About 20 miles west of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan is Qala-i-Jangi, a large and formidable 19th century fortress.
At that place, a handful of American and British soldiers, along with their Northern Alliance Afghani allies, waged a ferocious fight against Taliban fighters.
The American Taliban
On Saturday, November 24, 2001, several hundred Taliban fighters who had surrendered to the Northern Alliance were brought in trucks to Qala-i-Jangi.
The fighters were incarcerated in underground cells, where they joined several hundred other Taliban combatants who had surrendered earlier.
The Taliban were a mixture of Afghans, Pakistani, Uzbek, Chechen, Arabs, and one American – John Walker Lindh.
The First American Death
On the following Sunday morning some of the prisoners were taken from their cells to be questioned by two CIA officers.
One of them, by the name of Johnny Micheal Spann, found and began questioning Lindh.
Lindh refused to talk; he said nothing to Spann about a Taliban plan to attack the Americans and their Northern Alliance allies.
Later that morning, the two agents interrogated another group of prisoners. When questioned by Spann, one of them said he had come to Afghanistan to kill Americans. A moment later he attacked Spann.
With weapons which had been previously cached in Qala-i-Jangi, approximately 600 Taliban fighters launched an attack to take over the fortress. In the melee, Lindh was shot in the right thigh. He fell to the ground and pretended to be dead.
Spann’s body lay nearby; he was the first American to die in the global war on terror.
The American Detainee
Reinforcements were quickly called for.
By early afternoon, a small number of American and British forces arrived to direct the counterattack and joined Northern Alliance soldiers in an unforgiving firefight to regain control of the fortress.
When communications with American airpower were established later that afternoon, air strikes began to systematically level buildings and the Taliban within.
The fighting continued during the night and raged into Monday. As the day ended, an American AC-130 began circling over the fortress. Shortly thereafter, it unleashed its devastating firepower on Taliban positions in the fortress.
By early Tuesday morning, the fighting had begun to subside; hundreds of Taliban fighters lay dead or near death. By week’s end, only one group of fighters remained entrenched in a basement.
To dislodge them, Northern Alliance soldiers redirected an irrigation stream to flood them out.
The rising, frigid water had the desired effect; 86 Taliban fighters – including Lindh – surrendered.
Taken this time into custody by American soldiers, he became the first detainee – number 001 – in the global war on terror.
Trial and Conviction
Extradited to America, Lindh appeared in an Alexandria, Virginia courtroom for a preliminary hearing on January 24, 2002.
On Monday, February 5, he next stood before a federal grand jury which indicted him on ten charges – to include conspiracy to commit murder – stemming from his actions before and while at Qala-i-Jangi; he faced life in prison.
Lindh was not charged with treason.
He and his attorneys accepted a plea bargain offered by federal prosecutors. On July 15, 2002, Lindh pled guilty to supplying services to the Taliban and to carrying an explosive in the commission of a felony.
On Monday, October 4, 2002, Lindh was sentenced by Federal Judge T.S. Ellis III to 20 years in prison without the possibility of parole. With good behavior, however, he could be released early.
Release Date: May 23, 2019
Shortly after his sentencing, Lindh became prisoner 45426-083 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana. While there, he did not renounce extremist violence.
Seventeen days from today, after seventeen years in prison, an unrepentant John Walker Lindh will walk free.