The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Lady al-Qaeda’: The American-educated PhD the Islamic State desperately wants freed

Placeholder while article actions load

Amid the kidnappings, the demands for riches and the executions, a name of controversy and conspiracy has reemerged: Aafia Siddiqui. Once called the “most wanted woman in the world,” she is now more widely known as “Lady al-Qaeda.” And Islamic State leaders want their lady back.

They want her back so badly, jihadists said they would have traded James Foley for Siddiqui, who’s in U.S. prison. They said they would have traded Bowe Bergdahl for her. They said they would trade a 26-year-old American woman, kidnapped one year ago, for her.

“You were given many chances to negotiate the release of your people via cash transactions as other governments have accepted,” the Islamic State wrote James Foley’s family a week before his execution. “We have also offered prisoner exchanges to free the Muslims currently in your detention like our sister Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, however you proved very quickly to us that this is NOT what you are interested in.”

Then on Tuesday, the Islamic State said it wanted to exchange the 26-year-old American woman for $6.6 million — and Siddiqui, who was convicted in 2010 of attempting to murder Americans and sentenced to 86 years in federal prison.

“The terror group has sent a laundry list of demands for the release of foreigners, starting with money but also prisoner swaps, including the liberation of Aafia Siddiqui, an M.I.T.-trained Pakistani neuroscientist,” the New York Times reported.

The repeated demands for Siddiqui’s release revives one of the oddest tales to emerge out of the war on terror. At its center is an enigmatic and extremely educated mother who apparently cast off a comfortable, successful professional life in pursuit of terrorism.

Since her 2010 conviction, her legend has, if anything, grown. Protests in Pakistan over her detention have fueled a broader online movement dedicated to proving she was tortured by U.S. soldiers and then wrongfully convicted.

To this day, the same questions that haunted Siddiqui at the time of her trial remain. Why would this mother, who spent a decade studying at the most prestigious U.S. universities, scribble plans detailing a “mass casualty attack” on the Empire State Building? Was she a terrorist mastermind or a victim of an over-aggressive war on terror?

And what does the Islamic State, years after her conviction, want with her now? “We are aware of at least one entity in the Defense Department that has developed possible options to trade Siddiqui,” a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told Foreign Policy.

Siddiqui’s story begins in Karachi, where she was born in 1972. According to a Guardian profile, education and faith came first in her family — as did professional ambition. Her father was an English-trained doctor. Her mother was a pal of former Pakistani president and general Zia ul-Haq. Her brother became a Houston architect. Her sister was a neurologist.

And then there was Aafia. Precocious, brilliant Aafia. She got such good grades as a kid that she was admitted to MIT and later went on to earn a PhD from Brandeis University, writing her dissertation on the “effects imitation has on perceptual learning and memory,” according to a forensic psychological profile prepared in connection with her trial. Soon after, at the age of 23, she married a young Pakistani doctor in an arranged marriage, a union that produced three children.

It was a tumultuous pairing. “There is evidence that this relationship was very abusive,” wrote L. Thomas Kucharski of John Jay College in his psychological report. “Her husband admitted to only one incident of domestic violence … but former professors at Brandeis have [seen] bruises on her face, suggesting substantially more abuse.”

Then the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center happened. It appeared not only to precipitate the collapse of her marriage but stirred a profound change in Siddiqui. She excelled in her studies, at home, and when organizing charitable activities. But anger simmered. “Following the attacks of 9/11, Dr. Siddiqui informed her husband that she wished to return to Pakistan,” the psychological report stated. “One of the reasons given at that time was that she believed … Americans were intending to abduct Muslim children and were converting them to Christianity…. It represents a very paranoid idea,” said the report, which described her as delusional.

She soon divorced and resettled in Pakistan with her kids. Though her family denied it, she then reportedly married a nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainee said to be a mastermind of the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.

Shortly thereafter, she disappeared for five years for reasons that remain uncertain. The Pakistani doctor claimed she had been kidnapped by U.S. personnel, imprisoned and tortured for five years. The U.S. government, however, denied that, saying she was really “the most wanted woman in the world,” as reported by the Los Angeles Times. She posed a “clear and present danger to the U.S.,” one high-ranking American official said.

The narrative clarified on July 18, 2008, when Afghan authorities captured her carrying handwritten notes detailing a “mass casualty attack” on several New York City spots.

U.S. officers were invited to question her and were ushered into a room without being told by their Afghan hosts that Siddiqui was “unsecured” behind a curtain that divided the room, according to an FBI criminal complaint. She grabbed an Army officer’s M-4 rifle that was on the floor next to the curtain and screamed, “Allah Akbar!” and, in English, “Get the f— out of here!” the complaint said. She opened fire, but missed the officers, who returned fire and hit her twice in the abdomen.

Two years later, following her recovery, she was convicted in Manhattan federal court of the attempted murder and assault on Americans for that attack and sentenced to 86 years in prison. She’s currently incarcerated at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Tex. and slated for release on Aug. 6, 2083. And there, most perhaps believed would be where Siddiqui’s story ended.

But the Islamic State wants otherwise. It wants Lady al-Qaeda back.