Tue, 06 Jun 2023

The British hostage taker who was shot dead by police was demanding the release of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving an 86-year sentence in the US for offences in Afghanistan. What do we know about her case?

Lone gunman Malik Faisal Akram captured the world's attention when he held four people hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. The setting for his actions, a place of religious worship, only amplified the coverage. Ultimately, though, he proved to be the only casualty as he was shot dead.

While it's still not entirely clear what prompted his actions, Akram was apparently strongly influenced by the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist being detained in Texas for multiple offences, whose release he demanded during the siege.

Akram didn't randomly choose Colleyville. He flew from the UK to New York City, then made the 2,500-km journey overland to a synagogue that is a mere 30-minute drive from the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, where 49-year-old Siddiqui is locked up.

So, who is the woman at the centre of the story?

Siddiqui has been dubbed 'Lady al-Qaeda' by the media, and is believed to have been involved in terrorism by the US - but has not been convicted of any terrorist charges. She's serving 86 years for the assault and attempted murder of FBI officers and US soldiers in Afghanistan.

Her crimes occurred in bizarre circumstances.

In July 2008, she was being held in a town called Ghazni in Afghanistan as a terrorist suspect. Officers entered a room where Siddiqui was waiting, unshackled, behind a curtain. The 5ft 3ins, 40kg woman snatched an officer's rifle and opened fire, but failed to hit anyone. In return, she took two bullets to the abdomen. Two years later in 2010, a New York judge handed down her extreme sentence.

The case is undeniably a curious one, with many layers. Siddiqui was originally arrested after local police approached her in Ghazni, having spotted her crouched with two small bags and a young boy. As she was unable to speak the local languages, suspicions were aroused, and her bags were found to contain information on how to make dirty bombs and chemical weapons, as well as a mass casualty target list that included US landmarks like the Statute of Liberty and the Empire State Building.

There was reportedly also information on American military bases, a bomb-making manual, and a digital storage device with correspondence describing the US as an enemy.

Siddiqui is clearly a highly intelligent woman, graduating from the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1995, and earning her PhD at Brandeis University, alma mater to Pulitzer Prize, Fields Medal, and Nobel Prize winners.

After leaving MIT, Siddiqui entered into an arranged marriage with anesthesiologist Amjad Mohammed Khan, and they settled in the Boston area and went on to have three children. Whether due to pressure or personal choice, after getting her PhD, Siddiqui eschewed a career, focusing on family life and becoming more religious.

She founded the non-profit Institute of Islamic Research and Teaching, and there are reports of her helping prison inmates with their faith. She also translated a biography written by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, a key figure in the Islamist world and a mentor to Osama Bin Laden.

While she had been involved in religious causes at MIT, her greater pivot towards Islam caused issues with her husband and Khan opted to divorce her, going to her family home in Pakistan, where he argued with Siddiqui's father. Shortly after, her father died from a heart attack, which further soured relations with Khan.

A few months earlier the FBI had questioned Khan and Siddiqui over the online purchase of night vision equipment, body armour and military manuals including 'The Anarchist's Arsenal', 'Fugitive', 'Advanced Fugitive' and 'How to Make C-4'. Khan told them he had bought them for hunting, but later retracted this, saying they were purchased on behalf of his wife.

In February 2003, four months after her divorce, Siddiqui remarried Ammar al-Baluchi, a courier for Osama Bin Laden. This raised some red flags, as he's the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the reported 9/11 mastermind. A month after the wedding, KSM was captured by US forces and subjected to enhanced interrogation, which included being waterboarded at least 183 times. He has yet to be convicted in court, but has been held at Guantanamo Bay since 2006.

The US narrative is that KSM offered up Siddiqui's name. That seems to be the reason why in March 2003, she and her kids disappeared after getting into a taxi, not to be seen again until her arrest in Afghanistan five years later. They left her parents' home in Karachi, and it's simply not clear where they went.

The Pakistani government and the FBI denied having anything to do with their disappearance.

Her mother spoke to the media about a mysterious motorbike rider, who "told me that if I ever wanted to see my daughter and grandchildren again, I should keep quiet."

