By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
A U.S.-educated Pakistani woman suspected of links to al-Qaeda appeared in federal court in New York yesterday on charges of attempting to kill American military officers and FBI agents in Afghanistan last month.
Aafia Siddiqui, 36, a neuroscientist with degrees from MIT and Brandeis University, was flown to New York on Monday, a little more than two weeks after she was shot and wounded while allegedly trying to open fire on a group of Americans who had come to question her in a police station in Afghanistan's Ghazni province.
An FBI criminal complaint unsealed Monday described a chaotic scene at the police station in which Siddiqui, who had been arrested by Afghan police, managed to grab a U.S. soldier's rifle and fire two errant shots as an interpreter tried to wrestle the weapon away from her. The soldier returned fire with a pistol and hit her at least once in the upper body, the complaint said.
A lawyer for Siddiqui, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, disputed the government's account. She told reporters that Siddiqui is "not a terrorist" and has done nothing wrong. Siddiqui's family has charged that U.S. authorities secretly detained her in Afghanistan after she disappeared in Pakistan in March 2003 with her three children. The U.S. government says it was not holding Siddiqui and had no knowledge of her whereabouts for the past five years until she was arrested in Ghazni.
Siddiqui made her initial appearance yesterday before a federal magistrate judge in U.S. District Court in Manhattan and was detained. A bail hearing was set for Monday.
The FBI said in March 2003 that it wanted to question Siddiqui about possible connections to terrorism, including ties to Adnan G. el Shukrijumah, a suspected al-Qaeda member who was born in Saudi Arabia and once lived in suburban Miami. Siddiqui's name reportedly came up during interrogations of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, after he was captured in Pakistan on March 1, 2003.
In 2004, the FBI described Siddiqui as "an al-Qaeda operative and facilitator" who was among seven people being sought in connection with potential terrorist attacks in the United States. American intelligence also said Siddiqui worked with an al-Qaeda operative known as Ammar al-Baluchi and married him shortly before he was arrested in Pakistan in late April 2003. Baluchi, a nephew of Mohammed, is being held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
According to the FBI complaint, Siddiqui and a teenage boy were picked up by Afghan national police outside the Ghazni governor's compound on the evening of July 17. Officers regarded her as suspicious, and they "searched her handbag and found numerous documents describing the creation of explosives, chemical weapons, and other weapons involving biological material and radiological agents," the complaint said. Also found among Siddiqui's belongings, it said, were "descriptions of various landmarks in the United States, including in New York City," documents detailing U.S. "military assets" and excerpts from "The Anarchist Arsenal," a bombmaking manual.
"Siddiqui was also in possession of numerous chemical substances in gel and liquid form that were sealed in bottles and glass jars," the complaint said. It did not say where these were found.
The next day, a U.S. Army captain and a warrant officer, two FBI agents and at least two interpreters went to the Afghan facility where Siddiqui was being held. They were brought to a second-floor meeting room that was divided by a curtain. The U.S. personnel were not told that Siddiqui was being held, unsecured, behind the curtain, the complaint said. It described the following sequence of events:
The warrant officer sat down and put his M4 rifle on the floor next to the curtain. The captain then heard a woman yell in English and saw Siddiqui holding the rifle and pointing it at him. One of the interpreters, who was not otherwise identified, lunged at Siddiqui and pushed the rifle away as she pulled the trigger, firing two shots. In the struggle, Siddiqui was heard shouting "God is great!" in Arabic and "Get the [expletive] out of here!" in English. The warrant officer drew his 9mm service pistol and shot her.
"Despite being shot, Siddiqui struggled with the officers when they tried to subdue her; she struck and kicked them while shouting in English that she wanted to kill Americans," the complaint said.
Afghan officials gave different accounts of the incident, which some said involved a dispute with the Americans over child custody.
One Afghan official in Ghazni said the boy arrested with Siddiqui was her 12-year-old son. The official said that the Americans left the boy at the police station and that he was subsequently sent to the Interior Ministry in Kabul.
Siddiqui is charged with one count of attempting to kill U.S. personnel and one count of assault. If convicted, she would face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison on each charge, the Justice Department said.
The slight Pakistani woman graduated from MIT in 1995 with a degree in biology and went on to receive a doctorate in neuroscience from Brandeis in 2001. While living in the Boston area, she and her then-husband, a Pakistani doctor, founded the nonprofit Institute of Islamic Research and Teaching and contributed to Islamic charities that U.S. officials have described as front groups for extremists.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.