WASHINGTON -- John Walker Lindh, the 20-year-old Californian who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, was charged Tuesday with conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens. He will be tried in a civilian court and could face life in prison.
After weeks of deliberations, the Bush administration opted against a military trial or charges that would carry the death penalty.
Lindh, who converted to Islam at 16 and is alleged to have trained at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan, was charged in a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. He will be transferred from a U.S. military ship for trial in the United States.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said Lindh admitted in interviews with the FBI that he met Osama bin Laden and knew bin Laden had ordered the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
''He chose to embrace fanatics, and his allegiance to those terrorists never faltered,'' said Ashcroft. ''Terrorists did not compel John Walker Lindh to join them. John Walker Lindh chose terrorists.''
Lindh learned in early June that bin Laden had sent people to the United States to carry out suicide operations, according to an FBI affidavit. The document described an odyssey that began with Walker's conversion to Islam in 1997, later training in Pakistan and Afghanistan and a decision last year to join the Taliban.
Friends have described Lindh as an intelligent young man who wore full-length robes to high school and went by the name ''Suleyman'' after his conversion to Islam. After his capture in December, his parents, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, had asked the public to withhold judgment about their son.
James Brosnahan, a lawyer for the separated couple, could not be reached Tuesday. A spokeswoman at his law office in San Francisco said he was ''issuing no statements at this time.''
''We may never know why he turned his back on our country and our values, but we cannot ignore that he did,'' said Ashcroft. ''Youth is not absolution for treachery, and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against your country.''
While Lindh was charged with conspiring to kill Americans, it's not clear from the FBI affidavit whether he actually engaged in combat against American forces. He was deployed to the front lines to fight against opposition northern alliance forces, but after Sept. 11 his position was bombed by U.S. airstrikes and he retreated, surrendered and was taken into custody, the affidavit said.
Ashcroft said Lindh ''had knowledge of the American forces in the theater ... and knew that participants in the conflict were not limited to ... members of the Northern Alliance.''
Lindh also is being charged with providing support to terrorist organizations and engaging in prohibited transactions with the Taliban, Ashcroft said.
The Bush administration had considered whether to charge Lindh in a civilian or military court and whether to charge him with treason, which carries the death penalty.
Ashcroft suggested that proving Lindh committed treason would be difficult, but he left open the possibility that other charges could be filed as evidence is developed.
''The Constitution imposes a high evidentiary burden to prove the charge of treason'' -- a confession in open court or testimony by two witnesses, said Ashcroft.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush ''is supportive of the process put in place. He is confident that the process will end in justice.''
The charges were recommended to Bush by the National Security Council, which mediated advice from the Justice Department, the Pentagon and the State Department.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he supported the ''difficult and complex'' decision to place the case in the civilian criminal justice system.
Lindh was captured in November fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was taken into custody by U.S. forces after a prison uprising at a fortress in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann, who had questioned Lindh, was killed in the uprising. There has been no indication that Lindh was involved in Spann's death.
The federal affidavit said that after Spann interviewed him, Lindh was moved to a lawn and tried to run when he heard gunfire. He was shot in the leg. ''Walker claims not to have seen what happened to the two Americans who had interviewed him,'' the affidavit said.
Lindh since then has been held on the amphibious attack ship USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea. He will be transferred to FBI custody, Ashcroft said. A court date has not been set for his initial appearance in Virginia.
Lindh, who was baptized Roman Catholic and grew up in a liberal San Francisco suburb, told the FBI that after he trained at a paramilitary camp run by the terrorist group Harkat ul-Mujahedeen, he was given a choice of fighting in Kashmir or with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Ashcroft quoted Lindh as telling Taliban recruiters that ''he was a Muslim who wanted to go to the front lines to fight.''
Lindh was interviewed by the FBI on Dec. 9 and 10 and waived his rights to a lawyer, the affidavit said. He had joined the military training camp in May 2001, it said, and was told by al-Qaida people to pretend that he was Irish and not to admit to anyone that he was American.
On one occasion, the complaint said, Walker and four other trainees met with bin Laden for about five minutes, during which time bin Laden thanked them for helping.
AP White House Correspondent Ron Fournier contributed to this report.
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