SAN FRANCISCO – John Walker Lindh's parents had the first word in the battle to shape his image, calling him a "good kid," releasing cute family pictures and suggesting he was brainwashed by the Taliban.
The government painted a far darker picture based on his interviews with the FBI in Afghanistan, where he was captured in November. Attorney General John Ashcroft suggested Walker alone decided to take up arms with the Taliban against the United States.
Some of the people who met the young American during his first trip to the Middle East suspect the government's view of Walker's actions is closer to the mark — even then, he seemed solely responsible for the choices he was making. Now, they say, he is clearly a danger to society.
Walker, who turns 21 on Feb. 9, was charged last week with conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, and could face life in prison if convicted. He made his first court appearance in Arlington, Va., on Thursday.
Thomas White, who studied Arabic with Walker at the Yemen Language Center in San'a, Yemen's capital, agrees it would be good to keep him off the streets of America.
"He was well-cooked before he arrived" in the Middle East in 1998, said White. "There was not much critical thinking going on."
Other students in Yemen remember Walker as a recluse who studied the Quran in his room and often left the secular school to meet more fundamentalist Muslims. They quickly learned that when it came to Islam, there was no reasoning with the student who called himself "Suleyman."
"He was like, 'I found the truth and I'm not going to think about it. What I stand on is right, and what you stand on is wrong,"' White recalled during a phone interview from his home in the West Bank.
Michael Kleinman, Walker's roommate at the school, said the teenager was serious, studious and immature.
"There was a lack of restraint. He went from zero to fundamentalist in two minutes," said Kleinman, now a law student in Massachusetts. "There was also a lack of awareness of what was going on."
Walker seemed to get his ideas in part from a pile of small pamphlets that he kept in his room, White recalled.
"He used to sit around with ... these 20-page little scrap pamphlets on why Jesus was wrong and why Muhammad was right," White said. "He had a stack of these things, and he argued from that."
Haifa Covey, a Yemen native who worked as a recruiter and liaison in California for the school, remembers Walker as a somewhat naive and impressionable teenager who was anxious to journey overseas. He asked her for advice on everything from hiking boots to blankets.
"This boy, I feel bad for him. I want to cry for him," Covey said. "God knows who washed his brain. He was a good Muslim, a good boy. He didn't have any problems, but give him the freedom to choose and God knows who played with his mind."
Covey said Walker's mother had serious reservations about the teen's safety in a country where the State Department recommends that Americans travel with armed guards outside the capital.
"His mom was calling and calling. 'Oh they will kill him there. It's not safe. How much money will he need?"' Covey recalled. "She gave us a hard time, the mother — calling, calling, calling. She was saying she didn't feel safe for him to study in my country."
Walker came to Yemen in the summer of 1998. After less than a semester he vanished from the school, former students said.
Walker apparently never warned his family he was leaving, but complained to school officials about having to study with women and criticized other Muslims for not praying enough. Months later, Yemeni security forces caught him at an airport trying to leave without a visa, according to Sabri Saleem, the school's owner.
Saleem says he was happy to see Walker go after taking anguished calls from his mother and dealing with the American's attitude toward other Muslims.
"I was not happy with his personality," Saleem said. "He isolated himself by asking students to go and pray. He had no right to talk to any of the students about that."
Walker returned home to Marin County, Calif., for about eight months in 1999, then went back to the Middle East. He told the FBI he met Usama bin Laden in Afghanistan, received weapons training and was sent to fight the Northern Alliance, which became a U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban.
Walker also allegedly told the FBI he had learned a full three months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that bin Laden had dispatched suicide squads to the United States.
Walker's parents, through their lawyer, declined comment for this story. After weeks of silence since their son was captured in Afghanistan, they issued a statement last week saying they still love and support him.
Covey also remembers Walker as "a very good person," and said she's withholding judgment until the trial. But she says he should be put to death if he had advanced warning of the Sept. 11 attacks, because it would make him a despicable Muslim and a bad American.
"I don't know what happened to him," she said. "He met with the wrong people, with the wrong group."
Kleinman says he's unsure what punishment Walker deserves, and he's waiting to see what evidence surfaces during the trial. He does, however, believe Walker is responsible for his actions.
"I don't think you can write this off as youthful indiscretion," Kleinman said.
White remains torn — he saw the Californian as a misguided youth blindly searching for faith, but he also saw the lengths to which Walker was willing to go to remain true to his interpretation of Islam.
"They wouldn't haven't given a hoot about the guy if Sept. 11 hadn't happened, and he would have come back to the U.S. and started a mosque," White said. "The real question is what to do with this guy? As an American, I couldn't trust him to be out on the streets. But then again, I don't think he's guilty of all that much. Maybe you send him back to Afghanistan."