IN FEBRUARY 2017, the Muslim cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, serving a life sentence for conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center (WTC) bombing in New York, died in a prison in North Carolina. A few weeks later, a senior al-Qaeda leader in Yemen revealed that the US government had refused to secure the release of the journalist Luke Somers in exchange for the Sheikh and a woman whom the leader called his “afflicted sister”. Somers, abducted in Yemen by an al-Qaeda affiliate in 2013, was killed in the December of the following year after sustaining grave injuries during a failed US rescue mission.
For old watchers in America of Islamist extremist groups, this however came as no surprise. The “afflicted sister”, who had by this time served seven of her 86-year sentence, had been active in the early 1990s in Boston with the local chapter of an organisation called the al-Kifah, volunteering to distribute its newsletter with a fervour that surprised many of her classmates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she was studying to be a Biology Major. The organisation was later linked to the 1993 bombing for which Rahman was convicted.
Earlier this month, a British national, Malik Faisal Akram, stormed a synagogue in Texas, less than an hour’s drive from where the woman is serving her sentence, and took four hostages, including the rabbi. He had managed to enter posing as a homeless man. As security forces surrounded the building, Akram, 44, who had been on the watchlist of the British authorities since 2020, demanded the release of the same woman, again calling her his sister. In a final call made to his brother, the audio of which was made available by a security source to the Jewish Chronicle, Akram gets emotional about the woman, saying she has been framed. Minutes later, an American special forces team stormed the building, killing Akram.
The woman that some of the top Islamist organisations have wanted freed is known in American security circles as “Lady al-Qaeda”. Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani-born alleged al-Qaeda operative, who later left MIT to complete her doctorate in cognitive neuroscience from Boston’s Brandeis University, has been in prison since 2010 for trying to kill American soldiers and federal agents during her detention in Afghanistan two years earlier.
How did a girl born to an upper middle-class family in Pakistan, and who once stood holding a bouquet of flowers on her MIT graduation day, smiling sweetly at the camera, turn to jihad? The answer lies in the complexity of Pakistani society and an unbridled run of Islamist organisations on American university campuses, coupled with how the jihad was shaping up in the West in the 1990s.
Siddiqui was born on February 3rd, 1972, in Pakistan, in an affluent family. Her father, Mohammed Siddiqui, had studied medicine in Britain while her mother was an Islamic teacher and well-known social worker. After their marriage, the Siddiquis settled in Karachi city, in the posh Gulshan-e-Iqbal locality. The family had done particularly well after their family friend, Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq, took over the country in 1977. As Zia’s regime opened up one madrasa after another, the Siddiquis sent their eldest son to settle down in Houston, where he worked as an architect. Their middle child, Aafia’s sister, Fowzia, went to Harvard Medical School, after which she returned to Karachi to become a neurologist.
IN 1989 OR 1990, Aafia Siddiqui was sent to her brother in Houston. A year later, she went to MIT to study Biology on a full scholarship. She was an outstanding student, who won several prestigious scholarships, including the $5,000 Carrol L Wilson fellowship that enabled her to research on her project on Islamisation and its effects on women in Pakistan.
A Boston Globe reporter speaking in 2014 to her fellow students at the time reveals a story where some of the Muslim students around MIT were collecting basic aid material for Muslim victims of the war in Bosnia. The students remembered an angry Aafia saying that, instead of food and clothes, Muslims in Bosnia should be provided guns. When a student joked that he did not want to be on the FBI’s most wanted list, Aafia is believed to have said that she would be proud to be on it. One of the imams at a prominent mosque in Boston spoke to journalists about the effect her speech would have on the listeners. Once, he recalled, she asked the congregation to part with their extra pairs of boots since Muslims in Bosnia needed them. The imam recalled that he was so swayed by her speech that he took off his own boots and handed them to her.
Through al-Kifah, Aafia came in touch with several other Muslim radicals. The organisation, registered as a charity, was set up by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, a Palestinian Islamic scholar whom Osama bin Laden considered his mentor. Known for his utterance “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues,” Azzam, who died in a mysterious car blast in Pakistan’s Peshawar in 1989, continues till date to inspire Islamist extremists across the world. In July last year, the leader of an Islamic State module busted in Kashmir told investigators of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that he had chosen the way of jihad after discovering Azzam’s writings in a local library. An Islamist fighter of Indian origin, Abu al-Aziz, who rose to become an important commander of the fighters in Bosnia, told an Islamist magazine in the mid-1990s that his journey with jihad began after he heard Azzam appealing to youth to join him in the war in Afghanistan.
