December 13, 2001--John Walker's ill-fated journey from a Marin County suburb to an Afghan dungeon began as a curious teenager's spiritual quest--to understand a religion that at first glance did not seem so different from the faith of his father.

Walker, 20, was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, and his fascination with Islam coincided with the confusion any teenager feels in the midst of a messy parental divorce. His exploration of the Muslim faith was serious, sincere and anything but bellicose, friends and religious sources maintain.

That search ended in rigid religious schools in Pakistan and the bloody battlefields of Afghanistan. It was there that Walker somehow found his way into the ranks of Osama bin Laden's soldiers, with whom he was captured a week ago during a prison revolt in a mud-walled fort in Afghanistan. How he made the leap from student to self-described holy warrior is a mystery.

On the long road from Marin to Mazar-e-Sharif, Walker stumbled across tabligh jamaat, a Muslim revival movement known for total dedication in its ranks. While his involvement with tabligh jamaat may have inspired him to visit Pakistan, government investigators and Bay Area Muslims doubt that any shadowy agents of terror approached him in California.

"It doesn't appear at all that he was recruited here, that there were any cells or groups that told him to go over there and fight," said Andrew Black, FBI spokesman in San Francisco.

'Needed to Belong'

Black said the man now dubbed the "American Taliban" was--at least during his time in California--apparently "just someone who needed to belong to something, and he found Islam."

His real Islamic education began as a search for religious purity and spiritual certainty at three Bay Area mosques--one in Mill Valley and two in San Francisco.

Ebrahim Nana, one of the leaders of the Mill Valley Islamic Center, said Walker did not really stand out among the rest of the teenage crowd at his quiet suburban mosque.

"He wasn't blond or blue-eyed," Nana said. "Most people probably assumed he was the son of an Arab immigrant.

"I remember him coming to the mosque when he first accepted Islam. His mother would drop him off, and my son would take him home. He was just one of the kids."

Raised until age 10 in Maryland, Walker in his early life barely hinted at the conversion to come.

He was baptized Catholic. The family appeared to be middle-of-the- road, neighbors said. His father, Frank Lindh, was a federal lawyer who baked holiday brownies for the neighborhood, and his mother, Marilyn Walker, stayed at home to watch her son, his younger sister and their older brother.

It was when they moved to Marin County that the spiritual divergence began. By his teens, Walker had abandoned Sunday Mass at the Catholic church. His mother introduced him to American Indian and Buddhist spirituality, but Walker was still searching.

"He wanted something pure, and he was definitely questing at an early age," Lindh said. "We encouraged him to look."

At the same time, Walker was just another American teenager. He immersed himself in hip-hop music--buying up CDs from LL Cool J and Cypress Hill, becoming a regular on hip-hop Internet chat groups--and immersed himself in black culture. His e-mail name was "Doodoo."

He was searching for an identity, one friend recalled, a theory confirmed by some of Walker's old e-mail messages. He posed online as an African American and got into philosophical debates.

"Our blackness does not make white people hate us, it is THEIR racism that causes the hate," 14-year-old Walker said in one dispatch.

Already proficient at the flute, he began buying drum equipment and, according to friends, toyed with becoming a professional musician.

Malcolm X Book

Then, at age 16, he read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and the frivolity of youth disappeared.

He veered toward Malcolm X's Muslim faith and soon cast aside his hip-hop ways, selling the drum gear and searching for a mosque. His e-mails began to reflect a new fervency, asking for help in studying the Koran.

Walker found the direction he was looking for at the Mill Valley mosque. He embraced the trappings of devotion, taking the name "Suleyman al-Faris" and wearing a traditional Muslim hat and robes.

His parents, at first wary, encouraged him after they concluded that the mosque was moderate.

They were separating as he was exploring. Walker converted six months after his father moved out of the house. And for Lindh, Catholicism and Islam were both monotheistic religions "with strong traditions of scholarship and deep history."

Always quiet and studious, Walker pushed himself to graduate from high school early, in 1997 at age 16, and found himself free to devote his attentions to his new pursuit of spiritual purity.

At the Mill Valley mosque, Walker soon forged a friendship with Nana's son, Abdullah, who recalls that his pal had little time for usual teenage activities.