It was a text message that, for 26-year-old Alison Spann, ripped open old wounds of mourning.
“My grandfather wrote that he needed to talk to me about news of an early release of John Walker Lindh,” Spann told Fox News on Friday, two days after that dread message ping. “It floored me. This man sat in front of my father and let him be killed. The fact that he is now able to get out early is unacceptable. It feels like such a slap in the face.”
Alison was just nine years old when her father, Johnny “Mike” Spann, a U.S Marine turned CIA paramilitary operative, became the first American to be killed in combat in Afghanistan, amid the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
In November 2001, U.S forces learned that an American – Lindh – was among the cluster of Taliban fighters left in limbo after their leader surrendered to the Northern Alliance in the northern Afghanistan province of Mazar-i-Sharif. Spann was first into the compound, serving as a prison, to interview Lindh, peppering him with questions about where he was from and what he was doing. But Lindh refused to respond.
“In those moments, when he chose to stay silent, he sealed his fate as a traitor to the United States,” Spann said. “At any point, he could have warned him that something was being planned.”
Hours later, Lindh’s fellow detainees erupted in a violent revolt that left Mike Spann dead.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Lindh – who is currently behind bars in Terra Haute, Indiana – will be discharged on May 23, several years in advance of his initial 20-year jail sentence. The initial charges leveled against the then 20-year-old Lindh in 2002 included one for murder conspiracy for the part he played in the killing of Americans, including Spann, in the prison rebellion.
However, nine of the ten counts in the indictment were dropped and he ended up pleading guilty to disobeying an executive order outlawing support to the Taliban and for possessing a weapon in Afghanistan.
It is not apparent why Lindh, now 38, has been made eligible for a premature release, and the BOP did not immediately respond to a comment request. Yet his sentencing reports indicated that “good behavior” could serve as justification.
“I was so young when it all happened, but I knew there was a man named John Walker Lindh, who was an American and had been at the prison when my father had been killed,” Spann said. “I saw his image on television, but my family tried to shield me from too many details. As I got older, I started to ask questions and understand what happened.”
In Spann’s view, 20 years was a “measly” sentence to begin with, but the notion of that being reduced is heartbreaking.
The forthcoming release of Lindh, however, has prompted steep security concerns. In 2017, the National Counterterrorism Center, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy, underscored that he has continued to "advocate for global jihad and write and translate violent extremist texts."
Furthermore, he is alleged to have told a TV producer last March that he would “continue to spread violent extremism Islam upon his release.”
In 2013, the designated “detainee number 001 in the war on terror” was able to obtain Irish citizenship from behind bars as result of his father’s ancestry, and is reported to have expressed an intention to relocate to Ireland after being freed.
A convert to Islam and hailing from northern California’s Marin County, Lindh made the journey to Afghanistan after Yemen and Pakistan as a 19-year-old shortly before the September 11 attacks. He underwent training in Kandahar, where he met with mastermind Usama bin Laden on at least one occasion.
While Lindh quickly became labeled as the “American Taliban” in the western media, one investigator and documentarian who interviewed the young jihadist in northern Afghanistan, Robert Young Pelton, emphasized that he very much belonged to the outfit who “ran planes into our buildings.”
“John Walker Lindh was al Qaeda, and that was why we were in Afghanistan,” Pelton said. “And now we are grappling with the same thing over what to do with the American ISIS. These are the same types of people.”
Nonetheless, the early release news has triggered a renewed wave of emotion and frustration for the Spann family.
“He’s as much responsible for Mike’s death as the people who beat him and shot him,” Spann’s father, Mike, told a local Alabama outlet this week, stressing that if Lindh had identified himself as a fellow U.S. citizen and revealed that a prison uprising was being orchestrated, his son may never have lost his life.
Furthermore, Alison Spann is also preparing to send a letter to the White House requesting the Executive Branch to intervene and put a stop to the early release. In the letter viewed by Fox News, Spann asks that her father’s sacrifice “not be in vain.”
“He should be made to serve his full sentence – one that pales in comparison to the one that so many American families have had to pay in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism,” she writes.
In contrast, in the ensuing years since the Afghanistan war was ignited, Lindh’s father, Frank, has decried much of the terrorist characterization of his son. Rather, he has painted him as a spiritual youngster who made a “rash and blindly idealistic” decision but was not “sinister or traitorous” in his intentions.
Spann isn’t buying it.
“If John was so innocent, why didn’t he jump at the chance to be saved or pulled out by another American? Instead, he refused to speak up. I find it hard to believe he didn’t have a role,” she said. “This isn’t just a slap in the face to me and my family, but to the U.S. military and anyone else who have sacrificed their lives in the war, as well as the victims of 9/11 and the millions of Muslims worldwide who aren’t radical.”
Johnny Spann, a native of Winfield, Alabama and the father of three, was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in late 2001, where he was revered by then-CIA Director George Tenet as an individual devoted to building a “better, safer world” and that it was his “quest for right” that led him to Afghanistan.
Spann’s star serves as the 79th one chiseled on the Agency’s Memorial Wall.
“Our family is serving a life sentence. We are forever affected by what happened. John Walker Lindh is 38, an age my father never got to live to. John Walker Lindh gets to go on and have a life regardless,” Alison Spann added. “Why are we giving him any extra years of freedom?”