We Must Start Watching Released Terrorists, as John Walker Lindh Is Set to Walk Free
On May 23, the gates of the FCI-Terre Haute Federal prison will swing open, and convicted Islamic terrorist John Walker Lindh will walk free. His pending release has reopened wounds in the hearts of the family members who lost a loved one in Afghanistan because of Lindh.
One family member described his release as “a slap in the face.”
Lindh is a committed jihadist who has not renounced his radical ideology during his 17 years in prison. A 2017 National Counterterrorism Center report cited last week by Fox News said that Lindh has “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.”
He took up arms in combat against the United States after attending an Al-Qaeda training camp and meeting with Osama bin Laden in June 2001.
Lindh, many believe, was responsible for the death of John Michael Spann, a decorated United States Marine officer serving with a CIA paramilitary unit in Afghanistan in 2001. US allied forces captured Lindh and held him at the Qali-Jangi prison at Mazar-e Sharif along with other jihadists, including members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Spann and another CIA officer had learned of Lindh’s identity and sought to interview him regarding what he knew about terrorist operations in Afghanistan. Lindh failed to tell Spann and the other interrogators that other inmates in Qali-Jangi had obtained weapons and explosives, and were plotting an assault on security forces in an escape attempt. Spann was shot and killed in the assault, becoming the first US casualty in Afghanistan.
Lindh was initially charged with conspiracy to commit murder in a 10-count indictment. The Department of Justice (DOJ) allowed him to plead guilty to one count of providing support to the Taliban and illegal possession of a weapon.
When he walks out of prison, he will have served about two and a half years less than his original 20-year sentence, having received an early release for his “good behavior” while incarcerated. In fact, in a 2013 lawsuit, Lindh accused the Bureau of Prisons of violating his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. US District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson lauded his prison behavior. “His scant, nonviolent disciplinary history during his incarceration has merited him a classification of low security,” she wrote.
Convicts have another name for it: they call it being “jail wise.”
As incredible as this might sound, there is little that the Department of Justice can do to reverse his release.
A terrorist walking free is not a comfortable thought. Many, including federal and state lawmakers, have called for unique restrictions on released terrorists that would control where they live, work, or interact with others, including their social media activity. Monitoring a released terrorist’s Internet activity is crucial. John Walker Lindh was initially attracted to a radical Islamic ideology through the Internet when he was a teenager.
This information would then be shared with local law enforcement agencies, in much the same way as the National Sex-Offender registry works.
The Tracer Act, awaiting passage in the US Senate, establishes such a registry and is strongly supported by Spann’s former CIA colleagues.
James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation believes that the danger posed by releasing terrorists such as Lindh is minimal. His exact words were “so what?” Carafano believes that an agency like the NSA is able to monitor someone like Lindh continually around the clock.
There is speculation that Lindh may apply to live in Ireland after his release since he has established citizenship there. If he does emigrate to Ireland, our foreign intelligence partners will then be responsible for keeping an eye on him. But that alone simply will not work. Mistakes happen, and individuals slip through the cracks.
For example, FBI security checks on maritime transportation workers missed people who also were on the terrorist watch list, a recent report by the Department of Justice Inspector General found. FBI agents were not properly trained on how the transportation workers’ ID program worked.
The European Union has also had its share of failures when it comes to tracking terrorists.
Relying on a single agency without sharing the information with local authorities is a recipe for disaster.
And lest we be fooled into thinking that Lindh’s release is just one isolated incident, we should note that more than 60 convicted terrorists will be released from prison in the next five years.
That group includes Kevin James, the leader of Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS), which he formed while an inmate in a California state prison and planned attacks on Los Angeles-area US military operations and Jewish facilities. He is scheduled for release in January.
James is being held in FCI-Florence ADMAX, better known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” home to some of the most violent terrorists like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid, and the “Underwear Bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
There is still no definitive study on the projected recidivism rate of released terrorists. But the national recidivism rate for ordinary criminals hovers around 60 percent.
Even if only one percent of released terrorists try to launch a new attack, that is too much for the public to accept.
Hopefully, authorities will initiate stringent measures on released terrorists, including the creation of a national registry, monitoring their activities, and forwarding information to the appropriate local authorities. Time is running out to enact these measures. Current laws prevent holding them beyond their release date, and the thought of unrepentant terrorists being released from custody before these security measures are in place is unsettling.
There is nothing we can do to prevent Lindh’s release now, which makes the need for new restrictions that much more urgent before others are released.
Anything less is a slap in the face to families of those who gave their lives to protect us from terrorism.
Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for NYS, author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad, and Senior Fellow at the The Investigative Project on Terrorism. Follow him on Twitter @PTDunleavy. This article was originally commissioned by the The Investigative Project on Terrorism.