Johnny Spann visited his son this week in Section 34 of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where America’s first fallen hero after 9/11 in the war in Afghanistan rests forever, with a commanding view of the Pentagon and Washington’s other monuments.
And there at the grave, the still-grieving father, now 70, told his son, CIA paramilitary officer Johnny “Mike” Spann, how sorry he is that the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh is getting out of prison Thursday — an apparently unrepentant extremist, according to leaked government reports and informed sources who spoke with ABC News this week.
“You know every time I go there, I have to tell him that I love him, I’m proud of him,” the elder Spann, from Winfield, Alabama, told ABC News. “I hate to have to apologize to him, because I feel like that we failed him, but that’s what I’ll have to do.”
In fact, Lindh, 38, will not only be set free, he will have to live somewhere outside of Washington, in the eastern part of Virginia, under supervised release when he leaves the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, three sources told ABC News.
Some who have known Lindh, or have spoken to officials inside the U.S. government, said leaked assessments published by Foreign Policy in 2017 by the National Counterterrorism Center and Bureau of Prisons accurately portrayed Lindh as even more radicalized than when he was captured on an Afghan battlefield in 2001.
Lindh has even sermonized to small groups of fellow Muslim inmates at Terra Haute, according to one source with direct knowledge, where he cited the words of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ideologue in the 1950s whose writings inspired those who later created al Qaeda.
Spann said he worries that Lindh could somehow become an influencer to extremists because “he is an icon,” and so this year he pressed Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., to take up the matter with the White House. In an ABC News interview on Sunday, the still-grieving father delivered a direct appeal to President Donald Trump to somehow find a way to halt Lindh’s release after having served 17 of 20 years with time off for good behavior.
“Mister president, please do your job,” Spann said.
Trump may have the power to halt the release as head of the executive branch, but he has not. According to the Bureau of Prisons, the statutory release date is “the date that a person must be released at the expiration of his or her term of sentence, less any time deducted for good conduct.”
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and a former National Counterterrorism Center official, said Lindh’s apparently unwavering radicalization was troubling, but so’s the fact the there is no de-radicalization program in the federal prison system he will emerge from today.
“I hope Mr. Lindh moves on from his extremist beliefs,” Hughes told ABC News, “but if he does, it’ll be entirely of his own volition and not because of any systematic approach to the issue of released convicted terrorists.”
Lindh traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan before 9/11, received military training at the al Farooq terrorist training camp al Qaeda operated near Kandahar, then traveled north with an assault rifle to join the Taliban’s corps of foreign fighters battling the Northern Alliance, which the U.S. threw its full might behind after the 2001 attacks. He was captured in Mazar-i-Sharif with other fighters and brought to the old prison there.
The final enduring image of Mike Spann was a blurry video of him by Afghan intelligence questioning the bound-and-silent Lindh, whom Spann was told by another detainee was Irish.
An hour after Spann attempted to question Lindh there, Spann was with prisoners who suddenly launched an attack and he died in the ensuing gunfight.
A soot-covered Lindh was later interviewed on video by war author Robert Young Pelton as he received medical care, and photographed by the U.S. military blind-folded and strapped naked to a stretcher, before eventually winding up in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, as the first detainee in the global war on terror.
He was never charged with Spann’s death and only pleaded guilty in early 2002 to providing armed support to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Johnny Spann and some who were there said they believe Lindh could have warned the 32-year-old CIA officer who was hunting Osama bin Laden — whom Lindh had met, though Spann didn’t know that — of what was about to happen in the basement of Qala-i-Janghi prison that day, where the prisoners had concealed weapons such as grenades.
Pelton conducted the only news interview of Lindh on camera when he was captured after the uprising and said the California-raised Taliban volunteer bears culpability in Mike Spann’s killing.
“I interviewed Lindh, who had been captured with Arabic-speaking al Qaeda members. After the uprising I went down into the basement which was still littered with ammunition and weapons. The Arab-speaking survivors told me they had clustered in the back room where they had discussed what to do the next day. I found grenades tied with shoe laces so they could hang them around their crotch area to avoid being found when searched,” Pelton recalled in an interview on Wednesday.
Spann said he has often watched that video of Lindh “setting in front of Mike, and Mike begging him to tell him who he is and what are you doing here? And he still wouldn’t open his mouth, wouldn’t say a word.”
Lindh’s parents and his court-appointed lawyers, James Brosnahan and William Cummings, declined to comment when asked by ABC News this week.
In 2008, Lindh’s father Frank Lindh bashed Spann’s father for blaming his son for what happened in Qala-i-Janghi.
“John Lindh had nothing to do with Mike Spann’s death,” Frank Lindh said in San Francisco at the time. “It was a shameful thing, I think, for that father to continue to make those claims against our son.”
The Department of Justice has not opposed Lindh’s release, but in April, the government succeeded in arguing before a judge in Alexandria, Virginia, to set forth conditions of his supervised release. Lindh at first opposed these conditions but then dropped his opposition, court records show.
As part of his conditional release, Lindh may only use approved electronic devices connected to the internet and continually monitored by the probation office, must communicate online only in English, cannot espouse extremist views or communicate with any extremists and must undergo mental health counseling.
After Spann raised the reports of Lindh’s continued extremist beliefs directly with Sen. Shelby, he tweeted last month that he had spoken to Trump about Lindh, but no known action has been taken by the president. Last week, Shelby and Sen. Margaret Hassan, D-N.H., wrote a joint letter to the acting Bureau of Prisons director asking for answers, but as of Wednesday had received none, an aide said.
“Mr. Lindh is being released in accordance with applicable statutes and BOP regulations. An inmate’s projected release date includes calculation of good conduct time earned by the inmate in accordance with 18 U.S.C. 3624(b) as well as any credits due to time served in custody prior to his/her sentence date (i.e. “jail credit”),” the Bureau of Prisons said in a statement.
Johnny Spann and his granddaughters, Mike Spann’s now grown children, have concerns that someone might seek revenge.
“I think he could inspire people,” he said. “Can somebody tell me that he absolutely will not?”
ABC News’ Alexander Mallin and Luke Barr contributed to this report.