Depending on which side of the globe you call home, she’s either Lady Al Qaeda or the incarnation of America’s persecution of Muslims.
Aafia Siddiqui, 37, a neuroscientist and mother of three, was once branded by the U.S. as the most wanted woman in the world, an Al Qaeda facilitator who posed a “clear and present danger to the U.S.,” then-U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft told reporters in 2004.
These days, the diminutive Pakistani woman sits in the custody of New York authorities, awaiting a verdict on charges that she attempted to murder FBI agents and U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan in July 2008, when she allegedly picked up an unattended rifle and fired at the agents and officers.
In Pakistan, however, Siddiqui is a victim and a hero, a courageous patriot who has withstood years of torture at the U.S. detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan. Pakistanis insist that the charges are fabricated and the U.S. has only one option for righting the wrongs it’s committed: Send their beloved Aafia home.
“It’s a witch hunt, and it’s got nothing to do with what the truth really is,” says Attiya Inayatullah, a Pakistani lawmaker with the PML-Q party and a leading advocate for Siddiqui’s cause. “You cannot do this to Aafia. It’s nothing but villainy. At a recent candlelight vigil for Aafia, my placard read, ‘FBI gangsters, return our daughter, Aafia.’ ”
Given the symbolic value of Siddiqui’s case, a guilty verdict in New York could cause a firestorm of anti-American sentiment in a country where the U.S is already viewed as a malevolent intruder.
Amina Janjua, an Islamabad human rights activist, said rage over the case could spill into the streets.
“When Pakistanis go wild, they can do anything,” Janjua said. “Every second that the U.S. holds our daughter, they are testing the whole nation, testing how much patience we have, how much we can tolerate.”
Pakistanis have a list of gripes against the U.S.
They’re angry that U.S. drone missile strikes aimed at Taliban fighters continue in tribal areas. Despite denials from both the U.S. and Pakistani governments, they accuse the controversial American security firm once known as Blackwater of secretly operating in their country.
Siddiqui’s case, however, has given Pakistanis a face to rally around. Demonstrations on her behalf have been attended by thousands, from Lahore to Karachi to Islamabad. Activists have sought intervention by the Pakistani government, which has agreed to pay for Siddiqui’s defense team and has pushed the U.S. to repatriate her to Pakistan.
College student Asma Waheed expressed her disapproval of Siddiqui’s arrest and prosecution by refusing an academic prize at an awards ceremony last month in Islamabad, using her moment on stage to urge the Pakistani government to press Washington harder for Siddiqui’s release. After she refused the prize, her teachers approached and hugged her.
“They told me this is how every Pakistani feels,” said Waheed, 17. “This is something all of Pakistan feels very strongly about. She was our sister, and she was taken away.”
Siddiqui had been scrutinized by U.S. authorities as far back as March 2003, when the FBI announced that it wanted to question the graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University in connection with a terrorism investigation.
At the time, Siddiqui’s three children were 9 months, 3 and 6. Her husband in 2003, Mohammed Khan, was also being sought on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities. Both Siddiqui and her husband were suspected of having links to a Saudi member of Al Qaeda.
The couple left their apartment in Boston and settled in Pakistan in 2002. While living in Karachi, they separated. In the spring of 2003, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, was arrested at a Rawalpindi safe house. While being questioned, he named Siddiqui as an Al Qaeda operative.
About a month after Mohammed’s arrest, Siddiqui and her three children disappeared. What happened after that remains the murkiest chapter in Siddiqui’s life.
In late March 2003, Pakistani news reports said Pakistani authorities had detained Siddiqui and, together with FBI agents, had questioned her. Days later, Pakistani and U.S. authorities backtracked and denied arresting Siddiqui.
Pakistani security officials said they believed she had gone into hiding. Her oldest son, Ahmed, ended up living with Siddiqui’s sister in Karachi. The whereabouts of the two younger children remain unknown.
Siddiqui’s family and most other Pakistanis, however, are convinced she was kidnapped by U.S. authorities and taken to the Bagram detention facility. They cite accounts of former Bagram detainees who say they believe a woman held at the prison while they were there was Siddiqui.
U.S. officials say Siddiqui was never at Bagram. Prosecutors contend that, in the summer of 2008, she appeared in Ghazni province in Afghanistan, where she was detained by Afghan police after they found in her bag bomb-making instructions and a list of New York landmarks.
At an Afghan police station, she was being questioned by U.S. soldiers and FBI agents when she picked up an M-4 rifle left unattended by an American soldier, prosecutors and witnesses said during the trial. She fired at the soldiers and agents, yelling “death to Americans,” according to testimony at the trial.
Siddiqui fired two rounds before an Afghan interpreter wrested the gun from her, and a U.S. soldier shot her in the abdomen, according to testimony.
As the trial wound down, Siddiqui testified Thursday that she never picked up the rifle and was shot as she was trying to escape from the police station.
Jurors began deliberations this week. If convicted of the attempted murder charges, Siddiqui could be sentenced to life in prison. She is not facing any terrorism-related counts.
New York tabloids have splashed headlines that call Siddiqui “Lady Al Qaeda” and “Terror Mom.” In Pakistan, news agencies have said the case comes down “to whether an American jury can acquit a woman with a scarf covering her face.”