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'American Taliban' Lindh's release triggers outrage, with more 'war on terror' prisoners nearing freedom

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: John Walker Lindh, an American who joined the Taliban in Afghanistan, was released from a U.S. prison today; there's inherent risk but also potentially big reward when parties engage in wedge politics.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

At left is a police file photo made available in 2002 of the 'American Taliban' John Walker Lindh, and a photo of him from the records of the Arabia Hassani Kalan Surani Bannu madrassa religious school in Pakistan's northwestern city of Bannu. Lindh is an American captured with the Taliban in November 2001, weeks after the U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan. (Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

TODAY:

  • John Walker Lindh, a Muslim convert from California who travelled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban, was released from an Indiana prison this morning, and there are more 'war-on-terror' prisoners coming up for release in the coming months.
  • There's inherent risk but also potentially big reward when parties engage in wedge politics.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Forever prisoners

The U.S. "war on terror" continues, but its first American target is now a free man.

John Walker Lindh, a Muslim convert from California who travelled to Afghanistan as a teenager to join the Taliban, was released from an Indiana prison this morning.

The now 38-year-old pleaded guilty in 2002 to aiding the group and carrying weapons. He served 17 years of his 20-year sentence, and will now spend the next three years on parole after his good behaviour qualified him for early release.

U.S. born John Walker Lindh, left, is led away by a Northern Alliance soldier near Fort Qali-i-Janghi prison on Dec. 1, 2001. Lindh, a 21-year-old Californian, converted to Islam as a teenager. (Reuters)

Lindh has always maintained that he didn't support terrorism and never fought against his fellow Americans. But all that time in jail doesn't seem to have changed his radical views, and based on his recent letters he now appears to have sympathy for the Islamic State.

Many are outraged at Lindh's release.

Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, called it "unexplainable and unconscionable" during an appearance on Fox News this morning, saying that Lindh is still "threatening the United States of America, still committed to the very jihad that he engaged in."

But convicted terrorists gaining their liberty is something Americans are going to have to get used to.

U.S. jails currently hold more than 450 prisoners who have been convicted of terrorism-related offences since the 9/11 attacks. And at least 60 of those convicts are scheduled to be released between now and 2024.

A report published last fall, titled When Terrorists Come Home, noted that most of these convicts will still have long lives ahead of them when they re-enter society, having been on average just 27 when sentenced.

Some will likely return to their ways — intelligence officials have reported that 17 per cent of prisoners released from Cuba's Guantanamo Bay are suspected or known to have rejoined terror organizations.

People walk past a guard tower outside the fencing of Camp 5 at the U.S. Military's Prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in January 2017. (Thomas Watkins/AFP/Getty Images)

Still, the United States has made almost no efforts to "deradicalize" its homegrown jihadists, having failed to create any sort of rehabilitation or re-entry program.

And the problem of what to do with them will stretch on for years, with dozens of Americans still facing trial for allegedly trying to join or help the Islamic State.

Then there are the prisoners who remain in legal limbo.

As of last December, 40 men remain incarcerated at the U.S. military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay. Many have been there for 15 years or more.

A U.S. soldier holds keys inside the Camp V detention facility in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, on April 17. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Only one of them — Ali Hamza al Bahul, a Yemeni man who served as Osama bin Laden's media secretary in Afghanistan —  has been convicted of a crime.

Eight are still before tribunals, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed and five others who face the death penalty for their alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

Five men have been cleared for release, but have yet to return to their homelands. Their prospects are growing dimmer since Donald Trump took office and vowed to keep the jail open, and add more prisoners who have links to terrorism.

The vast majority of Gitmo detainees — 26 men hailing from 11 different nations — are now classified as "forever prisoners", destined to be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

In this photo reviewed by U.S. military officials to make sure names and facial details are not visible, detainees are seen inside the Camp VI detention facility in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, on April 17. There are 40 detainees at the facility. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

The oldest among them, a Pakistani businessman named Saifullah Parachu, is now 71, having been held for 15 years on suspicion of aiding al-Qaeda. (His eldest son, Uzair, is serving a 30-year sentence in a New York jail for providing material support for terrorism.)

