The religious identity of the jihadi who attacked a synagogue in Texas, the US, is now out, much as the FBI had tried to suppress the news due to its genuine or woke concerns. The jihadi, 44-year-old British-Pakistani Malik Faisal Akram, walked into a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and took four people hostage, demanding subsequently the release of “Prisoner 650”, as others held in Bagram knew the woman.
So far, 57 people have been killed in the jihadi campaign to free Pakistani-American neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui or avenge her arrest.
Moazzem Begg wrote in his memoirs of the time for which he served a sentence in Afghanistan’s Bagram prison, on terrorism charges that were later dropped: “I began to hear the chilling screams of a woman next door… For two days and nights, I heard the sound of the screaming. I felt my mind collapsing… They told me there was no woman. But I was unconvinced. Those screams echoed through my worst nightmares for a long time. And I later learned in Guantanamo, from other prisoners, that they had heard the screams too.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, different Islamist parties and jihadi groups have so far competed to spearhead the campaign to free Siddiqui, touting it as the Islamic community’s struggle to honour Muslim women against a ‘predatory’ West. While politicians like Khan had apparently hoped their advocacy of Siddiqui would help them steal a march over more radical opponents in the respective domestic circuits, the synagogue attack ended up emboldening the jihadi discourse.
Jihadi wanted to free ‘Lady al-Qaeda’
Islamic hagiographers and some woke supporters of theirs have suggested different epithets to honour the woman jihadi: “Bagram’s Grey Lady”, “Lady al Qaeda”, “al Qaeda’s Mata Hari”, etc. But Siddiqui is hardly the first woman terrorist to be eulogised thus. The Isis has had its “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite and Sally-Anne Jones, targeted in a 2017 drone strike in Syria along with her teenage son. But the following was how the latest jihadi icon was born.
Siddiqui is the daughter of Mohammad Siddiqui, a Karachi doctor, and Ismet, a social worker well connected to General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. In 1990, she moved to the US as a teenager and went on to study at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University.
In 1995, she got married to a Karachi-based doctor, Amjad Khan. The couple had a son, Ahmed. A year later, two more children followed.
While Siddiqui became a self-declared jihadi after moving to the United States, she had dropped hints of her future course of action as a student when she campaigned on the crises in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya to raise money for the Islamic ’cause’.She delivered speeches at mosques. An academic who knew her distantly in Boston said, “Perhaps religious fervour was the only kind of self-expression her conservative family would not oppose.”
The FBI took note of her soon after 9/11. In 2002, they interrogated Siddiqui and her husband for the purchase of some $ 10,000 worth of night-vision goggles, body armour, and military self-instruction books. The couple returned to Pakistan soon after but divorced in August 2002.
In December 2002, Siddiqui returned to the US, on a trip that she purported to be to apply for academic positions. During this period, she opened a post-office box for Majid Khan, a Baltimore-based al-Qaeda operative who was alleged to have raised $ 50,000 to bomb a hotel in Indonesia and to have plotted to blow up petrol stations in the US — investigators discovered subsequently.
Siddiqui’s whereabouts became shady thereon. Investigators say she married Ammar al Baluchi, a nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, on her return to Karachi. At the end of March 2003, a month after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s arrest in Karachi, she vanished.
It is rumoured that Pakistan’s ISI had held her captive. Some say she went underground with Mohammed’s family. Jaish-e-Mohammad helped her in the hiding process.
Siddiqui’s activities from then on until 2008 are unknown when journalist-turned-activist Yvonne Ridley took up cudgels on behalf of Siddiqui upon reading the passage about a mystery woman prisoner in Begg’s book. Other Bagram prisoners say Ridley received several accounts of a ghostly woman who kept other prisoners awake “with her haunting sobs and piercing screams”. In 2005, Ridley learned that upset prisoners had staged a hunger strike in support of the mystery woman.
The FBI says, however, five years after she disappeared, Siddiqui appeared in Ghazni in Afghanistan where she was arrested by the police. In the course of her interrogation, the FBI alleged, Siddiqui seized an automatic rifle a soldier had kept near her feet and tried to kill him. She was seriously injured in the return of fire.
Following a delayed trial, because of multiple assessments of her mental health in 2010, Siddiqui was sentenced to 86 years for attempting to murder American officers. The prosecution curiously did not press the charge of her links to al Qaeda and terrorism.
But then there was evidence of her anti-Semitic beliefs. She wrote to the court once that Jews were “cruel, ungrateful, back-stabbing” people and attempted to sack her legal counsel because of their religious backgrounds.
The making of a martyr
Pakistanis soon spun a story of a martyr surrounding Siddiqui’s persona into a living martyr. In September 2010, when she was pronounced guilty, lakhs of protestors poured onto the streets of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, and Quetta. Leaders of the largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, held many rallies in the coming years. Pakistani television channels campaigned for her release, featuring her sister and children.
According to scholar Khanum Sheikh, Siddiqui became a symbol of “the Pakistani state as feminised in its relationship to the US, and as unable and unwilling to disrupt US encroachments upon Pakistani sovereignty and against the larger Muslim world”.
“There is a difference between a friend and a slave”, Prime Minister Khan said in 2009, using the case to assail the government of Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari. “There are drone attacks being carried out”, he went on, “but our slave government will not take a stance against the US”.
In 2018, the Senate of Pakistan unanimously passed a resolution to take up the matter of Siddiqui’s freedom with the US, referring to her as “the Daughter of the Nation”.
Later, in 2019, Imran Khan — by now he had become Pakistan’s prime minister — suggested that Siddiqui should be exchanged for Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor accused of helping the US confirm the identity of Osama bin Laden in advance of the raid in which he was killed.
The sickening competition for mobilisation around the jihadi woman, meanwhile, undermined Khan’s legitimacy among Islamists, as the US proved uninterested in negotiating her release. Furthermore, the issue affected US-Pakistan relations. Undaunted, the jihadi brigade took up he ’cause’ with gusto, arguing that they, and not the Pakistani leadership, were genuine defenders of Islam.
Based on the findings of Praveen Swami in ThePrint