Courtesy of the FBI
Shown here on an FBI "wanted" poster, Aafia Siddiqui is accused of being an al-Qaida operative.
Shown here on an FBI "wanted" poster, Aafia Siddiqui is accused of being an al-Qaida operative. Courtesy of the FBI
Until last month, Aafia Siddiqui had been the most wanted woman in the world.
The FBI accused her of being an al-Qaida operative, a fixer for the terrorist organization in the U.S. Now she sits in a prison in New York at the center of a mystery about what she has been doing — and where she has been — for the past five years.
To hear U.S. officials tell it, the 36-year-old Siddiqui was from a fairly well-off family in Pakistan. Her father trained as a doctor in England, and he sent his three children to the U.S. for an education.
Her brother is an architect living in Houston. Her sister is a Harvard University-trained neurologist. Siddiqui went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That much, everyone seems to agree on.
FBI officials confirm that they started watching Siddiqui and her husband in July 2001. They were living in Boston at the time, and they came to the FBI's attention when Siddiqui's husband at the time used a debit card to buy night-vision goggles, some body armor and military manuals off the Internet. When the FBI questioned him about it, he said it was all for big-game hunting and that he couldn't get that kind of stuff very easily in Pakistan. They never questioned Siddiqui, and they seemed to drop the issue.
Siddiqui came back on the radar screen after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was arrested in March 2003. Known simply as KSM, he is the man accused of masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He is in Guantanamo Bay awaiting trial. He apparently named Aafia Siddiqui as an al-Qaida operative soon after his arrest.
The FBI released a most wanted poster with her picture on it a short time later. Siddiqui's supporters say her identity was stolen and that KSM was not naming her as an accomplice, but rather someone who had taken her name. The FBI kept searching for her anyway.
A short time after KSM's arrest, Siddiqui seemed to disappear. In 2003, she was living in Pakistan, in the teeming port city of Karachi, with her parents and three children.
About a month after her picture appeared on the wanted poster, she went missing. She apparently told her mother that she was going to visit an uncle in Islamabad. Then she and her three children apparently vanished. A short time later, Pakistan's Interior Ministry confirmed that she had been picked up. Then they backtracked and said they had been mistaken.
The FBI says it picked up Siddiqui's trail again when she was arrested in Afghanistan's Ghazni province on July 17. It is unclear who, precisely, picked her up. Some witnesses say it was local police. Others say it was Afghanistan's Security Agency.
What everyone seems to agree on is that Siddiqui was stopped with a teenage boy outside the local governor's compound. Officers searched her handbag and, according to the complaint against her, they found documents that had to do with making explosives. Apparently there was also a list of descriptions of various landmarks in the United States and some chemical substances in glass jars. The FBI hasn't revealed what was in those jars.
Siddiqui's lawyer, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, told NPR that she suspects her client was set up. She suspects Siddiqui was being held captive, was dropped off at the compound and then was immediately picked up again with "conveniently incriminating evidence."
Whitfield Sharp says she has proof that Siddiqui was actually being held at Bagram Air Base, in a secret prison in Afghanistan, for the past five years. FBI, Justice Department and CIA officials say unequivocally that they haven't been holding Siddiqui and don't know where she has been the past five years.
Siddiqui isn't facing terrorism charges right now. Instead she is in a New York prison for what allegedly happened after she was picked up in Afghanistan. The complaint says that as she was about to be questioned by U.S. officials in a room in an Afghan prison, she picked up an M4 rifle and fired at an American soldier. Another soldier fired at her with a pistol and wounded her in the abdomen.
Her lawyer says that her client never lunged for any gun.
Traumatized And Confused
In 2004, FBI Director Robert Mueller called Siddiqui an al-Qaida operative and facilitator. But none of those allegations appear in the charges against her, at least not yet. So far, the charges focus solely on the Afghanistan shooting incident.
The FBI and U.S. attorneys are keeping this simple. They can now hear her case in an American court. She is charged with attempted murder. But NPR has learned more charges are in the pipeline. Specifically, a federal grand jury in New York is hearing testimony about possible terrorism-financing charges. Officials close to the case expect those charges will get added to her indictment before she goes before a judge again on Sept. 3.
Intelligence sources won't rule out that the Pakistani government may have been holding her, unbeknownst to the Americans. Clearly something has happened to Siddiqui over the past five years. Whitfield Sharp said what troubles her is that Siddiqui isn't showing signs of someone who has been on the lam for the past five years. She is acting more like someone who has been traumatized.
Whitfield Sharp says her client is tremendously confused. She has lost track of time. She doesn't know how long she has been gone. She is very passive. She is "like a person who has been excessively institutionalized," she said.
What is more, Whitfield Sharp said, she has been struck by how grateful she has been to her jailers in New York. Even though the treatment is rough for her at the prison there -– she has to be strip-searched -– this is all relative to what she's been through in the past 5 1/2 years.
"In this context, it's like Stockholm Syndrome," Whitfield Sharp said.
The undisputed parts of this story are that Afghan authorities had detained Siddiqui as a possible suicide bomber, that they turned her over to U.S. custody, and that she somehow ended up being shot by American agents.
"It seems extraordinary to imagine that four U.S. agents who'd gone to pick her up — two military, two FBI — along with at least two Afghan translators, were somehow surprised by this woman, who overpowered them, grabbed a gun, flipped the safety, fired off a couple of shots, and then could only be subdued by shots to the torso," said the Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International, Sam Zarifi.
"If the story suggested by the U.S. government is accurate, it paints a very unflattering picture of the competence of forces who are literally on the frontlines of the 'war on terror,'" he said. "If the U.S. story is not true, then we're looking at a serious breach of U.S. and international law when a prisoner in custody is shot."