One of the demands made by Malik Faisal Akram when he took hostages inside a Texas synagogue on Saturday was the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is currently serving 86 years in prison in the U.S. So who is Aafia Siddiqui and why has she become such a cause célèbre in the Muslim world?
The case of Aafia Siddiqui has brought with it a wave of emotion from all corners of the Muslim world. The detention of this woman, and allegedly her children, has evoked condemnation from politicians, lawyers and activists.
For millions of Muslims, Aafia Siddiqui symbolises the abuses of the “War on Terror.”
According to advocacy group CAGE, which produced a report on her case, from the day of her initial detention, no information regarding Aafia Siddiqui seems consistent, especially in relation to information released by the U.S. administration.
Some accuse her of being an extremely high level Al Qaeda operative. However, at the same time, the statements of lawyers, family and friends render her incapable of any acts of terrorism.
Disappearance from Pakistan
Aafia Siddiqui is a U.S. national of Pakistani descent who studied for a Masters in biology at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and later went on to do a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience at Brandeis University. She is also a mother of three children.
Siddiqui is currently serving an 86-year prison sentence in a Texas federal prison on charges of attempting to murder U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. She was convicted by an American court in February 2010, two years after she was arrested in 2008 by Afghan police on suspicion of trying to blow up the governor’s house in Ghazni.
She was 36 at the time and it should be noted that she has never been charged with those alleged crimes.
Siddiqui disappeared from Pakistan between 2003 and 2008 with her three children before her mysterious appearance in Afghanistan. It was alleged that she was abducted by either U.S. or Pakistani intelligence agencies. Not much information is available about her whereabouts during those five years.
But according to multiple reports Siddiqui may have been held in Afghanistan’s notorious Bagram prison and then at Guantanamo Bay. Multiple accounts also tell of her torture in those prisons.
At the time of her arrest, court documents in the U.S. alleged that she was carrying chemicals and handwritten notes that referred to a mass casualty attack that listed various locations in the U.S. including Plum Island, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge. The U.S. authorities also alleged that she was carrying notes on the construction of “dirty bombs.”
Again it should be noted that she has never been charged with any of those offences.
One of the frequent allegations made against her is that she was an Al Qaeda’s “microbiologist/biochemical expert.” However, according to advocacy group CAGE, these are fields which are very far from what she was actually doing.
In reality, Siddiqui’s PHD was based on the concept of human beings learning by imitation. When one of her supervisors, Professor DiZio, was questioned regarding her research and how it could be used by Al Qaeda, he stated that it was highly unlikely that she would have the technical knowledge to be involved with such things. Her PHD focused on the use of computers to understand human behaviour and had nothing to do with biochemical weapons.
Calls for release
Over the years, Pakistan, the Taliban and mainstream Muslim organisations around the world, as well as some jihadi groups, have sought her release.
In 2010, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan described her as a “daughter of the nation” and a resolution was passed in parliament for her release.
Pakistani officials in 2012 even offered to help secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. army sergeant who was held by the Taliban, if the U.S. agreed to release Siddiqui.
Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who has investigated Siddiqui’s case, said: “Aafia has iconic status in the Muslim world. People are angry with American imperialism and domination… Aafia will continue to be a symbol of everything that is wrong with George W Bush’s never-ending War of Terror.”