September Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Is Aafia Siddiqui an Al-Qaeda operative or the victim of a grave human rights offence? Given the lies and confusion surrounding both sides, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that she may just be both.

Here is how the US version goes: Since 2003, the FBI has said that it wanted to question Aafia, but did not accuse her of any specific crimes. After she successfully evaded the US, Pakistani, and Afghan authorities for five years, the US Department of Justice formally announced her arrest on August 4, claiming she had been arrested by the Afghan National Police (ANP) in Ghazni province on July 17, while loitering around the governor’s compound. It is further claimed that Aafia was carrying in her handbag “numerous documents describing the creation of explosives, chemical weapons, and other weapons involving biological material and radiological agents;” “descriptions of various landmarks in the United States, including [the ones] in New York City;” “documents detailing United States military assets;” “excerpts from the Anarchist’s Arsenal;” “a one gigabyte digital media storage device” and “numerous chemical substances in gel and liquid form that were sealed in bottles and glass jars.”

The story of how Aafia eventually ended up in US custody is even more incredible. The day after she was detained by the ANP, a group of US military personnel coincidentally arrived at the detention facility. They say they were “unaware that Siddiqui was being held there, unsecured, behind a curtain.” A US army officer, by chance, left his rifle unattended on a table, allowing Aafia to grab the rifle and fire two shots at the soldiers. In the ensuing struggle, Aafia was shot in the torso herself. Soon after, Aafia was extradited to the US and is now in New York City awaiting trial.

There are more holes in this story than in a piece of Swiss cheese. For one, it requires an extremely vivid imagination to picture the 5`4, 140 pound Aafia putting up such a strong fight against a whole host of US army men that she had to be shot multiple times before she could be subdued. The timing of her ‘discovery’ was also suspiciously coincidental, coming a mere two weeks after British journalist Yvonne Ridley had speculated that Aafia was the “Grey Lady of Bagram,” the moniker she bestowed on a woman who, according to Ridley’s sources, had been kept at Bagram prison for many years, at great cost to her physical and mental health.

Aafia’s physical condition has, in fact, become a rallying point for her defenders. Iqbal Haider of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which has taken up her cause, says that Aafia had “one of her kidneys and her teeth removed and her nose had been broken.” Haider further said, “it is a picture of a severely dehydrated, sick person almost as if on her death bed. It shows the inhumane brutality of an apparently civilised nation by the administration of a country which claims to be much civilised.” Aafia’s lawyer, Elizabeth Fink, also revealed that she was not allowed access to a doctor in the US. This was later rectified when the judge at an initial hearing demanded the prosecution provide Aafia with medical care and consular access.

The other mystery is that of Aafia’s three young children, ranging from ages five to 11. Aafia’s defenders are adamant that the children are in US custody, probably in Afghanistan. But Fink and Aafia’s sister Fouzia have refused to comment on the children, although it is not clear why they are not doing so. Here, again, it is hard to take the Americans at their word. At first, they denied any knowledge of the children but, in another coincidence, claimed that her eldest child had been found and was being kept in protective custody in Afghanistan.

However, just because the US is not being entirely truthful, that does not mean that everything Aafia Siddiqui’s defenders, most prominently Elizabeth Fink and Fouzia Siddiqui, are saying should be taken at face value. While describing her as devout in her religious beliefs, both have continually stressed that Aafia bore no truck with extremism and terrorism. A brief look at her life shows that may not be the case.

While an undergraduate student at MIT, Aafia joined an Islamic students’ group, for which she wrote three pamphlets. One of these pamphlets contained this extremely troubling passage, which seems to indicate that her Islamic views may have been more extreme than her family is willing to admit: “May Allah give this strength and sincerity to us so that our humble effort continues, and expands until America becomes a Muslim land.”

After graduating from MIT, Aafia did her PhD from Brandeis and then moved back to Boston. In Boston, she made large donations to the Al Kifah Refugee Centre, which was supposedly raising funds for Bosnian orphans but has been credibly accused of diverting funds to militants. She also gave money to Benevolence International, a Saudi-based charity that was outlawed by the United Nations for being an Al-Qaeda front organisation.

Aafia Siddiqui

Aafia Siddiqui

While it can be plausibly claimed that Aafia was simply giving these organisations money without knowing their hidden beneficiaries, it is much harder to explain claims that she made a trip to Liberian capital Monrovia in June 2001, allegedly to buy gems that would be sold to finance Al-Qaeda.There would seem to be indisputable proof that Aafia was guilty on this count, as she was named and identified by a Liberian informant. Aafia Siddiqui’s spokeswoman Elaine Whitfield, however, claims, “Aafia Siddiqui was in Boston in June 2001. And I can prove it.” This proof has not yet been forthcoming.

The most damning allegation against Aafia Siddiqui is that she is an Al-Qaeda operative, primarily involved in financing. Once again, the case against her on this count would seem to be irrefutable, as chief 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed named her as an Al-Qaeda agent and also revealed that she was married to his nephew Ammar al-Baluchi, who is now detained in Guantanamo Bay. Fouzia adamantly denies that Aafia is married to al-Baluchi or that she has any links to Al-Qaeda. Instead, she has espoused the theory that Aafia might have been the victim of identity theft.

Despite this seemingly incontrovertible proof, one lingering question remains. Why, at any point over the past six years, didn’t the US charge Aafia Siddiqui with any of these crimes? With the availability of witnesses to testify against her and the presence of bank statements that the US says implicates her, the case should be a slam dunk. This question, it seems, is one of dozens to which we may never get a clear answer.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.