With orders now in place to keep Guantanamo open through 2043, authorities have been trying to prepare for the long haul.

Last last month, Rear Adm. John C. Ring, the then commander of the camp, told visiting reporters about plans to make cells wheelchair-accessible, add specialized medical care like dialysis, and build an $88.5 million US hospice centre.

"Unless America's policy changes, at some point we'll be doing some sort of end-of-life care here," he explained.

He was relieved of his  the day after the reports appeared, just seven weeks before he was scheduled to be rotated out of the job. No reason was given.


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At Issue

There's inherent risk but also potentially big reward when parties engage in wedge politics, The National co-host Rosemary Barton writes.

Wedge politics are intended to do just what you might think: divide a part of the population on a specific issue. An issue that is oftentimes controversial and easily lends itself to polarizing views.

That's at least in part why we are suddenly hearing a lot more about abortion in this country.

The issue is founded in some real politics and fears too, of course.  

The always-contentious debate is being stoked by events south of the border. Five states in the U.S. have signalled they are going to put serious restrictions on abortion. The moves are also an attempt to force Roe v. Wade back onto the agenda at the Supreme Court.

It has caused widespread concern and protests in the U.S.

Pro-choice supporters demonstrate in New Orleans on Wednesday. (Michael DeMocker/The Times-Picayune via AP)

But that concern has also drifted across the border into Canada, and the Liberal party has seized on it.

In recent weeks they have pointed out that some Conservative MPs attended an anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill. And the Liberals have suggested they are the only party who will defend womens' interests.

Andrew Scheer was forced to say, not for the first time, that a Conservative government would not reopen this debate. He also called what the governing party is doing "typical Liberal desperation."

People take part in the March For Life rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 9. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

That may be, but Liberals also believe it is effective.

And everyone uses wedges to their benefit, even if there is risk involved.

Tonight we'll talk about why political parties do this and just how well it works. Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne and Althia Raj will be on your screens later for At Issue. See you then.

- Rosemary Barton

  • WATCH: At Issue tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

A few words on ... 

Downgrading your expectations.


Quote of the moment

"Someone is out there with big-time anger issues. Maybe that person will do the right thing and come forward or, at the very least, get some help."

- David Keir makes an emotional plea to the unidentified man who thrust a ski pole into the head of his 13-year-old son Max on Vancouver's Grouse Mountain, leaving the boy with a serious brain injury.  

David Keir, seen at a police press conference, points to the location where the ski pole punctured his son Max's skull. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

What The National is reading

  • Sea levels could rise by up to 2 metres by 2100, new study finds (CBC)
  • Landslide win for Narendra Modi in Indian elections (BBC)
  • Pentagon proposing U.S. troop build-up in Middle East (Associated Press)
  • Botswana condemned for lifting ban on hunting elephants (Guardian)
  • British government delays vote on Theresa May's latest Brexit bill (CBC)
  • Rogue monkey kills one person, injures nine others (Daily Mail)
  • Female squash players shocked by tournament prize: leg wax and a vibrator (El Pais)
  • Repairman trips on LSD while fixing a vintage synth covered in it (CBS SF)

Today in history

May 23, 1966: Leonard Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers praised and condemned

To say the reviews were mixed is to be overly polite. The Boston Globe greeted Leonard Cohen's second novel by putting him up on a pedestal with James Joyce. The Globe and Mail called it "verbal masturbation." The poet-turned-writer, and soon-to-be musician, seems to take it all in stride during this Take 30 interview with Adrienne Clarkson. "I'm not interested in posterity," he says. "It's a paltry form of eternity."

Adrienne Clarkson interviews Leonard Cohen after the publication of his second novel. 11:28

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.