11/27/2008 06:04 PM
By Juliane von Mittelstaedt
Aafia Siddiqui was once considered a brilliant scientist. Then the US government called her the new face of al-Qaida — a Pakistani woman who ranked among America’s top terrorism suspects. Now the MIT-educated mother of three is in custody, claiming her long disappearance was a wrongful abduction by the CIA.
On July 17, 2008, men coming from evening prayers at the Bazazi Mosque in Ghazni, a provincial capital south of Kabul, paused when they saw a woman outside the building. They formed a circle around the stranger, who was wearing a blue burqa. She was cowering on the ground, with two small bags at her side, holding the hand of a boy of about 12. One of the men, fearing that this peculiar woman could be carrying a bomb under her burqa, called the police.
A short time later, more than 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) away, a telephone rang at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) in Washington. Someone crossed the name Aafia Siddiqui from a list of suspects and wrote the word “arrested.”
After two weeks Aafia Siddiqui was flown from the US Air Force’s Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan to New York. She was now wearing a tracksuit, had two bullet entry wounds in her abdomen and weighed around 40 kilograms (90 lbs.). Siddiqui is 1.63 meters (5’4″) tall.
On Aug. 11, Siddiqui appeared at a hearing before a US federal court in Manhattan. She sat in a wheelchair, with a scarf pulled over her head. In October she was taken to the Carswell Psychiatric Center in Fort Worth, Texas for a psychological assessment.
Siddiqui is a Pakistani citizen and mother of three children. Born on March 2, 1972, she was the most-wanted woman in the world for four years. The FBI considered her so dangerous that former Attorney General John Ashcroft placed her — the only woman — on his “Deadly Seven” list. The American press nicknamed Siddiqui the terrorist organization al-Qaida’s “Mata Hari” and its “female genius.” She’s believed to have raised money for al-Qaida by collecting donations and smuggling diamonds.
“She is the most important catch in five years,” former CIA terrorist hunter John Kiriakou said when she was apprehended. The odd thing about Siddiqui’s case is that she has not been charged now with being a collaborator or accomplice in terrorist attacks, but with the attempted murder of US soldiers and FBI agents — whom she allegedly attacked with a weapon in Afghanistan. If convicted, she could face up to 20 years in prison.
The charges against Siddiqui are spectacular because she is a woman. Western life is also not alien to her: She comes from an upper middle-class Pakistani family and spent more than 10 years studying at elite universities in the United States. She studied biology on a scholarship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a PhD in neuroscience at Brandeis University, where she was considered an outstanding scientist.
Five years ago, Siddiqui disappeared from her home in Karachi, together with her three children, Ahmed, 7, Mariam, 5, and Suleman, 6 months. The two older children are American citizens. Siddiqui claims that Americans abducted her and locked her away in a secret prison, and that she was tortured there. Her children, she says, were taken away, and two of them are still missing.
The CIA denies that its agents had anything to do with Siddiqui’s disappearance. Michael Scheuer, a member of a unit that pursued al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden from 1996 to 1999, says curtly: “We never arrested or imprisoned a woman. She is a liar.” But if it is true that a woman was tortured and disappeared into a secret dungeon, it would be a first in the post-September 11 world — and yet another example of the decay of standards in America.
The Secret Prisoner
On March 1, 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, was arrested in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi — the biggest catch to date in the battle against al-Qaida. He was interrogated by the CIA at an undisclosed location, where he revealed aspects of the inner world of internal terrorism. A series of arrests began a short time later, and it is believed that Mohammed also mentioned Siddiqui’s name. For the CIA, any name Mohammed mentioned was automatically an important al-Qaida terrorist.
On that same March 1, Siddiqui sent an email from Karachi to her professor, Robert Sekuler, at Brandeis University outside Boston. She was looking for a job. “I would prefer to work in the United States,” she wrote, noting that there were no jobs in Karachi for a woman with her educational background. A few days later, Siddiqui disappeared. Early in the morning on the day of her disappearance, she left her parents’ house, together with her three children and not very much luggage. She took a taxi to the airport to catch a morning flight to Islamabad, where she had planned to visit her uncle.
