FAIRFAX – Word that a handful of Americans had fought alongside the Taliban came as a particular shock in Fairfax: One of them apparently spent his teen-age years in this wooded, hilly town north of San Francisco.
John Phillip Walker Lindh, 20, – who gave his name in Afghanistan as Abdul Hamid – was in the custody of U.S. forces after being discovered among captured Taliban troops and al-Qaida fighters. He was being treated for undisclosed injuries.
His father, Frank Lindh, said Monday night on CNN’s “Larry King Live” that he last spoke to his son in May. He told his father he would head for a cooler region of Pakistan for the summer.
“I had no indication or reason to be concerned that he would put himself in danger like this by going to Afghanistan,” Frank Lindh said.
“Until John disappeared on us, so to speak, on the first of May I had nothing to see there other than a kid, a boy really, who converted to a religion that I respect and seemed very healthy and good for him,” Lindh said Tuesday.
Lindh said he was concerned about his son’s welfare and had hired a lawyer to represent him.
Walker’s capture was made-to-order conversation Monday at the cafes in Fairfax. Neighbors wondered aloud whether Walker was an impressionable kid who lost his way or an ideologue who found it.
“If he was pointing a gun at any of my soldier friends, put him on trial,” said Russell Decker, 51, a local guitarist. “If not, put him in a mental ward and bring him home.”
Another local musician, Neil Lavin, saw Walker’s path to Afghanistan as a spiritual quest.
“I can’t see him as being unpatriotic. This is where his journey led him,” said Lavin, 32. “I imagine he lost himself there. Or found himself.”
Walker told Newsweek after his capture that he had entered Afghanistan to help the Taliban build a “pure Islamic state.” His parents said he had long been fascinated with Islam – he converted at 16 – and had a pacifist’s heart for social justice.
There was no answer when a visitor knocked at Marilyn Walker’s house Monday. Neither Marilyn Walker nor Frank Lindh returned messages left by The Associated Press. Lindh said on CNN that they were separated and in the midst of an “amicable divorce.”
Marilyn Walker told Newsweek her son was raised Catholic but converted several years after moving from Silver Spring, Md.
Walker transferred from an area high school after his first semester to Tamiscal High, an alternative school in nearby Larkspur.
Tamiscal principal Marcie Miller said teachers called Walker “a gifted writer of poetry.” As a freshman and sophomore, his curriculum had a world arts and culture theme, including studies of Islam and the Middle East.
Walker took the proficiency test and graduated early in 1998, said Laurie Samera, an assistant to the Tamalpais Union High School District superintendent. She said he asked that the name on his diploma be changed to Suleyman Al-Lindh.
Walker reportedly was drawn to Islam after reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
In 1997, he began to study at the Islamic Center and Mosque of Mill Valley, where he met Abdulla Nana, a 23-year-old fellow Muslim who described Walker as a close friend.
“He is quiet and soft spoken and humble,” Nana told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I wouldn’t have expected him to go and fight there.”
Nana said Walker became devout enough that he always wore a traditional Muslim cloak.
“As a convert, he was an example of how to behave,” Nana said. “We looked up to him because of his dedication to Islam.”
His parents then paid for him to travel to Yemen to study Arabic. They lost track of him after he moved on to Pakistan, where he studied the Quran at a religious school.
Marilyn Walker told Newsweek she wondered whether her son had been brainwashed by the Taliban. Some of his neighbors who meet each morning at the Koffee Klatch diner surmised the same.
“He’s just a kid. He don’t know what he’s doing,” said Lou Vaccaro, 70.
Bill Jones, a friend and former housemate of Walker’s father, said Walker “had no politics on his mind, only religion.”
“I think it’s wrong to call him the ’American Taliban’ – as far as I am concerned he is the American victim of the Taliban. He was just a good kid who ended up in the wrong hands,” Jones said.
Bob Sharpe, 56, a Vietnam veteran and writer, said he expected a lot of legal handwringing over what to do with Walker.
“I think he needs to be arrested and interrogated,” Sharpe said. “And I think a lot depends on his attitude.”
Andrew Cleverdon, 19, grew up across the street from Walker in Virginia. He said Walker didn’t have any particular fascination with the military.
“I would hate to be in his shoes right now,” Cleverdon said. “I was little shocked.”
Walker’s family is concerned for his safety and wants to greet him with open arms, his father said.
“We want to give him a big hug,” Lindh said, though he admonished his son for venturing into Afghanistan. “I would have not given him permission to go to Afghanistan.”