As she graduated from MIT, the Siddiquis got their daughter married to a man who like them belonged to a respected family in Pakistan. As Aafia was still studying, her would-be groom, Mohammed Amjad Khan, decided to set up a residency in anesthesiology in Boston itself. The two got married in 1995. In the following years, they would have three children.
But Aafia’s zeal for the cause of Islam was far from over. Reporters speaking to some of her teachers at Brandeis were told how she would try to push the virtues of the Quran or make audacious claims about how it had predicted biomedical advances in her scientific papers on neurology, for which she had received several warnings.
It was this zeal that ultimately soured her relationship with her husband as well. Khan, it seemed, wanted a devout wife but he had not bargained for someone who would every other day implore him to leave his practice and go and fight alongside Islamists in battlefields like Bosnia. Things came to such a pass that these fights would often end up in scuffles. In a psychiatric evaluation of Aafia conducted in 2009, a year after she was arrested in Afghanistan, accessed by Intel Wire, her colleagues at Brandeis reported seeing her several times with bruises on her face.
It was in 2001 that Aafia completed her doctorate. It was also the year when the war against Islamist terrorism took a decisive turn. After the 9/11 attacks, Aafia, it turns out, had entered into a state of delusion. She reportedly told Khan that she needed to return to Pakistan with her children immediately since the Americans now wanted to abduct Muslim children and convert them to Christianity. In the next few months, their relationship came to an end. The two divorced in 2002.
The following year, Aafia got married again, this time to a man named Ammar al Baluchi. On the first day of March in 2003, the US authorities announced the arrest of the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed from a hideout in Rawalpindi. By this time, Aafia was with her mother in Karachi and, as Mohammed was arrested, she suddenly disappeared. According to one narrative, she had an argument with her mother after which she left home to stay with her uncle in Islamabad. But she never made it there.
The man she had married turned out to be Mohammed’s nephew. The FBI later claimed that during his interrogation, Mohammed had named Aafia as one of his accomplices. In May 2004, at a press conference by then FBI Director Robert Mueller, Aafia’s photo was displayed along with six others as the most wanted fugitives of al-Qaeda. Aafia was the only woman on that list.
WHAT AAFIA WAS up to in the five years since her disappearance remains a mystery. But in July 2008, the US authorities claimed that she was arrested in Ghazni, Afghanistan, by local forces from outside the residence of the provincial governor. They claimed to have recovered from her a flash drive which allegedly had documents related to chemical and biological weapons, some literature on AIDS vaccine, and articles on the process of ageing and what could be done to slow it down. It is also believed that they found descriptions of prominent US landmarks like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, and some photocopied pages of ‘The Anarchist Arsenal’, written by an explosives expert, David Harber, which has detailed instructions on how to make landmines and car bombs, among others.
A day after her arrest, Aafia allegedly tried to pick up a rifle by a US soldier’s side and shot at federal agents and others, shouting, “Death to America.”
During her psychiatric evaluation in prison, doctors came to the conclusion that Aafia suffered from delusional disorder, which she denied. The report spoke about her belief in “conspiracies by Jews, Israel, India and US”. At one point, she also told her interviewers that India had infiltrated a madrasa in Pakistan and used a chemical bomb to kill thousands of children. She also said that India was building dams that regulated water coming to Pakistan, as a result of which many Pakistani citizens were dying of thirst.
Two years later, in February 2010, a New York federal court sentenced her. Ironically, it was her birthday that day.
From al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, all have asked for Siddiqui’s release. Since her arrest and subsequent sentencing, several attempts have been made to secure her release. Most of these attempts have been made after abducting American citizens from different parts of the world and then asking for Siddiqui’s release for their freedom. They include, apart from Somers, the American aid worker Warren Weinstein, kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Pakistan in 2011; Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker; American journalist James Foley; and aid worker Kayla Mueller. All of them lost their lives.
Given how important Aafia Siddiqui is considered by her Islamist ‘brothers’, it seems unlikely these efforts will stop.