Siddiqui says she was kidnapped that day, on her way to the airport. She says her abductors took away Ahmed, Mariam and the baby. The last thing she remembers, she says, was receiving an injection in her arm. She says that when she regained consciousness she was in a prison cell, which she believes was on a military base in Afghanistan, because she heard aircraft taking off and landing. She claims that she was held in solitary confinement for more than five years, and that it was always the same Americans who interrogated her, without masks or uniforms. For days, she says, they would play tape recordings of her children’s terrified screams, and she claims that she was forced to write hundreds of pages about the construction of dirty bombs and attacks using viruses.
The baby, Suleman, was taken away immediately, she says. They showed her a photograph of Ahmed, the seven-year-old, lying in a pool of blood. The only one of her children they occasionally showed her, she says, was Mariam — as a vague outline behind a pane of frosted glass.
Could this story be true?
Several Pakistani media outlets did report her arrest. A year after her disappearance, Dawn, a daily newspaper normally considered to have good sources, quoted a spokesman from the Pakistani interior ministry saying that Siddiqui was arrested in Karachi and later handed to the Americans. On April 21, 2003, the US television network NBC ran a story about Siddiqui’s arrest on the evening news.
Pakistani intelligence sources report that Siddiqui was in Pakistani detention until the end of 2003 and that her son Suleman fell ill and died during that time. It is known that terrorism suspects often spend a period of time in the country before being turned over to the Americans. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, there are 52 secret prisons in the country, into which thousands of Pakistanis are believed to have disappeared since the beginning of the war on terrorism.
A number of other prisoners held at Bagram Air Base, the site of the most important US detainee camp in Afghanistan, say they heard a woman screaming. Some claim two women were there. The woman was nicknamed the “gray lady of Bagram.”
Elaine Whitfield Sharp, an attorney who has represented the family since 2003, is convinced that Siddiqui was classified as a high-level prisoner and spent five years in a so-called “black site” in Bagram — in one of these notorious black holes in the legal system.
An Excellent Student
But who is Aafia Siddiqui? Her sister, Fauzia Siddiqui, pulls out several photo albums that she hopes will help answer this question. The books are filled with images of garden parties, family gatherings and children’s birthdays. Aafia, Fauzia’s younger sister by five years, is shown holding various pets, including a hamster, a cat, a goat and a lamb.
Fauzia Siddiqui, wearing a scarf wrapped loosely around her head, receives guests on the terrace of her house. The cook brings out food; a fountain bubbles in the background. Surrounded by a high wall, the terrace is an oasis in the middle of Karachi, a city of 12 million.
The Siddiquis are a model Pakistani family, modern and devout at the same time. The father was a surgeon, the mother is a housewife, and the family has lived in the British city of Manchester and in Zambia. All three children studied abroad. Mohammed, an architect, lives in Houston and Fauzia, a neurologist, worked at one of the best hospitals in Boston and lived in the same house as her sister for several years.
She returned to Karachi some time ago and now works at the city’s Aga Khan University. She says she would like to establish an institute to train neurologists. Helping the poor, says Fauzia, is a tradition in her family. Her sister Aafia, she says, also believed in helping the poor and was always there for other people. “My sister is innocent. She could never harm anyone. Something is simply not right,” she says. “There must have been a mistake.”
She picks up her photo albums again, holding onto them like a shipwreck victim clinging to a life preserver. Aafia at the piano. Aafia in a student dormitory, together with four Chinese students. A young woman who likes to pose for the camera and loves colorful silk dresses, but rarely wears a headscarf.
Can someone like this be “the most dangerous woman in the world”?
An Arranged Marriage, and Links to a Muslim Charity
In Boston, Siddiqui led a life between two countries and between two worlds. They clashed when, after her 1995 graduation, her parents arranged her marriage. The bride had never seen her husband before the wedding. In fact, they married on the telephone — long-distance between Boston and Karachi.
Her husband, Amjad Khan, was an anesthesiologist. His father owned a pharmaceutical factory and the parents considered him a good catch. When he arrived in Boston, he came without presents or flowers. Instead, he could only complain about how much money the family had spent for a small ceremony, a hotel room, and a white silk dress with many pearls for Aafia, which made her look like a princess. It would have been better to donate the money to charity, he said. Weren’t there enough needy people in Pakistan?
Siddiqui’s husband found a job in a Boston hospital, and the couple had two children, Ahmed and Mariam. They fought frequently, and Khan beat his wife and the children. Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Siddiqui flew to Karachi with her children, only to return to Boston a few months later. After six months the couple left the apartment, gave away the furniture and, on June 26, 2002, moved to Pakistan. When Amjad Khan separated from his wife a few weeks later, she was already pregnant with Suleman. Under Islamic law, divorce at that point was not possible.
