John Walker Lindh, the young American who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan last year, is to be sentenced Friday in a US District Court in Alexandria, Va.
Both the defense and prosecution have filed documents with the court indicating that Mr. Lindh is fulfilling a plea agreement reached on July 15. He agreed to submit to regular government debriefings, fully disclosing everything he knows about the Taliban and Al Qaeda, in return for a 20-year sentence.
The judge, T.S. Ellis III, is not bound by that agreement and could change the sentence. It will no doubt be a difficult decision that will require a delicate balance between punishing the only known American to have fought with the Taliban and encouraging him to continue to cooperate with the government in its effort to break up the Al Qaeda network.
The defense, prosecution, and outside experts on terror groups agree that Lindh is guilty of fighting with the Taliban, and that he should be punished. But they also agree that US government intelligence agencies, which have been unable to penetrate terror groups, have a unique opportunity to get an insider's views.
Although neither the government nor defense attorneys are permitted to speak about the substance of dozens of hours Lindh has spent in debriefings, terror experts say that he could provide invaluable information about training camps, organizational structure, and ideology and could identify other terrorists.
"We have an American citizen who accomplished what others haven't," says Bruce Hoffman, a noted specialist on terror at the Rand Corp. "He was in there, where we would want our [CIA] operatives to be."
Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on terror at St. Andrews University in Scotland who has consulted with US intelligence agencies, agrees. "Americans are very good at targeting criminals, but not terrorists," Dr. Gunaratna says. "They must make an effort to understand the terrorist mind-set, and they have an opportunity to do that with Mr. Lindh, who is fully cooperating with them. He speaks good Arabic, he reads Arabic, he can help those agencies become more professional in the fight against terrorism."
Although all the parties agree that Lindh is cooperating and can continue to be extremely useful to the government in fighting terrorism, they all make the distinction between Lindh's involvement with the Taliban versus Al Qaeda.
Lindh converted to Islam five years ago, when he was 16, and left his upper-middle-class California home to attend an Islamic religious school in Yemen. He later attended another religious school in Pakistan, and ended up a year ago May at a recruiting camp in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The Taliban regime sent Lindh to the Al Farouq training camp near Kandahar, where he received military training before being sent to the front to fight the Northern Alliance last fall.
Gunaratna says Lindh was a foot soldier for the Taliban, but never a member of Al Qaeda. He insists, in fact, that Lindh disdained the terror group's practices because they are not sanctioned by the Koran, Islam's holy book.
During his extensive research for his studies and his most recent book, "Inside Al Qaeda," Gunaratna has interviewed hundreds of terrorists. He recently spent some eight hours interviewing Lindh, reviewed the US government interrogation reports, and provided his findings for the defense to file with its sentencing memorandum.
Both Gunaratna and Mr. Hoffman say that Lindh has provided very valuable information and will most likely continue to do so for some time.
Since Lindh has been through the training at Al Farouq, he can recount the details of the training, tactics, and philosophy of that training. In addition, he can identify people including some who may be members of cells in the US who went through that camp with him. Thousands passed through on three-month, overlapping cycles.
Moreover, Lindh has extensive knowledge of the ideology of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He says that Al Qaeda asked him to participate in a terrorist operation outside Afghanistan, but he refused.
"Lindh can explain how they recruit and how to counter their recruitment strategies," Gunaratna says. "He can identify the type of training and advise government troops how to attack these organizations. He has a very good knowledge of what is happening out there."
These experts say the information that Lindh is providing now is extremely useful, but what is probably more important is his ability to help the government in the long term. And that may be a reason for the judge to order a long sentence to leverage Lindh's knowledge.
Government officials acknowledge this "war on terror" will go on for some time. To break up these kinds of terror groups, experts say, it is necessary to destroy the ideology of the terrorist group to create dissension among the group's members.
Lindh can help the US intelligence agencies understand the mind-set of these groups, what motivates them, and how they employ propaganda to persuade the religiously ardent to cross the line to radicalism.
He can also continue to monitor Al Qaeda websites and advise the government on how they are operating. Since Lindh knows a lot about the group's organization, expert say, he can help government officials identify points of vulnerability places where it is most beneficial to insert infiltrators.
"His willingness to cooperate is by no means inconsequential," says Hoffman. "He has an insight into how individuals who are religiously devout make that transition to political radicalism. He can provide information to drain the swamp, to counter the propaganda that sucks young men into this environment."