Who is Aafia Siddiqui? Texas synagogue hostage-taker allegedly sought release of ‘Lady al-Qaida’

The man who took hostages at a Dallas-area synagogue Saturday night (Jan. 15, 2022) was apparently motivated by his anger over the U.S. imprisonment of Aafia Siddiqui, 49, a Pakistani woman being held in federal prison in Fort Worth for trying to kill American soldiers.

That’s according to a law enforcement official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation. The official also told The Washington Post that early in the standoff, the hostage-taker said he wanted a rabbi in New York to know that he was taking the hostages because he wanted Siddiqui freed.

The standoff ended Saturday night with law enforcement freeing the hostages and the suspect dead.

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While little is publicly known about the suspect – identified by the FBI as 44-year-old British citizen Malik Faisal Akram – Siddiqui has long been a cause celebre in Islamist militant circles, with frequent demands for her release.

Saturday’s events at the Texas synagogue have reignited interest in the story of the woman widely known as “Lady al-Qaida.” At its center is an enigmatic and extremely educated mother who apparently cast off a comfortable, successful professional life in pursuit of terrorism – and would be called, at one time, the “most wanted woman in the world.”

Siddiqui was convicted on terrorism charges in 2010 and sentenced to 86 years in prison after opening fire on Americans. She is slated for release in 2082.

“We are talking about a very unique figure,” said Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, a nonprofit think tank based in Israel. “What we know is that this is a very intelligent terrorist.”

Her case, in part, is compelling because she is “not the prototype of a . . . regular terrorist.” While elements from Islamist groups want her release, others “might think that what happened [to her] is injustice and they want to free her for humanitarian reasons.”

Siddiqui, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD in neuroscience from Brandeis University, was married with three children and living in the Boston area during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. After 9/11, she left her husband and returned to Pakistan with her children, fearing that if she stayed in the United States, the children would be forcibly taken from her and converted to Christianity, according to a psychological report prepared for her trial.

The report said that her thoughts were “replete with numerous conspiratorial ideas” and that “she also related a number of beliefs that appeared delusional.”

Siddiqui disappeared after her return to Pakistan. She was captured in Afghanistan in July 2008, when she was found with a flash drive containing documents on chemical and biological weapons, according to U.S. prosecutors. Afghan authorities captured her carrying handwritten notes detailing a “mass casualty attack” on several New York City spots. When FBI agents and U.S. military personnel were interviewing her in Afghanistan, she grabbed a rifle and opened fire on the Americans before she was herself shot.

She was flown to the United States and convicted in federal court in New York of attempted murder for the attack.

U.S. law enforcement agencies have alleged that Siddiqui has ties to al-Qaida. In 2003, the FBI issued a global alert for her and her ex-husband, Amjad Khan. In 2003, according to U.S. law enforcement, Siddiqui married Ammar al-Baluchi, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantánamo detainee who has professed to being a mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

In 2004, the FBI added her to its list of the seven most wanted al-Qaida fugitives, and officials from the bureau and the Justice Department described her as an al-Qaeda “operative and facilitator” during a news conference, according to the Associated Press.

Various extremist groups have tried to negotiate for her release over the years, including al-Qaida, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, protests in Pakistan over her detention have fueled a broader online movement dedicated to proving she was tortured by U.S. soldiers and then wrongfully convicted.

Pakistani officials have expressed support for her release. In November 2018, the Pakistani Senate passed a resolution demanding that Siddiqui be repatriated to Pakistan, naming her “the daughter of the Nation.” Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged in a 2018 election manifesto that his political party would “make best efforts to bring prisoners like Dr. Afia Siddiqui and others back to Pakistan.”

In an article published in 2020 by the Atlantic Council think tank, Dawood Ghazanavi, a lawyer in Pakistan and author of the book “Aafia Unheard: Uncovering the Personal and Legal Mysteries Surrounding FBI’s Most Wanted Woman,” wrote that “many Pakistanis equate the injustices done to her as an injustice against Pakistan.”

Counterterrorism experts warn that Saturday’s events at the synagogue in Texas could inspire copycats.

Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, said Saturday’s incident is “energizing jihadis and terrorist groups both online.”

Other potential attackers motivated by antisemitism “might be intrigued by that and might follow with a lone-wolf attack” on places of worship, and particularly on synagogues, Ganor said. “Definitely, I would . . . tighten the security around synagogues and holy places in the coming week or two,” he said.

Siddiqui’s attorney, Marwa Elbially, before the standoff ended said the suspect was not a member of her family, adding that they do not know of the individual’s identity or approve of his actions. “They condemn any type of violence done in [Siddiqui’s] name,” Elbially said.

As recently as September, British extremist preacher Anjem Choudary announced a campaign calling for Siddiqui’s release. “The obligation upon us is to either free her physically or to ransom her or to exchange her,” said Choudary on his Telegram channel. “However, until such time as we can fulfill one these obligations the minimum that we can do is to use all that we have to raise awareness about her case, to keep her name in the hearts and in the minds of Muslims.”

On Jan. 13, a pro-Islamic State outlet released a video in which a narrator denounced what he described as the attacks and torture by “the enemies of Allah” against female Muslim prisoners. A poster mentioning Siddiqui is visible in the background of the video. In 2014, the Islamic State offered to release American hostage Kayla Mueller in exchange for Siddiqui and $6.6 million.

 

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