'Lady Al-Qaida' And The Business Of Prisoner Swaps

Arun Rath talks to journalist Shane Harris about his Foreign Policy story on "Lady al-Qaida," Aafia Siddiqui. The Pakistani-born woman was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Days before their son was beheaded, James Foley's parents received an email from his captors. It was a list of their demands. To release the American journalist, Isis wanted cash. They also wanted the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving an 86-year sentence in a Texas prison.

In 2004, this Siddiqui appeared on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists. But shortly before that, she seemed to be living a normal life in America, with a husband, three children and a PhD from Brandeis University. Shane Harris wrote about Siddiqui for the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, where he's a senior staff writer. He says Siddiqui is one of the most mysterious figures in the American war on terrorism.

SHANE HARRIS: Well, interestingly, she was not convicted of terrorism. She was taken into custody in Afghanistan in 2008. And when American officials went to go interrogate her, they stepped into a room that she was being held in. And apparently, we're not told that she was actually in the room and that she was not handcuffed and not secured. And she jumped out, the FBI says in an affidavit, from behind a curtain, grabbed a rifle that had been left on the floor and shot at her American interrogators. So she was arrested and tried and convicted for attempted murder of U.S. officials.

RATH: And her supporters have a very different version of what happened. Can you explain that?

HARRIS: Yeah - extremely different. By the time that she was arrested in 2008 in Afghanistan, she had been missing from Pakistan for about five years. And there is an alternate story here about Siddiqui that is very widely held, I think, in Pakistan that she was disappeared by Pakistani intelligence and handed over to the American CIA and that she was possibly held in prison at the airbase in Bagram in Afghanistan for as long as five years. And people allege that she was tortured and brutalized while she was there.

RATH: How often has Siddiqui's release come up as a demand from radical or terrorist groups?

HARRIS: We've seen it actually many times. It came up in the context of negotiations over the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was the Army soldier who, of course, was recently released in a prisoner exchange with the Pakistani Taliban. It's come up in the context of Swiss prisoners. It's come up in the context of other prisoners, as well, and then more recently, of course, with James Foley and now also another woman who the Islamic State claims to be holding - a 26-year-old American woman who was kidnapped a year ago in Syria.

RATH: And who exactly how asking for Siddiqui's release, aside from the Islamic State?

HARRIS: The Islamic State has asked for it. The Taliban has asked for it. And I think they sort of see her as an iconic sort of image of their struggle. They believe that she was - well, it's hard to tell, actually. Some of them seem to think that she was wrongfully imprisoned and others, like Isis or the Islamic State, have claimed her as sort of a sister in their cause, which would seem to indicate that they think that she is actually a terrorist.

RATH: Now, very famously, five detainees from Guantanamo were released for the - in exchange for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. From your reporting, has there been any serious discussion in the White House or the Pentagon about using Aafia Siddiqui for a prisoner swap?

HARRIS: I wouldn't say serious discussion, but it has come up in a couple of instances. Two years ago, the Pakistani government made an offer to a very high level group of U.S. officials who were working on the possibility of getting Bowe Bergdahl released. And they brought up the idea that if the United States would release Siddiqui from the U.S. prison, let her go back to Pakistan, then the Pakistani authorities would try to intercede on behalf of Bowe Bergdahl to get him free. I'm told by people who were involved in those discussions that that idea was never taken seriously. It was dismissed very quickly because the United States would have considered that offering concessions to terrorists.

RATH: Well, what's the difference, though, between swapping Aafia Siddiqui or - and, say, the Guantanamo five who were exchanged for Bowe Bergdahl?

HARRIS: I think it's a great question. The administration tries to make - draw line between those two. And to me, it's sort of a distinction without a very meaningful difference. The administration will say that the five Taliban prisoners were swapped for Bergdahl in - sort of in the line of a long tradition of exchanging prisoners of war. But at the end of the day, those five Taliban members were held in prison in Guantanamo. Our own intelligence agencies assessed that they were very likely to return to the battlefield. They're only going to be under a form of house arrest in Qatar until next year. So it really does look like prisoner swap.

RATH: Shane Harris is a senior staff writer for Foreign Policy magazine. Shane, thanks very much.

HARRIS: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

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