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First Casualty tells the story of the first CIA mission in Afghanistan after 9/11 and reveals how Mike Spann, America’s first casualty of the war, was killed in a prisoner revolt. It was published by Little Brown this week
Four special forces operators crowd around their prize for a team photograph.
John Walker Lindh, already known as the ‘American Taliban‘ in headlines, is bound and blindfolded. A soldier has offered a different nickname written in marker on duct tape across his eyes: ‘Sh** head.’
The photograph set off a scandal amid allegations of prisoner abuse when its existence was revealed in 2002. But it can now be seen for the first time almost 20 years later with publication of a new book about the early weeks of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
In First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11, author Toby Harnden reveals how Lindh was captured after hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners launched a prison revolt.
Lindh was eventually brought to trial in U.S. federal court and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
He was released in May 2019 and is believed to be living in Virginia. It was revealed that in 2015 he had become a supporter of the Islamic State and praised them for beheading Americans, saying the terrorists had done ‘a spectacular job.’
But it was the images of him after his capture – when his dishevelled, bearded figure was caught on video – that triggered a sensation around the world, and anger in America at how a 20-year-old from Northern California could have ended up among the ranks of extremists in Afghanistan.
He was the first American to face charges in the war on terror. And his treatment foreshadowed allegations of prisoner abuse and ritual humiliation that dogged American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Special forces pose with the ‘American Taliban’ John Walker Lindh shortly after his capture in November 2001. They had written ‘S*** head’ on duct tape stuck to his blindfold, triggering an investigation when details emerged. The image has never been seen in public until now
Lindh converted to Islam as a teenager after seeing the film Malcolm X and went overseas to study Arabic and the Quran. He eventually traveled to Pakistan before crossing the border into Afghanistan. He was among about 400 Taliban and Al Qaeda forces who surrendered to the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance in November 2001
Pictures of the high-value prisoner were taken by members of the 5th Special Forces Group as they prepared him to be transported from Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan to Camp Rhino, near Kandahar in the south. He was the first American prisoner in the war on terror
Harnden describes how his return to the U.S. began in November 2001.
Small teams of CIA agents and Green berets were working with anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance to oust an extremist government that harbored Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda during the run-up to the 9/11 attacks.
Lindh was among hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who surrendered to the Northern Alliance.
But the surrender was a ruse and they launched an uprising, killing CIA paramilitary officer Mike Spann – the first American casualty of what would become a 20-year war.
Lindh, then 20, was among 86 Al Qaeda prisoners who survived what became known as the Battle of Qala-i Jangi.
Spann had questioned Lindh before the revolt. American officers nicknamed him ‘the Irishman’ after another prisoner had told them he had claimed to be from Ireland.
Lindh remained silent throughout.
It was only after the uprising was put down and Spann was dead that Lindh told a doctor he was American, apparently in an effort to be treated more humanely.
He was held at a Turkish-built school that was used by a small detachment of American special forces and CIA officers.
Pictures of him were taken just before being taken to a C-130 cargo plane bound for Camp Rhino, near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
In another previously unseen photograph, Lindh is seen wearing scrubs during his transfer to Camp Rhino. He said nothing when initially interrogated at Qala-i Jangi fort with other prisoners, and CIA officers nicknamed him ‘the Irishman’ as he had told other Al Qaeda fighters he was from Ireland in order to hide his true identity
Other photographs triggered allegations of abuse and Lindh’s lawyers later argued that his interrogation statements – during which he said he had been aware of the 9/11 plans before they happened – should not be allowed in court
John Walker Lindh is strapped into a C-130 transport plane to be taken to Camp Rhino
‘He had been carried in on a stretcher; now, he was able to walk on his own,’ writes Harnden.
‘Green Berets from [Operational Detachment Alpha] 592 bound his wrists and blindfolded him as a C-130 cargo plane waited at the Mazar-i Sharif airfield.
‘A soldier wrote “sh** head” on a piece of duct tape and stuck it on Lindh’s blindfold. Five members of the ODA then posed with him for a “team photo.”
‘Almost immediately the Green Berets realized the photo was a mistake and tried to delete it. But the incriminating image had already been loaded onto a hard drive and was to be discovered during Lindh’s legal case the following year.’
It was not the only indignity he faced in captivity.
One Green Beret allegedly told Lindh he was ‘going to hang’ and that the team photo would be sold to raise money for Christian charities.
Earlier, Lindh had been given a ‘boneless pork chop’ military ration which, as a Muslim, he refused to eat.
Other photographs taken at Camp Rhino by Marines showed him naked on a stretcher, blindfolded and handcuffed.
The images were obtained by his defense team during the discovery phase of the case, and his lawyers argued that it showed he was the victim of abuse.
They said his interrogation statements had been obtained by torture and should not be used in court.
An investigation into the photographs was launched but the soldiers were cleared of all charges by military investigators on the grounds that their behavior amounted to little more than ‘barracks humor.’
A video grab shows ‘the Irishman’ being brought for his first round of questioning at Qala-i Jangi fort. Minutes later, a prison uprising ignited that claimed the life of the first American killed in what would become an almost 20-year war
CIA officer Mike Spann is seen trying to persuade ‘the Irishman’ to open up during questioning. Spann was killed shortly after he was seen talking to Lindh
A major commanding the soldiers said in a statement at the time: ‘No harm, physical or psychological, was done to the detainee and I believe that the sentiment conveyed by the inscription is certainly shared by the vast majority of Americans.
‘In light of the fact that this man was an American citizen who was fighting for an organization that killed nearly 3,000 innocent American citizens and was attempting to kill more, I think it is a testament to the discipline and training of these American Special Forces soldiers that this inscription, written on a piece of tape, is the worst thing that happened to the detainee while in their custody.’
Lindh had faced a life sentence but most charges were dropped. He eventually pleaded guilty to two charges – supplying services to the Taliban and carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony.
At his sentencing in 2002, Lindh claimed he joined the Taliban because he supported its version of Islam wanted to fight its enemies in Afghanistan. He had no intention of waging war against Americans, he said.
‘I have never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism or terrorism. I condemn terrorism on every level, unequivocally,’ he told the court.
But Harnden’s book details how at Camp Rhino, he confessed to the FBI that he had learned at an Al Qaeda base, during the summer of 2001, that suicide attackers had been sent to the United States.
That had turned out to be 9/11, which Lindh claimed was the first in three phases of Al-Qaeda attacks against America.
Phase two would be a biological weapons strike at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-December.
Phase three, Lindh said, would ‘finish the United States.’
Lindh is also the subject of a new documentary, Detainee 001, which will be premiered on Showtime on Friday.