The graduation photo shows a smiling, confident-looking young woman, a bouquet of flowers clutched to her chest and the world apparently at her feet. Aafia Siddiqui, from Pakistan, had just gained her Bachelor’s in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – one of America’s top Ivy League universities.
A quarter century on, the demure graduate from the Class of 95 languishes as Prisoner 90279-054 at a jail in Forth Worth, Texas, having used her science background to plot a series of biological terror attacks on US soil. But despite feeling the full wrath of US justice – she was sentenced to 86 years in jail in 2010 – the world has not heard the last of ‘Lady al-Qaeda’, as she has become better known.
On Sunday night, her name was once again in the headlines after Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old Briton, took four hostages during a service at a synagogue in Dallas, not far from Fort Worth. Akram was then shot dead by FBI agents who stormed the building. The hostages were freed, unharmed, but – during the 11-hour standoff before his death – he demanded that Siddiqui be freed.
Why would a man from Blackburn, Lancashire, risk both life and liberty for a convicted terrorist he had never met, incarcerated in a jail on the other side of the world? In a statement, Akram’s family condemned his actions and said he had been “suffering from mental health issues”. But it was far from the first time that violence has been used apparently to try to get Siddiqui freed. In the last decade, Islamic terror groups have made numerous demands for her release, often in return for high-profile Western hostages in their custody.
In 2014, Islamic State offered to release James Foley, the US journalist who was later beheaded, in return for Siddiqi’s liberty. And in 2010 the Afghan Taliban named her as the price for releasing Linda Norgrove, a kidnapped Scottish aid worker who later died during a rescue attempt.
So who is exactly is Siddiqui, and what did she do to become such a cause celebre? This is where the trail gets murky. According to the US, who arrested her in Afghanistan in 2008, she was one of al-Qaeda’s most capable female agents – a rarity in a terror group dominated by men. According to her supporters – who include many mainstream Pakistani politicians – she is an innocent casualty of Washington’s war on terror, who spent years being held with her children in secret US-run prisons in Afghanistan.
“Her case gets attention partly because she was one of the very few female jihadists who went to fight in Afghanistan,” says Gareth Price, a Pakistan specialist at London’s Chatham House thinktank. “But it’s also quite murky, which is good for conspiracy theories.”
What is not in doubt is that, as a youngster, Siddiqui showed much promise. Born into a middle-class Pakistani family – her father was a British-trained surgeon – she moved to the US in 1990 and won a scholarship to study at MIT. Friends, however, say she was radicalised by the suffering of Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan wars, and in 2002 she moved back to Pakistan, where she is said to have fallen in with an al-Qaeda cell in Karachi before disappearing in 2003. She had already divorced her Pakistani husband, who felt her views were too radical, and was rumoured to have married a nephew of al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
By 2004, she was the only woman on FBI’s most wanted list of Al-Qaeda terrorists. But her real notoriety came in 2008, when police in Afghanistan arrested her carrying plans for a “mass casualty attack” on targets in New York, including the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. The plans allegedly referred to chemical and biological weapons, complete with likely casualty rates for different methods of attack.
Even so, when a detachment of FBI and special forces soldiers were dispatched to pick Siddiqui up, they underestimated the threat she posed. When one soldier sat down, laying his assault rifle by his foot, she grabbed it and opened fire, shouting “Get the f*** out of here!” While no soldiers were hit, Siddiqui was shot in the stomach in the ensuing melee and nearly died before being transferred to the US for trial. She was convicted in 2010 of trying to murder American soldiers.
After she was sentenced, Al-Qaeda’s then number two, Ayman al Zawahari, called on Muslims to “avenge” her imprisonment. But it is not just Islamic radicals who have questioned her detention. In Pakistan, which has long been a reluctant partner in America’s war on terror, rumours have spread widely. Some relatives insist that Siddiqui and her children were abducted for several years by US intelligence, spending time at a prison at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. They also allege that the children who were later returned to family custody after Siddiqui’s arrest were not actually hers.
That many sound unlikely. But to many in Pakistan, so too is the idea that a slightly-built woman like Siddiqui could grab a rifle from a highly-trained US special forces operative and come close to killing them.
Public demonstrations have been held in her name, and even Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician who is now Pakistan’s prime minister, has backed her cause.
Her case has also been regularly cited in hostage negotiations involving Islamic militant groups, although officials suspect that in some of them, this may simply be because she is one of the few female prisoners the kidnappers have heard of.
Lawyers for Siddiqui have said that she played no part in inciting this weekend’s hostage incident at the synagogue.
Some Muslim community groups have backed Siddiqui’s cause. In a statement last year, a branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Austin, Texas, said she had been “kidnapped, ripped apart from her children, shot at, renditioned to the US and is currently serving an 86-year prison sentence for a crime she did not commit.”
Mindful of the support her case has among Pakistan’s religious right, Prime Minister Khan has even offered a prisoner swap for Siddiqui himself. In 2019, he offered to release Shakeel Afridi, a Pakistani surgeon who helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden to his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. A year later Pakistan sentenced Afridi to 33 years in jail for “colluding with terrorists”, in what some believe was revenge for his collusion with US authorities.
Few, though, believe such an exchange is likely any time soon, given Washington’s fear that Siddiqui might get a heroine’s welcome back in Pakistan.
As things stand, she is not due for release until 2082 – if, indeed, she survives that long. Last July, she suffered serious burns after another inmate smashed a coffee mug filled with boiling water into her face, according to a recent legal suit filed by her lawyers.
For her supporters, such attacks on Prisoner 90279-054 will only fuel the sense of injustice – and possibly also further attacks in her name.
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