How Aafia Siddiqui Became a Radical Cause Célèbre

The Pakistani citizen, a U.S. federal prisoner, has attracted support from extremists around the world.

Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Police vehicles sit outside of Congregation Beth Israel synagogue.
Police vehicles sit outside of Congregation Beth Israel synagogue.
Police vehicles sit outside of Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on Jan. 16. ANDY JACOBSOHN/AFP via Getty Images

Much remains unknown about what prompted British citizen Malik Faisal Akram to fly to New York, make his way to Texas, and take four people hostage in a synagogue in the Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville last Saturday. Akram, who British intelligence put on a watchlist in 2020, was killed during the FBI rescue operation. None of the hostages were injured.

What is known is Akram was motivated in part by the case of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscience doctorate with alleged ties to terrorism serving an 86-year sentence at a U.S. federal prison less than an hour’s drive from the Colleyville synagogue. In 2010, Siddiqui was convicted for the attempted murder and assault of U.S. personnel during an interrogation in Afghanistan. Siddiqui’s family and legal team maintain her innocence.

U.S. prosecutors argued Siddiqui became radicalized while studying in Massachusetts, traveled to Pakistan to help al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden plan attacks, and was found in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in possession of bomb-making instructions and chemicals. According to the official U.S. account, Siddiqui grabbed a rifle during an interrogation and shot at FBI agents, soldiers, and others in the room; she was wounded when they returned fire. Her supporters say she was abducted in Pakistan and shuttled among detention camps in Afghanistan, that evidence of planned attacks was planted on her, and that U.S. interrogators shot at her first.

Much remains unknown about what prompted British citizen Malik Faisal Akram to fly to New York, make his way to Texas, and take four people hostage in a synagogue in the Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville last Saturday. Akram, who British intelligence put on a watchlist in 2020, was killed during the FBI rescue operation. None of the hostages were injured.

What is known is Akram was motivated in part by the case of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscience doctorate with alleged ties to terrorism serving an 86-year sentence at a U.S. federal prison less than an hour’s drive from the Colleyville synagogue. In 2010, Siddiqui was convicted for the attempted murder and assault of U.S. personnel during an interrogation in Afghanistan. Siddiqui’s family and legal team maintain her innocence.

U.S. prosecutors argued Siddiqui became radicalized while studying in Massachusetts, traveled to Pakistan to help al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden plan attacks, and was found in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in possession of bomb-making instructions and chemicals. According to the official U.S. account, Siddiqui grabbed a rifle during an interrogation and shot at FBI agents, soldiers, and others in the room; she was wounded when they returned fire. Her supporters say she was abducted in Pakistan and shuttled among detention camps in Afghanistan, that evidence of planned attacks was planted on her, and that U.S. interrogators shot at her first.

During the synagogue standoff, Akram reportedly invoked Siddiqui’s name. He allegedly forced the rabbi in Texas, Charlie Cytron-Walker, to contact another rabbi in New York so Akram could ask for Siddiqui’s release. He told FBI negotiators he wanted Siddiqui brought to the synagogue so they could both die together. Although Akram’s motive is not yet known, antisemitism seemed to play a role. The hostages said he may have embraced the false trope that Jews control the world—and could thus call for the release of a federal prisoner.

Siddiqui is relatively unknown in the West, but she is a household name in Islamist militant circles. The Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the Taliban have all demanded her release in exchange for U.S. captives. Syria-based al Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front planned an operation to free her, which was foiled by the FBI. Taliban militants justified an attack against a judiciary complex in Pakistan on Islamabad’s failure to protect Siddiqui. Her case has also attracted the attention of Anjem Choudary, a hatemongering Islamist cleric in the United Kingdom.

Siddiqui’s case resonates with radicals because her views mirror their own and her narrative plays to their core grievances. On some levels, Siddiqui is of the same ideological ilk as those who lionize her. While studying in the United States, Siddiqui was deeply pious and involved in proselytizing. She has also long espoused antisemitic views. In a 2012 book on Siddiqui, author Deborah Scroggins wrote Siddiqui believes American Jews are “forever intriguing against Muslims.” She blames Jews for the 9/11 attacks, and at her 2010 trial, she tried to demand that her jurors not be Jewish.

Siddiqui’s story also fits a narrative that fuels the actions of many Islamist militants: the idea that Muslims are under siege by hostile actors. To radicals, Siddiqui is an innocent victim of U.S. military aggression and the global war on terror—which radicals regard as a war against Muslims. Within this worldview, Siddiqui embodies Muslim victimhood in the face of U.S. evil, and she stands as a powerful symbol of how the United States has treated Muslims in its global antiterrorism campaign.

Her gender is a particular galvanizing factor for jihadis: A Muslim woman victimized by the U.S. military and justice systems prompts even more sympathy. And if Siddiqui was indeed a member of al Qaeda—as some terrorism experts believe—then militants would have an added incentive to champion her cause. All of these factors have prompted Islamist extremists to give her outsized attention and support that continues nearly 12 years after her conviction.

However, Siddiqui also enjoys the backing of many others in the mainstream who are careful to distance themselves from extremists. In Pakistan, U.S. drone strikes, military excesses, and its intelligence presence have made many political leaders and members of the public mistrustful of the United States and prompted them to give Siddiqui the benefit of the doubt. In the West, some human rights activists contend her trial was flawed—her lawyers say there is no forensic evidence that she opened fire on U.S. interrogators—and that she is treated inhumanely in prison.

Some of Siddiqui’s mainstream supporters embrace the view that she is an innocent victim of a militarized U.S. foreign policy. But none of her peaceful backers want their advocacy to be hijacked by extremists like Akram. Siddiqui’s family and other supporters quickly condemned Akram’s actions on Saturday, and it’s easy to understand why: The synagogue siege in Texas has delivered a big blow to their cause. In the United States, where few had heard of Siddiqui until recently, anyone who defends her now risks association with Akram’s act of terrorism.

The chances of the United States releasing Siddiqui have always been slim, but they seem even more remote in the aftermath of the events in Texas. The Obama administration rejected an offer by Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban to secure the release of U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl and batted down rumors of a potential swap of Siddiqui for Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who worked with the CIA on a fake vaccination campaign to help track down bin Laden. For officials in Washington, just suggesting receptivity to a discussion of Siddiqui’s release could be perceived as caving to terrorist demands—a political nonstarter.

In 2014, a U.S. judge granted Siddiqui’s request to withdraw her final appeal; she said she had no faith in the U.S. legal system and therefore no interest in participating in it. This defiance galvanizes Siddiqui’s supporters, but it also may point to a reality they won’t accept: The U.S. government is confident the evidence against Siddiqui is foolproof, and it certainly won’t relent after a terrorist traveled to the United States to champion her cause by using the most abhorrent of tactics.

The hostage standoff in Texas marks the first time Siddiqui’s case inspired an act of terrorism in the United States. Since much remains unknown about Akram’s crime and motives—including whether he had accomplices—the likelihood of related attacks in the future is difficult to predict. But with a sole act of terror, Akram catapulted a cause célèbre of global jihadism to the top of the news cycle. That could galvanize another bad actor somewhere else.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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