Why would Isis offer to give up its captives in return for the release of a Pakistani serving an 86-year sentence in a Texas penitentiary? Andrew Buncombe goes on the trail of the mysterious Dr Aafia Siddiqui
The message from the militants was revealing.
This message, sent to the employers of American journalist James Foley by fighters belonging to the Islamic State (IS), highlighted an audacious gambit: they had sought to exchange Mr Foley for a Pakistani woman who has been dubbed Lady al-Qa’ida and who was once described as the world’s most wanted woman, but whom her family insist is an innocent victim. The IS also wanted £80m.
The Obama administration declined to consider either option and the 40-year-old American journalist was subsequently beheaded, a video recording of the execution being posted on the internet.
Amid the outrage and horror over the stark, shuddering murder of Mr Foley, the offer made by the militants for Siddiqui has also led to fresh questions about the curious case of the 42-year-old mother-of-three, whose release from US custody the IS fighters were seeking. Who is she and why were the IS fighters interested in her?
Aafia Siddiqui was born in Karachi and grew up in an upper middle class family before travelling to the US to study. Siddiqui, whose mother once served in Pakistan’s parliament and whose father trained in the UK to be a doctor, began her studies at the University of Houston in Texas before moving to Massachusetts and earning a PhD in neuroscience from Brandeis University.
She and her first husband, Amjad Mohammed Khan, an anaesthesiologist whom she wed in an arranged marriage, left the US after the attacks of September 2001, eventually returning to the Karachi in the summer of 2002. While still in the US, the FBI questioned Siddiqui and her husband regarding their purchase over the internet of £6,000 worth of night vision equipment and body armour. They said it was for hunting.
Siddiqui and her husband divorced in late 2002. He would later claim she had become too abusive and that he was concerned about her increasingly extremist views. “I was aware of Aafia’s violent personality and extremist views and suspected her involvement in Jihadi activities” he told a local newspaper two years ago.
Dr Aafia Siddiqui, who has been dubbed Lady al-Qa’ida (Getty Images)
Shortly after the divorce, Siddiqui allegedly married Ammar al-Baluchi, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man accused of plotting the al-Qa’ida sattacks on New York and Washington. To this day, her family deny this marriage happened and say the was a story invented by the Western media.
Yet other reports say there is substantial evidence of the marriage. Ammar al-Baluchi has been in US custody since 2003 and was moved to the US prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2006. The US says he was one of two main people who handled the money that financed the September 11 attacks.
In March 2003, Siddiqui and her three children disappeared, just says after the FBI announced a global “wanted for questioning” alert for her and her first husband. [Mr Khan was questioned over alleged terror links and released without charge.] It is believed her name as a possible al-Qa’ida operative was mentioned by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who was repeatedly questioned and tortured by the US after he was arrested in Rawalpindi at the beginning of March 2003.
There remains an intense and ongoing debate about what happened to them during the next five years. Some believe Siddiqui and her children were held by the Pakistani authorities, while her family say she was a “ghost prisoner” of the US and kept in a secret prison at Bagram airbase.
Her ex-husband believes she and her children spent those years at large in Pakistan, under the eye of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). [Her eldest son, Ahmed, has only been permitted to speak a few snatches to the media about his experience. He claims they were detained by US and Pakistani officials.]
Pakistani protesters set an effigy of US President Barack Obama on fire during a protest rally in Lahore (Getty Images)
The next confirmed sighting of her was in the summer of 2008 when she was detained in Afghanistan after being discovered close to the home of a senior official in Ghazni province. On her possession were documents describing the production of explosives, chemical weapons and the Ebola virus, and hand-written notes referring to a “mass casualty attack” in the US.
The diminutive Siddiqui was eventually convicted in the US, not on terror-related charges, but on counts of attempted murder – charges resulting from the claim, denied by her, that she tried to shoot her US questioners while in Afghanistan. She was sentenced to 86 years in jail and is currently being held at the Federal Medical Centre in Carswell, Texas, which houses female prisoners with mental health issues. Prisoner number 90279-054 is not due for release until 2083.
Since the release of the IS email that referred to Siddiqui, there has been much speculation among experts about what it may signify.
Dr Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan scholar at Chatham House in London, said IS may have been prompted by one of several militant groups in Pakistan who have called for Siddiqui’s release in exchange for Shakil Afridi. The case of Afridi, a doctor who was recruited by the CIA to try and locate Osama bin Laden and later charged with treason by Pakistan, is due to be reviewed again shortly.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, said the use of Siddiqui’s name suggested the group may have some Pakistanis in its ranks, or at least that some Pakistanis influencing its decision-making processes.
“It’s generally Pakistanis that demand her release; outside of Pakistan much less is said about her. Non-Pakistani militant groups say less about her than do Pakistani ones,” he said.
A protest march in Karachi in 2010 demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui from US detention (Getty Images)
He said the IS fighters may have been trying to secure support from hardline Muslims elsewhere in the world by claiming they were trying to secure the release of a Muslim woman they believe was wrongfully imprisoned by the US government.
Following Siddiqui’s conviction in 2010, her elder sister, Fowzia, a Harvard-trained neurologist who worked at several US hospitals before returning to Pakistan, has been heading a campaign seeking her release and insisting she is innocent. Recently she managed to obtain more than 100,000 people to sign a petition calling for the US government to look at the case, a threshold that requires the Obama administration to consider the petition.
Fowzia Siddiqui, who lives and works in Karachi and takes care of her sister’s children, said the lawyer handling the case had not been able to speak to Siddiqui for six months and the family had received no word from her independently.
Pakistani security personnel take position on a building near a banner with a photograph of Aafia Siddiqui during a protest rally (Getty Images)
Asked about the significance of her sister’s name being included in the random message from IS, she said: “As long as both the US and the Pakistani governments keep delaying the matter, such incidents will continue happening, because now the injustice done to her has come to the fore. Extremists, and any other faction, can use Aafia’s image to invoke emotions.”
She added: “She has become a symbol of strength and injustice for Muslims across the globe. The best way to reduce such unfortunate incidents is to at least amend this one mistake by releasing her.”
She said the family had only learned about the IS in the last few weeks. She said she had previously assumed people were talking about the ISI. “Then someone corrected me that it was another organisation in Iraq.”
The likelihood that IS is using Siddiqui as an attempt to reach out to Muslims globally is supported by the fact that this is not the first time her name has come up. IS also referred to her during ransom negotiations over a 26-year-old American woman kidnapped while doing humanitarian work in Syria in 2013. The IS has asked for £4.4m for the woman, who identity has not been divulged and who remains in IS captivity.
Previously, the Taliban in Afghanistan had called for Siddiqui’s release in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, the US army sergeant who was held captive for five years and released this spring after the US agreed to release five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
In 2010, when he was Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gilani described Siddiqui as a “daughter of the nation”. This week, a spokeswomen for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, Tasneem Aslam, said the government had been pursuing Siddiqui’s case and that the family had been seeking to pressure the authorities as well. Asked about Siddiqui being mentioned by the IS, she said: “I will not comment.”
Liaqat Baloch, the general secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party that wants to transform Pakistan into an Islamic state, said there was much anger in the Muslim world about the way Muslims were treated by the US. He added: “Aafia is a symbol of the US aggression against innocent Muslims so it is not surprising if IS has demanded her release.”
Additional reporting by George Nott.