What was it that set a young, middle-class Californian boy on the path to join the most brutal regime on Earth; a path that would see him reject 'Western' life and pick up a gun and grenade to battle the enemies of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan?
Captured alongside other Taliban prisoners in December 2001, John Walker Lindh's story captivated (and still captivates) the American public's attention. Images of the bedraggled and wounded young man were beamed live across the world. His subsequent trial, a year after 9/11, electrified the nation, with the father of CIA agent Mike Spann insisting the young American must have murdered his son when Spann was overwhelmed by Lindh's fellow Taliban prisoners. Steve Earle even wrote a song about it all, John Walker's Blues.
In late 2007 I took the Greyhound bus across the Golden Gate bridge, heading into the prosperous suburbs of Marin County north of San Francisco - and straight into the life of America's most famous 'terrorist'. I wanted to meet John Lindh's friends and family, to try and understand something of the quiet boy who had travelled to Yemen at 17, then later headed to a madrassa (Islamic school) in Pakistan, before heading over the mountains into Afghanistan - and into the arms of the Taliban.
Today the man who began his spiritual journey in a small Islamic centre in the whitest and most prosperous of Californian suburbs is halfway through a 20-year prison sentence, apparently a model prisoner studying a degree and a 'hafiz', someone who has completed memorisation of the Qu'ran. He is, to all intents and purposes, the man he was supposed to be a decade earlier: a modest convert to a religion which is much maligned and misunderstood - and for which a tiny, truly tiny, minority becomes a path towards radicalisation and violence in the name of Faith.
Path to hate
What drives someone to hate? To turn on others; to reject the path of peace? It's something I've been asking myself over many years, and during many encounters, with current and former 'extremists'.
It's particularly relevant now, as we watch the world of fantasist-turned-killer Anders Behring Breivik exposed to the world during his trial in Norway, following his killing of 77 mainly-young Norwegians in a bombing and shootings in Oslo last year. He has boasted these were the most sophisticated attacks carried out in Norway since World War Two. Just a month ago, we were also witnessing the callous killings of Jewish children and fellow Muslims by self-styled Al-Qaeda fanatic and loner Mohamed Mehra in the south of France. Breivik and Mehra seem to be classic 'lone wolves' - killers inspired by ideology and inadequacies - men whom I had followed in many of my own journeys. It got me thinking about some of the extremists I had personally met.
My journey to meet John Lindh's family was part of a now-familiar cycle: a culmination of over 16 years of journeys and research. From early meetings with the neo-Nazi gang Combat 18, through to coffee-shop discussions with Hezbollah members in the southern suburbs of Beirut, dealings with jailhouse 'reverts' (converts) to Islam and former BNP members in the East End of London, to a rather mundane café meeting with a leader of the radical Islamic sect Hizb ut-Tahrir, I had become familiar with the mindset of extremism (if extremism can be said to have a mindset).
There was the suspicion of the outsider, the readily-available 'black and white' solutions to the insurmountable problems the extremist(s) saw around them, the secret rules which showed only 'they' had the answers, the conspiracy theories about who ran the world, the sense of a 'new family' cloaked around them, and - for those inclined to violence - the inevitable fallings out that came from entering a world of pain and confused identity, with relatives and communities often torn asunder by their loved one's actions.
In John Lindh's case, it was watching the film Malcolm X as a 12-year-old that changed his life and propelled him towards Islam. But it was his parent's marriage split (his father, a prominent corporate lawyer, had 'come out' as gay some years earlier), his home education and frequent childhood illness, that had set him apart from his contemporaries and any 'normal' teenage rebellion. His subsequent encounter with the Islamic missionary movement, Tablighi Jamaat, and his zealous but naive desire for an 'authentic' Islam had then carried him further - far further - than just his local mosque.
For London nail bomber, David Copeland (who killed three people, including a pregnant woman, and wounded hundreds of others in an attempt to ignite a race war), his own pathetic inadequacies, fantasies, and encounters with the BNP, then Combat 18 and finally ideologues such as David Myatt, seem to have been part of his journey towards killer. He very nearly killed people I know and love. When I watch Anders Breivik's rather comical Nazi salute to the Oslo court, I am reminded of Copeland back in 1999.
Meanwhile for someone like Hope Not Hate's (and former National Front, NF, member) Matthew Collins, it was abandonment, a search for identity and the presence of ideologues (extremist leaders who actively court young, vulnerable recruits) which were to prove pivotal in his young life.
