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Writer Recounts Finding Lindh

January 16, 2002

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At first, he couldn’t tell the man was any different from the other wounded Taliban and al-Qaida fighters at the makeshift hospital: bleeding, in pain, covered in filth and matted hair.

Then Robert Young Pelton, an American writer traveling with Afghan warlord Rashid Dostum, heard him speak: ``John,″ the man mumbled. ``Washington, D.C.″

Pelton was the first to videotape John Walker Lindh, the man known as the American Taliban, who now faces charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens. Parts of his hour-long interview ran on CNN in early December, presenting the groggy, bearded 20-year-old to a stunned nation.

``He’s guilty of being an idiot,″ said Pelton. ``He got caught up in his love for Islam in a way that was countercultural, as opposed to being positive. He could’ve dug ditches ... He chose to go the military route.″

Pelton came to Afghanistan by a different route than most journalists _ he’s a marketing consultant-turned-adventure traveler, drawn to remote, usually war torn places. He authored a book ``The World’s Most Dangerous Places″ and hosts a TV show with the same name.

Pelton’s account of his monthlong journey appears this month in National Geographic Adventure. The magazine provided The Associated Press an excerpt and made Pelton available for an interview.

Pelton had visited Afghanistan three times before he returned in late November, traveling with Dostum and a group of Green Berets who were accompanying him, he said.

When one of Dostum’s men told him an American was among the wounded holdouts of the rebellion at Qalai Janghi prison, Pelton grabbed his cameraman and convinced a Green Beret medic to come along.

He also took some cream-filled cookies for the prisoner.

At first, Lindh refused to talk. But Pelton _ worried that Lindh might be in danger from wounded northern alliance soldiers nearby _ was able to get him moved to a separate room, and Lindh began to talk as the medic treated him.

``The man is terribly thin and severely hypothermic. At first he is hostile, like a kitten baring its claws,″ Pelton wrote in his article. Besides shrapnel wounds to Lindh’s thigh and back, part of a toe had been shot away.

``He’d been through one of the most hellacious things I’ve seen, and I’ve been through a lot of combat,″ Pelton said.

Before Pelton spoke with Lindh, a Newsweek reporter had interviewed him for the weekly magazine.

Pelton said he wasn’t surprised to find an American among the Taliban. He said he’d also met an American in Chechnya who claimed to be fighting with the Muslim forces there.

More than the suffering Lindh had been though, more than the shrug the American offered for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, what stunned Pelton most was the man’s dismissal of his family.

``It’s very rude to say it, but I think he didn’t care about his parents or his loved ones,″ Pelton said, describing how Lindh refused an offer to contact his family by phone or e-mail. ``It’s almost like he didn’t want to be connected to his past.″

Lindh told Pelton he had heard of the Sept. 11 attacks. His reaction? ``He shrugged his shoulders.″

``He didn’t see himself in the global scope of things. ... To him, he’d made a personal and religious commitment to fight jihad. It’s not a political thing, it’s a moral step, a personal commitment.″

Pelton, whose CNN interview is cited throughout the federal indictment of Lindh, said he remains unconvinced that most of those charges can be documented.

``The government’s going to realize this is stupid,″ he said. ``They’ll cop a plea and he’ll get maybe two years.″

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