Soon after, media reports speculated that Siddiqui had been part of an Al Qaeda sleeper cell. She was also said to have opened a mailbox in Baltimore for Majid Khan, who himself was later arrested and is now also detained at Guantanamo Bay.

The US stated her role was to provide administrative support for Khan to commit acts of terrorism and smuggle in explosives disguised as clothing imports, under orders from KSM. At this time, Siddiqui had emailed a former professor at Brandeis University about employment opportunities, as she explained roles for female academics were limited in Pakistan. Questions abound about this stage of her life. Why would Al Qaeda use a top mind such as Siddiqui to perform basic tasks like renting mailboxes? Why would she look for a job if she were dedicated to jihad?

Nevertheless, what is beyond dispute is that between her 2003 disappearance and arrest in Afghanistan, it's unclear where she was. The most prominent suggestions are either a black site prison controlled by the US, or that she was on the run, aware the net was closing in due to her KSM connection. Several detainees of America's Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan suggest Siddiqui was held there, where she was deemed 'Prisoner 650', but this has not been verified definitively.

The fate of her children is also shrouded in mystery. Her first husband claims they were never taken away and stayed in Pakistan close to Siddiqui's family. However, numerous reports state the eldest was handed over to her sister Fowzia when she was arrested in 2008.

Bizarrely in 2010, Siddiqui's daughter reappeared outside the family home in Karachi with an address tag around her neck. A Pakistani official said she had been captive in Afghanistan. The whereabouts of Siddiqui's third child is still unknown to this day.

There are plenty of questions about America's case against Siddiqui, too. One odd piece of evidence offered by the US is the claim that she used the alias Fahrem or Feriel Shahin and went to Liberia to buy blood diamonds to finance 9/11. However, Siddiqui's lawyer had credit card receipts and other records placing her in Boston when this was supposed to have occurred.

The account of the gunshots in Ghazni is also disputed. Siddiqui refutes grabbing the rifle, and said she stood up unexpectedly, causing the soldiers to panic, and she was shot in the commotion. Her injuries meant she was airlifted to Bagram from Ghazni in a critical condition, and her supporters say once sufficiently recovered, she was questioned while in a "narcotic" state of mind.

In pre-trial proceedings, her lawyer claimed the documents had been planted on her, while her sister alleged torture. And by the trial itself, Siddiqui was behaving erratically, firing her legal team and saying, "I'm boycotting the trial ... There's too many injustices."

The trial itself was subject to delays. Psychiatric evaluation diagnosed her with depressive psychosis and chronic depression, but the judge ruled she was fit to continue. And Siddiqui displayed a strong anti-Semitic sentiment, demanding that the jury contained no Jews. "They are all mad at me ... they should be excluded, if you want to be fair."

Nine government witnesses spoke for the prosecution, but there were inconsistencies over how many people were in the interrogation room, where they were positioned, and how many shots were fired.

No forensic evidence was produced of Siddiqui having fired the rifle.

After a 14-day trial, she was found guilty and greeted the decision by saying, "This is a verdict coming from Israel, not America. That's where the anger belongs." Then rather bizarrely, after wishing the judge "the very best going forward," she seemed to send a message, "Forgive everybody in my case, please ... Don't get angry. If I'm not angry, why should anyone else be?"

The one certainty about Siddiqui's case is that a seemingly bright, professional, family orientated woman is now incarcerated in a mental health facility for the rest of her days. The missing five years of her life appear to hold the key to explaining how she has gone from respected academic to vilified criminal.

Some commentators say she faked her mental health issues in a bid to escape captivity. To others she is a living martyr and there are campaigns, a website, and organizations dedicated to setting her free. Whatever the truth, she was unimpressed with the synagogue siege. Her attorney Marwa Elbially explained, "She said from the beginning when she was sentenced that she does not want any violence done in her name and she doesn't condone any type of violence being done."

But Malik Faisal Akram certainly thought she was a victim of injustice, and he took that belief to an extreme end, paying for it with a violent end to his life.


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