Pakistan’s minister for civil aviation, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, recently declared that he would like to become a suicide bomber in order to destroy Islam’s enemies. Khan’s outburst is unsurprising given Pakistan’s longstanding fixation with native daughter Aafia Siddiqui, an Al Qaeda operative from an upper-class background currently imprisoned in an American jail near Fort Worth, Texas.
As American authorities learned from interrogating Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM), the mastermind behind Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks, Siddiqui or “Lady Al Qaeda” acted as a courier for Al Qaeda. She briefly married KSM’s nephew, Ammar al-Baluchi, who, like KSM, is imprisoned at the American naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and faces the death penalty for his support of the 9/11 attacks. She became the only woman to make the FBI’s most wanted list of Al Qaeda fugitives in 2004.
Afghan national police arrested Siddiqui on July 17, 2008, in Ghazni, Afghanistan, and handed her over to American authorities. Subsequent indictments listed her as carrying sodium cyanide and plans for attacking various targets in New York City including the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty. On her second day in captivity, she opened fire on her American army and FBI interrogators with an unattended assault rifle before her captors wounded her. In 2010, a federal court in New York City sentenced her to 86 years in prison for attempted murder.
Siddiqui recently burst into international notoriety again as the objective of a British-Pakistani terrorist, Malik Faisal Akram. For ten hours on January 15-16, he held hostage a rabbi and three congregants in a Colbyville, Texas, synagogue 20 miles away from her Fort Worth prison, demanding her release. The crisis ended with the four hostages escaping unharmed and the police shooting Akram.
Akram exemplified how Siddiqui has become a “cause célèbre in the terrorist world,” with numerous jihadist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region (AfPak) demanding her release along with Siddiqui supporters worldwide. In America, she even has an Aafia Foundation named in her honor, where an Aafia Fact Sheet notes how she earned a bachelor’s degree at MIT and a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience at Brandeis University in the 1990s. There “Aafia was known for her passionate commitment to dawah (the teaching and spread of Islam). This attracted a negative response from certain bigoted interests (especially Zionists).”
According to a 2009 video from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud, the December 30, 2009, Camp Chapman attack in Afghanistan that killed seven CIA officers was part revenge for Siddiqui’s imprisonment. In various videos, TTP also claimed responsibility for the May 1, 2010, New York City Times Square bombing attempt, with Siddiqui’s fate again cited as a motive. Its perpetrator, the Pakistani-born naturalized American citizen Faisal Shahzad, had had contacts with both TTP and another Pakistani jihadist group, Jaish-e-Muhammad. In July 2011, the deputy TTP commander, Waliur Rehman, announced a desire to exchange a Swiss couple abducted in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, but the couple escaped in March 2012.
Afghanistan’s Taliban also offered to trade the American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, whom they had captured in 2009 after his desertion, for Siddiqui, but released him in 2014 for five Guantanamo Bay detainees. In September 2010, the Taliban kidnapped Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove, and offered to exchange her for Siddiqui. An American rescue mission accidentally killed Norgrove the following October.
In March 2012, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri also demanded the release of Siddiqui. He offered in exchange Warren Weinstein, an American aid worker kidnapped in Pakistan in August 2011. However, an American drone strike accidentally killed Weinstein in January 2015.
Yet Siddiqui’s supporters extend beyond terrorists to Pakistani society and leaders, as became evident after her September 23, 2010, New York sentencing, when thousands of protesters took to Pakistani streets. The Pakistani government had previously spent $2 million on her legal defense and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had met with Siddiqui’s sister in August 2009 and vowed that the government would seek Siddiqui’s release. He later called her a “daughter of the nation.”
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari also requested in 2010 from Richard Holbrooke, then U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, repatriation of Siddiqui to a Pakistani prison under a prisoner transfer agreement. Later in 2018 the Pakistani senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for release of “daughter of the nation” Siddiqui. Pakistanis widely view her as a “national symbol of honor and victimization” in a “farce” trial.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, after a July 2019 Washington, DC, meeting with President Donald Trump, suggested trading Siddiqui for Shakil Afridi. This Pakistani doctor helped Americans covertly confirm Osama bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad, Pakistan before the American commando raid that killed the Al Qaeda leader on May 2, 2011. Afridi now languishes in a Pakistani jail on trumped-up charges.
Official Pakistani insistence on releasing Siddiqui only makes Pakistan’s well-known, longstanding support for jihadist groups more suspect. The withdrawal of the American-led coalition from Afghanistan in 2021 furthermore has only enabled these rogue elements of global jihad. If past is prologue, the world will hear from Pakistan and Siddiqui again.