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."
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."
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.
"He learned the basics of Islam here, such as how to pray," said 23-year-old Abdullah Nana. "He had a thirst for knowledge."
Walker was soon trying to memorize the entire Koran.
More Strident Islamic Voices
According to the Nanas, Walker's newfound fascination led him to visit two mosques in San Francisco, Masjid Darussalam and the San Francisco Islamic Center. It was there that his dedication broadened, exposing him to new--and more strident--brands of Islam.
Majid Darussalam is a third-floor mosque on Jones Street, just up the block from Market Street, amid the strip clubs and soup kitchens in a gritty section of the city.
Neither Amatullah Al-Marwani, the executive secretary of the mosque, nor her husband, Mohammed, say they have heard from anyone who remembers Walker visiting the place.
"We don't talk of war here, no talk of anything violent," Mohammed said. "We only want to know Allah and to pray.
"Whatever happened to push him to the Taliban, I guarantee it didn't happen here," Mohammed said. "You will see it happened in Pakistan. It must have been so."
It might have been here, however, that Walker first heard the fiery Islamic rhetoric that is preached at many U.S. mosques--especially before Sept. 11. "Young people can get carried away when they hear all this angry rhetoric about Zionism and America and injustice," said one Muslim man who has visited the Jones Street mosque and was offended by the anti-American message he heard. "We should stop importing these imams (Muslim preachers) from the Middle East." The shelves of the mosque--as at many Muslim centers--contain an array of writings, peaceful and otherwise. One book in stock this week, for instance, raves of "The indomitable spirit of Jihad," while another alongside it preaches of "Islam and Universal Peace."
Bernal Heights Mosque
Walker's sojourn to Pakistan may have been inspired by his visit to the second, smaller San Francisco mosque, on Crescent Street in Bernal Heights. That Islamic center is known in Bay Area Muslim circles as the local headquarters for tabligh jamaat, the Islamic revival movement.
But the woman, who asked that her name not be used, disagreed with some who described the tabligh jamaat as a recruiting group for militant movements. "They are not political," she said. "They are very peaceful."
Abdul Khalid, standing in the entry hall to the modest Crescent Street building, vigorously agreed, saying his mosque has nothing to do with Walker, the Taliban or Osama bin Laden.
"There is no politics here, no aggression," he said. "We are just spiritual."
Convention in Santa Clara
Ephrahim Nana said that both his son and Walker were influenced by the teachings of tabligh jamaat, which sponsors a variety of spiritual retreat programs--so much so that Walker attended a large annual convention of tabligh jamaat members in Santa Clara before he headed off to Pakistan. "They encourage people to spend a weekend in the path of Allah, or 40 days or four months on the path," he said. "Their message is that religious guidance doesn't come without sacrifice. One should sacrifice time and money in the name of Allah."
"Tabligh" means conveying the faith of Islam. Members travel from city to city, visiting mosques and knocking on doors of local Muslims, encouraging them to strengthen their faith.
Another man familiar with the movement, who asked that his name not be used, said the tabligh jamaat followers are sympathetic to the fundamentalist form of Islam practiced by the Taliban and by the Wahhabi sect that controls Saudia Arabia.
"They form the bedrock for extremism," he said. "Their whole aim in life is to grow a long beard and visit other communities and proclaim that Islam is the only valid faith."
Nana denied that the movement was "extremist," but he said it is likely that Walker's experience with tabligh jamaat may have inspired him to go to study in Pakistan.
"Whoever he met in Pakistan changed his direction, triggered him to the next level," Nana said.
Walker's explorations into Islam, San Francisco-style, may have also led him to Yemen.
Many of those who come to daily prayers at the Jones Street mosque are from that nation, which in 1998 became the first stop on John Walker's international Islamic odyssey.
He went to Yemen, friends said, because Yemeni Arabic is closest to the "pure" form used in the Koran. And Mohammed Al-Marwani of the Jones Street mosque pointed out that entry into Yemen is easier than many other Middle Eastern countries, "so it would make perfect sense that someone like him, wanting to study the Koran overseas, would go there."
Before his trip to Yemen, Nana said his son tried to talk Walker into changing his mind and going to study Arabic in South Africa, where the professors tend to speak English and there is a standard of living closer to that in California.
But the argument did no good. After studying at a language school in Yemen, he came back to his mother's house in Fairfax for about eight months and then went back to Yemen. It was during that second trip that the U.S. destroyer Cole was bombed in Yemen last year. Walker told his father that the attack, which claimed the lives of 17 sailors, was justified.
After that, his father said, it was off to Pakistan last year, where he studied at a strict religious school in a little village near Bannu in the northwest frontier.
There, he prayed all day, slept on a rope bed in his teacher's study and kept to himself, his Pakistani teacher, Mufti Iltimas, told reporters overseas. "In the U.S., I feel alone. Here, I feel comfortable and at home," Walker reportedly told Iltimas.
Move to the Mountains
Then, last May, he told his teacher he wanted to go into the chillier mountains to avoid the scorching summer. It was then, Walker told reporters after his capture, that he wound up with the Taliban and changed his name to "Abdul Hamid."
Walker told Newsweek he was drawn to the stated purpose of the Taliban to create a pure Islamic state, something that seemed in accord with his goal to reach spiritual purity. But he never explained any of that to his teacher; he just vanished. How he got involved with the Taliban troops is even more of a mystery.
"Maybe somebody motivated him to do this, because he was a sweet and sincere person," a puzzled Mufti Iltimas told the New York Times this week. "He was not a jihadi. He was not that kind."