In his blistering memoir HATE, Collins recounts his upbringing on a south-east London council estate, his absent (alcoholic) Irish father, his mother doing her best to control her wayward sons, the rebellion against authority and a slow drift into an identity vacuum: into which stepped the National Front. Collins was living in a twilight world: cut off, removed, and full of dull anger. In short, he proved perfect recruitment material for extremists. From his early leafleting on behalf of the NF at school, to meetings in (many) pubs and eventual full recruitment, he paints a sad and depressing picture of life on the political margins - a world where the Millwall football club anthem "No-one likes us, and we don't care" plays well.
For Collins, like many extremists, there were always older men around who were there to 'lead'. The men he met (and they are almost always men, as I discovered during research for my book HOMELAND) were not exactly barnstorming charismatic types. In many cases the presence of such ideologues was key in helping to turn a confused or alienated youngster towards violence: David Myatt, the former monk, Islamic convert and proud National Socialist, ran the organisation to which the 1999 London nailbomber David Copeland belonged. The fanatical lawyer Matt Hale, of the World Church of the Creator in the USA ("your race is your religion"), smirked when I asked him about his foreknowledge of his former number two's impending killing spree across Illinois in 1999 (Ben Smith killed two people and wounded several others, before turning the gun on himself; Hale was later sentenced to life imprisonment for trying to have a federal judge killed).
In the East End of London, it was the 'invasion of Asians' onto 'our ground' that led former East End leader, Dave Hill, and accomplice Bob James, into the arms of the British National Party (though like most, it was disagreements with BNP leader Nick Griffin that led to their leaving).
Theirs was a territorial battle and a refusal or inability to recognise the way things were changing. Mere streets away, meanwhile, former Islamic extremist Shazid told me it was his gradual indoctrination into the world of Bengali Islamic politics - fueled by anger over issues such as Bosnia, Palestine, Iraq and Kashmir - then Hizb ut-Tahrir (which wants an Islamic caliphate across the Muslim world) and finally secret meetings with radical black preacher Abdullah el-Faisal which sucked him ever deeper towards jihadi extremism. Others he knew went to train overseas with weapons; luckily for him, it was his growing realisation that Faisal truly was mad (he was convicted of soliciting murder, then deported to his native Jamaica) that helped him wake up and leave the movement.
The irony was, of course, that many of these young men had more in common with their supposed 'enemies' i.e. other extremists, than with their co-religionists or racial groups. Most of them left when the inconsistencies, and cost to the rest of their life, became clear. For some, that was an early realisation; for others, it was to take years. For Matthew Collins, it was the attack he helped lead on defenseless old men and women gathered at an anti-racist meeting in Welling Library, in south London, in 1991.
I thought I was having a psychedelic moment because the room was spinning but everything was actually being turned upside down... one man after another laying into a small group of women, hitting them with chairs and hurling tables at them. It was a bloody massacre. People were lying on the floor, helpless, being stamped on, kicked and hit with objects picked off the walls and floor. A pregnant woman was locked in the toilet and the BNP were trying to kick their way in to get at her and her unborn baby.
The seeds of Collins' conversion from zero-to-hero were planted in that moment. For Matthias Adrian, a former young Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschland (NPD, a neo-Nazi party with links to Nick Griffin) leader I met in Berlin, it was the potential loss of a girlfriend in the movement which led him out. "One day she and her daughter went to desecrate Jewish graves. After that, she seemed to change. Someone in her own family had died. Within four months she had left the scene - and I couldn't cope."
Today Matthias, like Matthew Collins, counsels other extremists who are thinking about or have left 'the scene'. But the internet is having an increasingly powerful effect on the rise of the extremist: allowing a killer such as Anders Breivik in Norway to contact hundreds of English Defence League (EDL) members, or to read the works of the so-called 'counter jihadists' and Eurabia fantasists like Robert Spencer in America.
If there is one thing I learned over my journeys, and meetings, it is that there are no easy answers, no black and white; but it is natural to demand them. I say: beware what you wish for. We must be vigilant, and on guard, for those who promise such answers and peace through hatred.
Nick Ryan is a British writer and journalist. He tweets at: @ryanscribe. A version of this article originally appeared in HOPE not hate magazine.
Suggested For You
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more