan in October 2000 to continue his studies, the complaint said. Around May 2001 he began training with the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, a Pakistan-based Islamic militant group fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.
The Harakat ul-Mujahideen, also known as the Harakat ul-Ansar, is an affiliate of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and was declared a terrorist organization by the Clinton administration in 1997.
It was Harakat recruiters who suggested to Walker that he identify himself as Irish rather than American, the complaint states. On a videotape of Walker's initial interrogation by CIA agent Johnny Micheal Spann hours before the Qalai Janghi uprising began, during which Spann was killed, it is clear that Spann had been told Walker was an Irishman.
The complaint does not directly tie Walker to Spann's death.
In June 2001, one month later after the beginning of his guerrilla training, Walker was given the choice to fight with the Harakat in Kashmir or with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He chose Afghanistan.
But when Taliban officials in Kabul found Walker could not speak any Afghan languages, they sent him instead to bin Laden's Arabic-speaking al-Farooq training camp, the complaint states, where he underwent an additional seven-week military training course.
While at al-Farooq, he learned that bin Laden had dispatched several suicide squads to the United States, two or three months before Sept. 11. At one point, Walker even met bin Laden for a few minutes, during which bin Laden thanked him and four other trainees for taking part in jihad.
Nevertheless, the complaint also states that toward the end of his training at al-Farooq in July or August of 2001, Walker was again given a choice: to either begin terrorist training and eventually be sent abroad to attack American and Israeli targets, or to go directly to the Taliban front lines to fight the Northern Alliance. Walker chose the front lines, to which he was sent in late August or early September.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, which Walker and other fighters for the Taliban learned about over the radio and assumed bin Laden had ordered, all the Al Qaeda training camps were closed and their personnel were also sent to the Taliban front lines.
Sometime in October, Walker's position was bombed by U.S. planes and his unit retreated to Kunduz. After the Northern Alliance won the negotiated surrender of the city in mid-November, Walker and the other foreign fighters were disarmed and transported to Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum's fortress headquarters at Qalai Janghi, near Mazar-e-Sharif, where a group of prisoners seized guards' weapons and began an insurrection on Nov. 25.
Walker told interrogators that he had been placed on a grassy lawn with other prisoners who had been processed by Spann and the other CIA agent, identified as "Dave" in press reports about the uprising and as "CS-1" in the criminal complaint.
As the uprising began, Walker was shot in the leg and made his way to a basement, where he held out with other prisoners for six days until Dostum's forces flooded the basement and the group surrendered in early December. The American who joined the Taliban's story became a media sensation.
Walker was moved to the Marine base Camp Rhino in the desert south of Kandahar and interviewed by the FBI on Dec. 9 and 10. He was advised of his Miranda rights, but waived his rights to a lawyer.
"We may never know why he turned his back on our country and our values, but we cannot ignore that he did," Ashcroft said. "Youth is not absolution for treachery, and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against your country."
— Fox News' Paul Wagenseil and the Associated Press contributed to this report.