John Walker Lindh, the teenager fromt the San Francisco suburbs who earned the unlikely moniker of “American Taliban” and became the poster boy for radical Islam after the 9/11 attacks, has said his interest in Islam began innocently enough — when he watched Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X. Lindh’s bizarre story is told in the new Showtime documentary Detainee 001, and its director, Greg Barker, is the guest on the latest Factual America podcast.
The film explains how Lindh traveled to the Middle East, met Osama bin Laden, and soon found himself an international pariah. It shows how America grapples with justice in the fog of war, and how narratives were built and destroyed after 9/11.
Most of all it suggests that Lindh’s story was both inflated and simplified to give America a hated enemy at a moment when it needed one, in order to continue fueling the fervor for war.
“The film is really about our reaction to him,” Barker tells Factual America host Matthew Sherwood. “He himself is kind of a mystery. And frankly, he’s about as interesting as most guys are at 18 or 19: He’s not actually that interesting. He thinks he is, but really isn’t. But it’s the reaction that we have to him, is really what the film unpacks, through this extraordinary footage that we came across.”
Barker continues: “It’s really an experiential film that lives in the moment, that takes us back to a time that seems, a long, long time ago, but in a moment when a lot of our current world was kind of formed; it’s like an origin story, and it’s also just a phenomenal yarn.”
Lindh was released from prison in 2019 after serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence. (He received time off for good behavior.) He was arrested in Afghanistan in 2001, and said at his 2002 sentencing that he joined the Taliban because he believed he could help the Afghan people fight back against oppression – and that he never intended to fight Americans.
“I have never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism or terrorism. I condemn terrorism on every level, unequivocally,” he said.
Barker and Sherwood also discuss the lives of freelance war journalists, and how Greg has gained access to high-profile subjects over the years. Here are time stamps for the interview:
00:00 – The trailer for Detainee 001.
03:23 – What the film is about and how people responded to John Walker Lindh.
07:05 – The misconceptions that were pushed by the media about this man.
10:22 – The vilification of Muslims in America.
12:39 – How Greg accessed the footage for the film.
18:22 – The freelance journalists that risked their lives to document the Taliban.
22:04 – Why it was so difficult to get people to talk about the John Walker Lindh case.
25:27 – Why Lindh joined the Taliban and the links he has to Malcolm X.
27:21 – Where John Walker Lindh is and the difficulties Greg had in contacting him.
30:57 – Why Greg wanted to make this film.
32:06 – How he knew the Taliban would regain power in Afghanistan.
35:33 – How he gains access to such high-profile subjects.
42:36 – The next projects Greg is working on.
44:15 – The shift in the type of documentaries that are getting commissioned.
Factual America examines America through the lens of documentary filmmaking. Guests include Academy Award, Emmy and Grammy-winning filmmakers and producers, their subjects, as well as experts on the American experience. The podcast discusses true crime, music, social and political topics, history and the arts with the creators of the latest and upcoming documentary films. It is produced by Alamo Pictures, a London- and Austin-based production company that makes documentaries about the US from a European perspective for international audiences.
Detainee 001 is now available on Showtime.