The long jihadist-extremist quest to free Aafia Siddiqui - analysis

Freeing Siddiqui, an American-educated neuroscientist turned attempted jihadist murderer, was one of the hostage taker's demands in the Texas synagogue attack.

 A painted portrait of Aafia Saddiqui (photo credit: FLICKR)
A painted portrait of Aafia Saddiqui
(photo credit: FLICKR)

When Aafia Siddiqui’s name became linked to a hostage crisis in Texas, many experts on Islamist extremist groups, terrorists and jihadists immediately thought of the other cases where extremists have sought to free her from prison through some sort of hostage exchange or ruse.

The precise details of how and why a man who attacked a synagogue in Texas and then demanded to have Siddiqui freed are not yet clear. However, the use of her name has conjured up past instances of attempts to swap her for people held by extremist groups.

She has been at the center of numerous agendas by extremist groups that hope to free her as some kind of trophy in the Islamist terrorist hierarchy of achievements. “According to a letter made public in 2014, the Islamic State offered to release James Foley, the American journalist who later was beheaded, in exchange for Siddiqui’s release,” NBC News reported.

Supposedly, ISIS also offered Kayle Mueller in exchange as well. A group was asked by a local pastor to act as a “go-between with Siddiqui’s family after the Islamic State group demanded a prisoner exchange,” U.S. News & World Report reported.

Pakistan tried to broker her release in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban, NBC reported. Pakistan has long supported the Taliban and Siddiqui. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri supposedly “demanded she be freed in exchange for the release of Warren Weinstein, a captured worker with the U.S. Agency for International Development,” the report said.

 Aafia Saddiqui as a graduate. (credit: WIKIMEDIA) Aafia Saddiqui as a graduate. (credit: WIKIMEDIA)

There were other attempts to get her released as well. Amarnath Amarasingam, a professor at Queens University in Canada and senior fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence in the UK, said the Taliban tried to trade a British Airways worker and Swiss citizens for her.

According to Seamus Hughes of the George Washington University Program on Extremism, an expert on counterterrorism, “The imprisonment of Aafia Siddiqui plays an outsized role in jihadi folklore. Particularly American homegrown jihadis. Reupping our writeup of Jabbat Al Nusrah directed plot in the US to free her a few years ago.”

According to this account, a man from Ohio had gone to Syria to support the terrorist group Nusra Front and then returned to the US with a plan to try to get Siddiqui out of prison by attacking the prison. Years later, when Nusra had become Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, its leader gave interviews to US media trying to portray itself as a group the US could work with.

According to a 2009 report by Declan Walsh in The Guardian, Siddiqui was already a cherished cause back then. “Aafia has iconic status in the Muslim world,” one campaigner was quoted as saying. “People are angry with American imperialism and domination.”

The story of Siddiqui is well known. She was a privileged student from Pakistan who enjoyed the freedoms and privileges of studying in Texas and then at MIT and Brandeis. She later returned to Pakistan and became linked to extremist groups and al-Qaeda. When she was captured after attempted murder in Afghanistan, she was described as a “neuroscientist.”

She is a well-known antisemite who sought to fire any lawyers with a Jewish background. She calls Jews “cruel, ungrateful, backstabbing.”

Like many budding Islamist extremists, she comes from a privileged background. Her father was said to know far-right Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq, the man responsible for getting the US involved in supporting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. In a sense, US support for those groups helped paved the way for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the US war on terror and then the US giving Afghanistan back to al-Qaeda last year.

Like other extremist groups on the far Right of the Islamist spectrum that use left-leaning terminology to support their agendas, the origins of her anti-American and antisemitic views began with other “human rights” campaigns on behalf of Muslims she saw as being oppressed. It began with campaigns on behalf of Bosnians and Chechans, but it later turned against the US.

“She wrote emails, held fundraisers and made forceful speeches at her local mosque,” a 2010 article about her said. “But the charities she worked with had sharp edges. The Nairobi branch of one, Mercy International Relief Agency, was linked to the 1998 US Embassy bombings in east Africa; three other charities were later banned in the US for their links to al-Qaeda.”

She later married a nephew of 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. She was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 and was accused of attacking American law-enforcement personnel who went to interview her there.

She was then convicted by the US Attorney’s Office in New York City, then under Preet Bharara, who said “she now faces the stiff consequences of her violent actions.” She was sent to prison at FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, where she is supposed to be held for the next six decades.

“The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, is among the groups that have taken up Siddiqui’s cause... CAIR’s Dallas-Fort Worth chapter has called Siddiqui’s conviction ‘one of the greatest examples of injustice in US history,’” NBC reported.

Considering the long US history of various other injustices, such as slavery, this seems like an exaggeration. Siddiqui appears more like a privileged extremist who took up the far-right cause of hatred and extremism and used her privileged status to travel where she wanted until being detained. Pakistan has supporter her in the past, apparently sending her lawyers, U.S. News reported.

According to a local CBS affiliate, when she was convicted, “Pakistani officials immediately decried the punishment, which prompted protests in multiple cities and criticism in the media. The prime minister at the time, Yousuf Raza Gilani, called her the ‘daughter of the nation’ and vowed to campaign for her release from jail. In the years since, Pakistani leaders have openly floated the idea of swaps or deals that could result in her release.”

The attack on the synagogue may now once again raise attention for her case. Supporters portray her as innocent “Dr. Aafia,” who was caught up in the “war on terror.” Claims of “renditions” and other incidents are then put into the story.

Her case is presented as one of “injustice,” and it has linked some left-leaning “peace” groups and far-right Islamist groups, as well as groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistan’s far-right government, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Nusra Front and a gamut of others.

It’s one of those bizarre cases that reveal the whole history of extremism in a nutshell and the attempt by extremists to hijack “human rights” as part of their agenda. It also reveals how much privilege extremists have when they can come to the US or spend decades in the US and then become radicalized against the very country that gave them freedom.

It’s not the only case like this. Anwar al-Awlaki, another privileged son raised in the US to a family from Yemen, grew up in New Mexico. His father served as agriculture minister in Yemen. Awlaki took his privilege and turned it against the US, eventually dying in a drone strike in Yemen after radicalizing numerous Americans.

There is also Hoda Muthana, born to a Yemen diplomat who later joined ISIS and recently had her appeal to return to a privileged life in the US denied.