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Who is ‘Lady al-Qaida’ aka Aafia Siddiqui: The federal prisoner at the center of the Texas hostage situation?

By Saima Siddiqui 
Updated Date

New Delhi: Aafia Siddiqui, an unfamiliar name that started to make headlines of every newspaper after a gunman identified as Muhammad Siddiqui entered a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and held the rabbi and three others hostage in an hours-long standoff and demanded the release of his sister, imprisoned Pakistani terrorist Aafia Siddiqui. It’s unclear if the man is biologically related to Siddiqui as people who have taken up her cause also referred to her as their sister. The standoff, however, ended late Saturday night and the gunman was dead, the Colleyville Police announced on Sunday.

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In July 2008, US forces in Afghanistan arrested Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national who was a US-educated neuroscientist, on charges of terrorism. She was wounded during her interrogation after she allegedly grabbed an unattended rifle, and was subsequently extradited to New York, where she was sentenced to 86 years in prison.

Siddiqui became the first female terrorism defendant arrested after 9/11, and she was convicted on charges related to the attempted murder and assault of United States officers and employees in Afghanistan in 2008. 

She has sometimes been called “Lady al Qaeda,” but ISIS sought her release, as well. She was convicted in 2010 of trying to murder American soldiers and officials in Afghanistan, and her sentencing included a terror enhancement. Siddiqui has long been a cause célèbre in the terrorist world.

Her release has long been sought by militant Islamists, and even mainstream U.S. Muslim groups have said she is innocent and should be freed.

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According to a letter made public in 2014, the Islamic State offered to release James Foley, the American journalist who later was beheaded, in exchange for Siddiqui’s release from prison.

In 2012, according to reporting by Foreign Policy magazine, Pakistani officials offered to help secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl if the U.S. would release Siddiqui.

Both offers were rejected by American officials.

The nonprofit Human Rights Watch said in a 2017 brief that Siddiqui was also the subject of a release demand by Ayman al-Zawahri, once Osama bin Laden’s no. 2 and the mastermind of many of Al Qaeda’s deadliest terror attacks. 

In 2011, al-Zawahri demanded she be freed in exchange for the release of Warren Weinstein, a captured worker with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the New York- and Washington-based organization said.

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In 2015, an Al Qaeda publication used her imprisonment to decry the plight of “our prisoners” at U.S. sites, including “the dungeons of the CIA,” according to Human Rights Watch.

The daughter of an English-trained, Pakistani doctor, Siddiqui attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a Ph.D. from Brandeis University, according to a forensic profile prepared for her criminal trial. 

“While a student in Boston, Massachusetts, Siddiqui had undertaken training and instruction on the handling and shooting of firearms,” the FBI said in a 2010 statement.

Siddiqui lived in the United States from roughly 1991 to June 2002 and returned to the country for about a week beginning on Dec. 25, 2002, federal prosecutors said.

After 9/11, Siddiqui apparently became radicalized, the profile says, and by 2008 U.S. officials were calling her a wanted terrorist. 

There have long been reports that she married the nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, but those have not been confirmed.

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In 2008, police in Afghanistan arrested Siddiqui on suspicion of trying to attack the governor of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province.

When she was captured, Siddiqui was carrying notes detailing a “mass casualty attack” on New York City sites, including the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, and the Brooklyn Bridge, according to prosecutors and court records. 

Federal officials alleged she also had notes on the construction of “dirty bombs,” according to a Department of Justice statement. She was 36 at the time.

When she was brought to a “a poorly lit room partitioned by a yellow curtain” and “crowded with Afghan officials” in 2008 to be questioned by two FBI agents and at least four members of an undisclosed U.S. special forces unit, she grabbed the M-4 military rifle of a chief warrant officer and opened fire, federal prosecutors said.

The FBI said she was behind that curtain. Her gunfire missed, prosecutors said, and the chief warrant officer shot her in the stomach with his sidearm.

As the U.S. officials struggled to detain her, Siddiqui allegedly yelled, “I am going to kill all you Americans. You are going to die by my blood,” the prosecutors said.

Siddiqui was detained, given medical treatment, and flown to the United States.

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On February 3, 2010, a federal jury found her guilty of all counts related to the attack, including attempting to kill U.S. nationals outside the United States; attempting to kill U.S. officers and employees; and armed assault of U.S. officers and employees.

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