FAIRFAX, Calif.—When he was a teenager, John Walker left the bucolic hills of affluent Marin County in California for the mosques and religious schooling offered in Yemen.
He was intent on studying Islam, the religion that had captivated him since he had completed a high school assignment on the life of Malcom X.
It was the first time his parents had heard of Walker's whereabouts in nearly eight months, family friends said.
As word of her son's reported support of the Taliban spread, Marilyn Walker, described as a home health worker and a photographer who specializes in black-and-white portraits of children, received death threats, according to Stephenie Hendricks, a friend who said she had been asked to serve as Mrs. Walker's spokeswoman.
The mother has left her home, withdrawn her daughter from school and gone into hiding, vowing not to return, Hendricks said.
Bill Jones, a friend of Walker's father, Frank Lindh, said they are reeling from the news that a young man they knew as an apolitical, religious scholar had been fighting with the Taliban. Walker had chosen to use his mother's maiden name.
Father hires lawyer for son
Appearing on "Larry King Live" on CNN, Lindh, an electric utility lawyer in San Francisco, said he has hired a lawyer to represent his son but had no idea what, if any, charges might be brought against him.
"His parents and I feel that he's been brainwashed to feel that this was the answer for peace," Jones said.
"Circumstances have played a cruel trick here," Jones said. "He was not a fighter. He was a very serious scholar. He wanted to study this religion. He would be a son anybody would be proud to have and, even now, I feel that way."
Jones said he hopes there will be no rush to judgment about Walker's actions. "I really want to hear his story," he said.
Walker is among three men claiming to be American citizens fighting on the side of the Taliban militia and who now are under the control of U.S. or allied forces in northern Afghanistan, senior Defense Department officials said Monday. The identities and conditions of the other two are not known.
Asked about Walker, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to confirm the captive's identity and said the claim of American citizenship is "being respected . . . until the facts can be established." He declined to elaborate on whether the three men might face a military tribunal.
Walker was born in Washington, D.C., and moved to California in the early 1990s. He was accepted by Tamiscal High School in Larkspur, Calif., which says it caters to students who are "highly motivated to learn."
Principal Marcie Miller said school records show he enrolled in the spring 1997 as a sophomore, taking a traditional load of college preparatory classes. That November, he passed the California High School Proficiency Exam, for students who wish to leave school before 18.
In an interview with Newsweek, the captive in Afghanistan identified himself as Abdul Hamid. His mother, in an interview with the magazine, identified him from television and Internet images as John Phillip Walker.
Parents lost touch in April
Jones said that when Walker last visited home, in February 1999, he had adopted a Middle Eastern style of dress, kept his head covered and had grown a beard. He lost touch with his parents last April after telling them he had found a new school in Pakistan where he would study the Koran.
In an interview broadcast on CNN, Walker appeared dirty, with a long beard, and grimaced as if in pain while answering questions from a stretcher.
"I was a student in Pakistan, studying Islam and came into contact with many people connected with Taliban," he said. "The people in general have a great love for the Taliban, so I started to read some of the literature of the scholars, the history of Kabul . . . my heart became attached to that."
Walker told Newsweek he had crossed the border into Afghanistan to help the Taliban build a "pure Islamic state." He described himself to CNN as a jihadi, or holy warrior.
Walker's mother described her son as a "sweet, shy kid" in her interview with Newsweek's Web edition.
Hendricks quoted the mother, who is part American Indian and follows their spiritual practices, as saying she was concerned when her son adopted Islam as his religion. She changed her mind, Hendricks said, when "she saw the people he was hanging out with and she saw that they were really good people."