A New Report Sheds Lights on Renewed Efforts to Free ‘Lady Al-Qaeda’

When Malik Akram took four Jews hostage in their Texas synagogue in January, his focus on freeing convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui sounded out of the blue to most Americans. According to a new report from the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), though, it was anything but. 

Siddiqui arrived in the United States in an unremarkable way, namely, as a student. The Pakistani neuroscientist studied at MIT before earning her PhD at Brandeis. Beyond that, Siddiqui’s story diverges from her classmates’. In 2010, Siddiqui was sentenced to 86 years in federal prison, after attempting to kill U.S. soldiers while being questioned in Afghanistan; two years earlier, Siddiqui had been found outside the Ghazni province governor’s home with papers explaining how to create explosives, information about American landmarks, and suspicious substances in various containers. 

News reports began appearing in 2011 that Pakistan’s government wanted to trade a jailed CIA contractor for Siddiqui. In 2014, other reports emerged the Taliban and Islamic State had tried to secure Siddiqui’s freedom. And in 2019, the Taliban considered trading two Western hostages for Siddiqui. However, Siddiqui largely remained under the radar in the United States. 

NCRI’s brief report explains that the dormant campaign to free Siddiqui—who has been called “Lady al-Qaeda”—was revived last fall. After Siddiqui’s lawyers filed an August 2021 lawsuit alleging an attack by a fellow prison inmate, tweets about her spiked. Siddiqui’s name went from being mentioned “fewer than 20 times per day” last year ” to “eclipsing several thousand daily,” by accounts that overwhelmingly self-identified as Pakistani. The Texas branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations embraced Siddiqui’s cause in September through “real-world and virtual events, as well as an online ‘#FreeAafia’ campaign.” That effort included a September rally outside Siddiqui’s federal prison where a speaker “decr[ied] U.S. courts headed by ‘Zionist judges’” and a November event in Washington, D.C. 

This report raises several important questions. For example, why is Aafia Siddiqui important to at least some Pakistani social media users? Why has CAIR-Texas become so involved with Siddiqui’s cause? And why is Siddiqui, who was convicted in 2010, back in the spotlight now? 

Twitter is a global platform. So, the geographically concentrated response to the campaign to free Aafia Siddiqui merits attention. Siddiqui herself is a Pakistani national, but there’s more to it than that. 

As Faran Jeffery, deputy director at the United Kingdom’s Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism, explained, Siddiqui “is a very special cause for Pakistani Islamists and even some nationalists,” which was underscored by a former prime minister’s dubbing her “the daughter of Pakistan.” That, along with “unsubstantiated rumors, widely repeated in the Pakistani press, that she had been sexually abused by her American captors, have become part of the populist narrative surrounding her case.” 

Siddiqui has become a cause célèbre in Pakistan. That status is supported by Pakistan’s government, which Kyle Shideler, director and senior analyst for homeland security and counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy, noted is consciously competing with Qatar and Turkey to be known as the “leading Islamist country.”  

Freeing Aafia Siddiqui is an official government policy in Pakistan, Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum’s Islamist Watch project, told me. Imran Khan, the current prime minister, knows Siddiqui matters to the Islamists who help him maintain power and to “some ordinary Pakistanis,” who are moved by Islamists’ stories about Siddiqui; she is painted as “an innocent victim of an evil America-led war on Islam, or . . . an exemplary jihadist.” 

Siddiqui has been cast as both a victim and a heroine. However, some of that messaging is strategically targeted at men. Fiyaz Mughal, founder of the United Kingdom’s Muslims Against Antisemitism, said that calling Siddiqui “‘daughter of Islam’ or ‘daughter of Pakistan’ . . . play[s] on the ‘machismo’ that is part of Pakistani culture, where men are supposed to ensure the safety of women. It is an attempt to draw in men to her cause.” 

That language appears to resonate. Malik Akram was so inspired by Siddiqui’s cause that he willingly flew across the Atlantic from Blackburn, England, and took Jews hostage in their synagogue on Shabbat, in an attempt to liberate her. 

Jeffery observed that Siddiqui’s being “a hijabi, well-educated woman … has deep symbolic value for Islamists, who view her as their own sister. … Therefore, many Islamist men consider it their ‘brotherly’ ‘Islamic’ duty to free her from the clutches” of the United States. Akram may have felt that sense of duty especially strongly, because as Westrop noted, he and Siddiqui were fellow Deobandi Muslims (like the Taliban). 

Beyond that, it’s worth considering why Siddiqui emerged as an important cause for CAIR the Council on American-Islamic Relations last year. NCRI reports “evidence suggests that the director of CAIR-Texas served as Aafia Siddiqui’s attorney.” However, Westrop believes CAIR-Texas’ renewed campaign for Siddiqui is an attempt to appeal to Texas’ “large South Asian Muslim community,” which is more “interest[ed] in freeing someone such as Aafia than engaging in” recent progressive campaigns, like Black Lives Matter. 

According to Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, by embracing Siddiqui’s cause, CAIR joins the company of “the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State.” Those groups have advocated for Siddiqui’s release and “use her for recruiting and fundraising.” Here again, Siddiqui serves an important symbolic function for Islamists. 

Jeffery added, “There are deep linkages between CAIR and a variety of Islamist groups. One of those groups is Pakistan’s far-right Islamist political group Jamaat-e-Islami . . . [whose] operatives have played an important role in making Aafia’s cause an important part of CAIR’s agenda in the U.S.” 

Still, Siddiqui’s been imprisoned for over a decade. So, it’s worth asking why CAIR highlighted her case last year. Westrop believes last summer’s “reported prison attack certainly galvanized her supporters. . . . [but it’s] not entirely clear whether the Pakistani regime is directing its proxies and Islamist allies in the U.S. to advocate on Aafia’s behalf, or if Islamists are forcing Pakistan to take a more active role beyond mere rhetoric.” 

Jeffery described a pattern of unsubstantiated allegations by Siddiqui’s lawyers over the years: “Most of these efforts appear to be . . . publicity stunts to keep the case alive in the media and in the public memory.” With Islamists and left-wingers increasingly mainstreaming “the label of ‘Islamophobia’” in the West, Siddiqui’s “supporters are hoping that they could offer the public a new perspective on her case, which could increase domestic pressure on the U.S. government.” That potential pressure is worth keeping an eye on, given Jeffery’s observation that “mainstream narratives in the West have become friendlier towards” Siddiqui over the past decade. 

That shift in Western culture has also coincided with transitions within Western Muslim communities. Westrop observed that “a number of Deobandi Muslim circles in the United States and the United Kingdom are currently enjoying greater power and influence and are increasingly activist-minded.” 

That activism may lead different places, but one of them was Colleyville, Texas. And this is where the Colleyville synagogue attack intersects with last year’s botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Westrop commented, “If the Deobandi Taliban can rout a powerful Western-trained and armed Afghan air force and army, then certainly, many think, some Deobandi British Muslim hostage-taker can force the release of a single Deobandi prisoner from some Texas jail.” 

For the moment, Siddiqui remains imprisoned in Texas, serving the remainder of her 86-year prison sentence. However, there is clearly a movement to change that. Muslims Against Antisemitism’s Mughal warned about “an undercurrent of social activism” that portrays Siddiqui as “a kind of ‘Joan of Arc’ character. She is not.” He added, “If the United States does seek to release her in the future and extradite her, they must know that they will be energising Islamist networks globally.” 

In other words, freeing Aafia Siddiqui would signify a sizable risk. Siddiqui may be a real person, but for Islamists worldwide, she is a powerful symbol of all that motivates them to combat the West.

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