John Walker Lindh’s dark and wild eyes were ubiquitous across magazine covers and cable news channels, alongside militants in Afghanistan, after he was captured in 2001. He was a long-haired guerrilla with a California address, to some a traitor, to others a misguided kid sucked into Islamic jihad. Dubbed the “American Taliban,” Lindh was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to supporting militants who harbored al-Qaeda as it planned the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Lindh will be released from federal prison on Thursday, three years early, reports the Washington Post. Lindh and other incarcerated U.S. supporters of Islamic militants present a quandary with growing urgency: Is the U.S. prepared to try to rehabilitate extremists and foreign fighters, and welcome them back into society?
“There is very close to nothing in terms of de-radicalizing programs at the federal level,” said Bennett Clifford of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “The current model is hoping long prison sentences for material support of terrorism will be a deterrent.” The federal Bureau of Prisons is stymied by budget constraints, a sprawling corrections bureaucracy and a top-down approach that focuses on traditional rehabilitation, such as turning away prisoners from gang activity or drugs, Clifford said. About 500 federal prisoners have been sentenced for terrorism-related crimes, and about a fifth will be released within five years, 62 of them U.S. citizens. With inmates who have Islamic State ties nearing the end of their sentences, there may be a new focus on culling extremist beliefs before prisoners head back into civil society.