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.