She earned a PhD in neuroscience and wrote her thesis on learning through imitation. Her sister says Siddiqui had wanted to start a pre-school in Boston, where children would be taught using techniques she had studied.
This is the one side of Siddiqui, the smart academic and patient wife. But there is another side — the devout moralist, the energetic fundraiser.
As a young biology student she invited non-Muslims to dinner, touted Islam and gave Koran courses for converts. She met several committed Islamists through the Muslim student group at MIT. One was Suheil Laher, the group’s imam, an open advocate of Islamization and jihad before Sept. 11. For a short time, Laher was also the head of the Islamic charity Care International, which had nothing to do with the eponymous aid organization. The group, which was believed to have collected funds for jihadist fighters in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Chechnya, has since been disbanded.
Siddiqui collected money for Bosnian war orphans for Care International. Imam Abdullah Faaruuq, a black convert who wears a caftan over his blue jeans and polo shirt, remembers an event where Siddiqui collected shoes for Bosnian refugees and said, sobbing: “How can you have more than one pair of shoes when our brothers in Bosnia are freezing?”
“Sister Aafia was very committed, highly intelligent and extremely concerned about the fate of Muslims worldwide, and she believed that she could make a difference in the world,” says Faaruuq. She often came to the “Mosque for the Praising of Allah,” a shabby house of prayer in Roxbury, a working-class neighborhood of Boston. She ordered large numbers of English-language Korans and religious literature, stored the boxes at the mosque and later handed out the books in prisons.
But there are no indications that she supported the Islamists’ war against infidels.
The Diamond Smuggler
But there are also serious allegations against Siddiqui, most of them revealed only after her disappearance. For instance, the couple’s credit card was used to order night-vision goggles and body armor from an online store selling military equipment. The FBI questioned Amjad Khan for the first time in the spring of 2002, after those purchases. He told them that the equipment was for big-game hunting in Pakistan. Siddiqui was also questioned — only, as her attorney stresses, because she happened to be home at the time.
It was the first and last time the FBI ever contacted the couple.
Siddiqui is also accused of having opened a post office box in Maryland in late December 2002 for Majid Khan. Khan, a Pakistani national, is being held at Guantanamo and is suspected of having planned attacks on gas stations in the Baltimore area — on orders from Sheikh Mohammed.
And then there is the issue of the blood diamonds. This is the most serious accusation, because it seems to cement the suspicion that Siddiqui is a terrorist. In June 2001, a few months before the attacks on New York and Washington, Siddiqui is believed by some to have traveled to the Liberian capital Monrovia, on behalf of al-Qaida’s leadership, to buy diamonds worth $19 million (€15 million), which were used to fund al-Qaida operations.
Alan White, the former chief investigator of a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal in Liberia, who investigated the trade in blood diamonds, still swears that it was Siddiqui who, on June 16, 2001, appeared in Monrovia under the name “Fahrem.” One of the witnesses was her driver who, according to White, identified Siddiqui.
All these allegations are a mix of facts and conjecture. Some testimony cannot be verified, or was obtained under questionable circumstances, or from witnesses who have since disappeared. But it is clear that the authorities have been unable to confirm any of these allegations, or else terrorism charges would have been leveled against Siddiqui by now. But it was apparently enough evidence to get the Muslim missionary caught in the net of terrorist hunters in the panic-filled years after Sept. 11, 2001.
The attorney for Siddiqui’s family, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, believes the husband was under suspicion in the United States from the start. “He played a shady role,” says the mother, Ismet Siddiqui, who has even suggested that Khan may have betrayed her daughter to save his own skin. Khan is no longer available for questioning. He has disappeared, and his family refuses to provide any information on his whereabouts, although he is believed to be in Saudi Arabia.
A Suspicious Shooting
No one knows exactly why it was Aafia Siddiqui who was declared the most dangerous woman in the world four years ago. Presumably, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the key witness in the government’s case against Siddiqui and her alleged terrorist activities, played an important role in her arrest and detention.
However, on May 26, 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft stood against a backdrop of seven enormous black-and-white photographs of most-wanted terrorists, among them Aafia Siddiqui. He stepped up to a microphone and said that the face of al-Qaida had changed. The new al-Qaida, according to Ashcroft, is young, female and travels with family members. “It constitutes a clear and present danger for America,” he said.
