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Impeachment Inquiries

November 14, 2019

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Release of ‘American Taliban’ raises questions about U.S. efforts to deradicalize

John Walker Lindh, who became known as the "American Taliban," was released from federal prison Thursday, three years short of his 20-year sentence. President Trump criticized the release, saying Lindh was still an extremist. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Kevin Lowry, who was chief probation officer for the U.S. district court in Minnesota, about how the U.S. deals with convicted radicals.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Walker Lindh, the man who became known as American Taliban, was released from federal prison today for good conduct, three years short of his 20-year sentence.

    Lawmakers and Trump administration officials today criticized the move, saying that he was still an extremist.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, his release brings up larger questions of how the U.S. deals with convicted radicals.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He was disoriented, and used his adopted name:

  • John Walker Lindh:

    Abdul Hamid.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But John Walker Lindh was unmistakably American.

  • John Walker Lindh:

    My father? My father's name, you mean? It was Frank.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lindh was a 20-year-old American who'd become an American enemy, captured alongside Taliban fighters in late 2001. He was born in California, grew up in a Catholic family and converted to Islam. In 2000, he traveled to this religious school in Pakistan to study Koran.

    And then he crossed the border into Afghanistan to volunteer to fight for the Taliban. He arrived at the front lines on September the 6th, just before 9/11. He was captured in December.

    And CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann interrogated him in video filmed by Afghan intelligence.

  • Man:

    Hey, look at me. Do you know the people that you're here working with are tariffs?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Shortly after, prisoners, including Lindh, rioted, and Spann was killed. Law enforcement brought Lindh back to face charges in Spann's death, but, in a plea bargain, he only admitted to illegally supporting the Taliban.

    This week, Spann's daughter, Alison, wrote to President Trump requesting Lindh that not be released. She spoke to ABC News.

  • Alison Spann:

    He's responsible in some part for the death of my father, and so for him to be released early just was unbelievable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That dismay was echoed today by President Trump.

  • Donald Trump:

    But we will be watching him. We will be watching him closely. What bothers me more than anything else is that here's a man who has not given up his proclamation of terror. And we have to let him out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 2002, Lindh released a statement saying — quote — he "never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism or terrorism. I condemn terrorist on every level unequivocally."

    But two U.S. government assessments since then concluded Lindh has made pro-ISIS comments, and — quote — "continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts."

    Lindh was released on certain conditions. He cannot possess an Internet-capable device without permission or constant monitoring. He cannot view or access extremist or terrorist material or communicate with extremists. And he must undergo mental health counseling.

    That leads to bigger questions: How should the U.S. release convicted extremists? And should the U.S. try to de-radicalize them?

    Kevin Lowry recently retired as chief probation officer for the U.S. District Court in Minnesota. He established the only de-radicalization program in the country for accused extremists.

    Kevin Lowry joins me now.

    Thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Let's start with those who supervised release conditions for John Walker Lindh. Are those sufficient to make sure that Lindh or anyone like him who has been convicted of these crimes doesn't stay radical in the future?

  • Kevin Lowry:

    Well, I don't think that they're foolproof and that there's 100 percent guarantee with anything.

    What we do is, we set up conditions to monitor, provide monitoring, surveillance, correctional treatment throughout the course of supervision. Throughout watching behavior very closely, we will know and monitor how people are doing under supervision. We never take people's word for what they are doing or their commitment, but we watch their actions.

    And, therefore, those conditions are paramount in both public safety and ensuring that there is correctional or rehabilitative treatment for extremists.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There is an irony, it seems to me. The U.S. actually funds de-radicalization programs overseas, as you know, because you visited some of those programs overseas. There is no national U.S. de-radicalization program, even though about 80 or 90 convicted terrorists will be released in the next few years.

    So do you think it's possible to take the program that you did in Minnesota and make it a national program?

  • Kevin Lowry:

    I believe that it's possible, that it could be a model for national programming.

    I think each community is different. It has different challenges, based on the circumstances. We have a large immigrant population that creates a certain challenge for us. And other communities have different challenges.

    And they have large groups of white extremists, for example. Those are also terrorism cases and will need to be addressed in the same fashion that other extremism or terrorism is addressed.

    But I think that we're on the right track, but we need focus and funding. Right now, when you're talking about a country as large as the United States, and you can talk about just a few efforts or programs across the country, that's not a good situation to be in, considering the number of defendants and offenders that we have coming through our system.

    When you look at the U.K., the Prevent program, when I visited with them, they had a $67-million-a-year budget and a lot of both government programs and non-government programs funded as a result of that in the area of dealing with extremist cases.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's also the question of reintegration or perhaps even integration.

    John Walker Lindh, for example, left the U.S. when he was a teenager, has been in prison for 17 years. He needs an apartment. He needs a job. Talk about the challenges of integration. How important is it to have infrastructure to help people like Lindh, like people who have been convicted of these crimes who are going to be released?

  • Kevin Lowry:

    Well, I think it's important to note that, as probation pre-trial services, this is our profession. We do this with a number of high-risk offenders and a number of different types of offenders that range from sex offenders to cartel.

    And now we have a growing group of extremist or terrorism cases that are coming out. That's our profession. We need to expand our knowledge and our base of community resources with mentors, counseling and community services that are focused on extremist cases.

    And that's a challenge, because there's not a lot of incentive throughout the United States for programs to be involved in that type of programming, as much as there has been for, say, substance abuse programming.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And then, just very quickly, do you believe there should be that kind of programming nationally?

  • Kevin Lowry:

    No, I think it's very important.

    And I think that there's going to need to be a lot of funding put out, and it's going to have to be a commitment to where it's steady funding over a long period of time. It's not a fix that is going to happen in a year, two years, three years. I think it's going to be five years before we even see, is the program that we're using currently working, and what adjustments will be made, and what kind of funding will be available to make adjustments?

    And if we lose sight of that, then we will continue to ask ourselves these same questions every time there's a catastrophic event, which, unfortunately, has become our new normal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kevin Lowry, who established the first de-radicalization program for accused extremist, from Minnesota, thank you very much.

  • Kevin Lowry:

    You're welcome.

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