By Bill Hewitt
December 24, 2001 12:00 PM

From the time John Walker first appeared four years ago at the Islamic Center of Mill Valley, in California’s Marin County, it was clear he desperately wanted to fit in with his adopted faith. Raised a Catholic, he peppered other members with questions about the Koran and Islam, which they found charming but also a bit odd. At times Walker, who was then only 16 and had taken to calling himself Suleyman al-Lindh, could seem almost as credulous as a child. “He was the sincerest person I’ve ever met,” says Amed Johari, 24, a Bay Area floor finisher who worships at the mosque and befriended Walker. “But maybe he was too sincere, too curious. And curiosity killed the cat.”

Or at least led to serious trouble, which is where Walker, 20, now finds himself. On Nov. 25 he was discovered among 150 or so Taliban fighters being held prisoner in a fortress near the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. It was there that Walker was interrogated by CIA operative Johnny “Mike” Spann, 32, who was killed hours later, when the Taliban prisoners rioted. Three weeks later it is not clear if Walker, who was wounded in the leg, played a role in the assault on Spann—and only slightly clearer how an American from a privileged family ended up as a zealous follower of the Taliban. Whatever the case, his family is standing behind him despite the storm of outrage over his actions. “We love John,” says his father, Frank Lindh. “He’s our son, and like any parents, we’re going to support him through this.”

The middle of three children, John Walker Lindh, named after John Lennon, spent his early years in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park, where his mother, Marilyn Walker, 51, was a homemaker and his father, 49, worked as a government lawyer. Neighbors recall the family as normal, with an interest in natural foods and alternative medicines. Aside from the fact that Marilyn became a follower of Buddhism, there was nothing remarkable about their religious beliefs—and nothing unusual about John. “We played football and soccer together, and G.I. Joe,” says Andrew Cleverdon, 19, his best childhood friend.

When John was 10, the family moved to the affluent Marin County town of San Anselmo after his father took a job as an attorney with Pacific Gas & Electric. After one semester in high school John transferred to Tamiscal High, a local alternative school for self-directed students. It appears that John, who had started using his mother’s surname, was searching for some identity. On Internet postings disclosed by the Daily News, he posed as a black rap enthusiast. A turning point came when he was 16 and read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which inspired him to become a Muslim. At 17, he passed the state high school proficiency examination and quit school. Around the same time, he began visiting the Islamic Center. By then his Internet postings had also veered into denunciations of homosexuality, drinking and Disneyland.

He developed such a thirst for knowledge of Islam that in 1998, with his parents’ blessing, he set off for Yemen in the hope of learning the form of Arabic that is closest to that used in the Koran. His ultimate ambition was to study in Saudi Arabia, but snags with his visa forced him instead to Pakistan, where he enrolled in a madrasah, a fundamentalist Islamic school, near the northwest town of Bannu. Through it all, his parents went along with his increasing immersion in Islam, even supplying him with money. “I never had any major misgivings,” his father, who separated from wife Marilyn two years ago, told reporters.

In the end, Amed Johari believes, the Taliban were able, in effect, to brainwash Walker. “They probably did a lot of boasting to him, impressing him,” he says. “Suleyman could be very easily impressed.” It appears that Walker spent some time training at an al-Qaeda terror camp in Afghanistan. Now being held at the Marine Camp Rhino near Kandahar, Walker, who at first refused to talk, is cooperating with U.S. interrogators.

Though President Bush referred to Walker as a “poor fellow” who was “misled,” there have been popular calls that he be tried for treason. Whether that happens or lesser charges are brought, it promises to be the next—and perhaps most daunting-phase of John Walker’s lifelong search for answers.

Bill Hewitt

Ron Arias in Los Angeles, Colleen O’Connor in Marin County, J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C., and Kurt Pitzer in Afghanistan