At this point, the supposed world’s most dangerous woman had been out of sight for more than 400 days. It was not until the evening of July 17, 2008 that she reappeared.
The Would-Be Bomber in a Burqa
Normally, suicide bombers are swiftly dealt with in Afghanistan. They are shot before they can blow themselves up. But because the suspect crouching on the ground in front of the mosque in Ghazni was a woman, and because a crowd of curious onlookers had already formed, police commander Ghani Khan decided to arrest her. Bashir, one of the police officers, recalls that the woman began cursing at the men as the police attempted to take her away. “You are infidels; don’t touch me!” she called out, three times, in her native Urdu.
At first no one understood what the woman was saying. Hekmatullah, the owner of a nearby shop who, like many Afghans, uses only one name, could translate Urdu for the police officers. He remembers that the woman had a Pakistani passport, and that she gave it to him and asked him to destroy it. He also remembers that her mobile phone rang twice, and that the calls were apparently coming from Pakistan.
Upon searching the two bags, police found no explosives, but small plastic bottles containing chemicals, a computer and documents, written in Urdu and English, about dirty bombs, biological weapons and recruiting jihadists.
In seeking to explain her presence at the mosque, Siddiqui says she had been ordered to follow a plan, and that the trip to Ghazni was a condition of her release. Her guards, she says, had placed the documents and chemicals in her bags.
Her attorney, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, says Siddiqui was set up. Perhaps the Americans no longer knew what to do with their prisoners. Did they send her to Ghazni, hoping that the police there would shoot her? The CIA calls it a “disposal order.”
“It would have been the perfect murder,” says Sharp. Siddiqui would have been prevented from testifying, though given the clearly incriminating documents in her bag, she could easily have been declared a terrorist. But why would someone traveling to Ghazni need plans of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center or documents describing ways to shoot down drones, the use of underwater bombs and gliders?
There are many odd elements to this arrest. Two days before it happened, Abdul Rahim Dessiwal, the public prosecutor in the nearby Andar district, received an anonymous call from a woman claiming that a female suicide bomber accompanied by a boy was on her way to Ghazni.
It is also odd that when Siddiqui was brought to the police station, she said the boy was her stepson, that his name was Ali Hassan and that he was an orphan she had adopted. There is a blurred video made by the police in Ghazni who, eager to show off their big catch, had called a press conference. In the video, Siddiqui says that her name is Saliha and that she is from the city of Multan in Pakistan.
She wears a black scarf over her head and face, apparently out of fear that she will be recognized. At one point she nudges the boy as if to remind to cover his face. In response he hides his face behind his sleeve so only his hair is visible. A DNA test performed a short time later determined that the boy was Ahmed, Siddiqui’s real son.
Today Ahmed lives with Fauzia Siddiqui in Karachi. He is severely disturbed emotionally, has nightmares and tells confusing stories about where he spent the past few years.
On the day after the arrest, a counterterrorism unit from Kabul turned up in Ghazni to investigate the case. The team included 10 to 12 Americans. They entered the small room where she was being held, which was partitioned by a curtain and had only one door. Siddiqui was sitting or standing behind the curtain. An Afghan, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that one of the Americans went up to her immediately, and that shots were fired a few seconds later.
Siddiqui says she passed out. She had been shot and was taken to the hospital at Bagram, where she underwent surgery and barely survived.
What exactly happened in those few seconds before she was shot is important, because the indictment brought by the district attorney in New York describes a version of the events that differs considerably from Siddiqui’s story. It alleges that she grabbed a US soldier’s M4 assault rifle, released the safety catch and fired several shots, but without hitting anyone, all within seconds. One of the soldiers, acting in self-defense, allegedly shot her.
A person would have to be familiar with the M4 to know how to release its safety catch. And would a US soldier put down his weapon when a wanted al-Qaida terrorist was sitting in the same room?
A psychological assessment of Siddiqui has lain before the judge in New York since early November. The report says she is not competent to stand trial. If the case does go to trial, and if the court takes on the military’s version of the indictment, it will not include any mention of Siddiqui’s alleged terrorist connections, there would be no need to prove any of the alleged terrorist acts.
And then the question of why Aafia Siddiqui, a gifted scientist, was once considered the most dangerous woman in the world, would remain a mystery forever.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan