There are many unknown victims of the US’s global war on Islamic dissidence. The plight of one of them hit the headlines earlier this summer, after years in which nothing was known of her. FAHAD ANSARI reports on the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Muslimah now in US custody after disappearing in Pakistan in 2003.
During the time of the Abbasids, news reached al-Mu'tasim, the khaleefah of the time, that a noble Muslim woman who was held captive by a Roman king in ‘Amouriyyah had been slapped by her captors, upon which she cried out, “O Mu’tasim!” Al-Mu’tasim responded to her cry with the words, “I am coming to respond to your plea, O sister, I am coming to respond to your plea.” He warned the Romans, “If you do not release that woman, I promise you, I will send an army against you. And my army will be so big that when the first soldiers reach your gates, the last ones will not have left my palace!” Al-Mu’tasim launched his attack upon which commenced the Battle of ‘Amouriyyah, in which this Muslim woman was rescued and in which the Muslims scored a decisive victory.
A thousand years later, we have uncounted sisters being held in the prisons of tyrannical rulers all over the world, in both the West and the Muslim world. Their tormented cries go unheard by an Ummah whose deafening silence is symbolic of its deadened hearts. There is one Muslim woman, however, whose captivity has caught the attention of the entire world and who has become a symbol of the global system of oppression that has come to be known as the ‘war on terror’. The harrowing case of MIT-educated Pakistani neuroscientist Dr AafiaSiddiqui has shaken the Muslim world like the case of no other prisoner. From seasoned activists to secular apolitical elders, the case has had a ripple effect throughout the Muslim community and may indeed be the catalyst that radicalises people and awakens the sleeping giant.
Aafia Siddiqui was born in Karachi, Pakistan, on 2 March 1972, and spent much of her life in the US after moving to Texas in 1990 before enrolling at MIT. While at MIT she was heavily involved in da’awah work on campus. After her graduation, she continued to be actively involved in community and charity work, notably assisting prisoners and raising awareness and funds for the Muslims in Bosnia during the Balkan conflict in the mid-90s. After the attacks in September 2001, she and her family became victims of the American profiling system and were subjected to harassment by the US authorities. During this period in the US, she was also the victim of domestic violence by her abusive husband. Unable to tolerate the harassment any further, her husband moved the family back to Pakistan in 2002. Soon after their return to Pakistan, the couple became estranged. In December 2002 she decided to leave her children with her family in order to work in the US. She moved to the Baltimore area, where her sister was working.
The name Aafia Siddiqui first came to public attention on March 18, 2003, when the FBI issued an alert requesting information about her. On approximately 28 March 2003, while on a short trip back to Pakistan, Aafia Siddiqui was on her way to Karachi airport with her three children, then aged 6 years, 5 years and 6 months, in order to catch a flight to Islamabad. It was at this point that the family disappeared. The Pakistani papers mentioned reports that she had been “picked up in Karachi by an intelligence agency” and “shifted to an unknown place for questioning.” Days later, however, Pakistani and US officials mysteriously backtracked, saying it was unlikely that she was in custody and denying any knowledge of or involvement in her disappearance.
Various theories about her disappearance started to appear in international and local publications. The first of these was on 23 June 2003, three months after her disappearance, in Newsweek. An investigative report, falsely calling her a microbiologist, said that she and her husband were part of an al-Qa’ida sleeper cell. In Baltimore she is alleged to have opened a mailbox for a suspected al-Qa’ida operative who is now in Guantanamo Bay.
In 2004 Pakistani papers quoted a Pakistani government spokesman who said that she had been handed over to US authorities in 2003. On 26 May 2004, US attorney general John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller III announced at a news conference that Aafia Siddiqui was one of seven suspects whom the FBI was looking for with suspected ties to al-Qa’ida. She was accused of being an al-Qa’ida operative and facilitator. In July 2004, publications such as Newsweek quoted the FBI as stating that she had visited Liberia in 2001 to buy conflict diamonds (also known as blood diamonds) in order to finance al-Qa’ida’s biological and chemical weapons programme.
Siddiqui and her children remained missing and nothing was heard about them for four more years. It was only in July, after her case had started gaining political notoriety, that she suddenly reappeared in Afghanistan.
On 7 July, at a press conference in Islamabad, British journalist and Cageprisoners patron Yvonne Ridley claimed that an unidentified Pakistani woman was being held in solitary confinement at the US-run detention centre on Bagram airbase (Afghanistan) since 2004. Ridley said that the woman’s prison number was 650, adding that other prisoners had spoken of hearing the bloodcurdling terrified screams of a woman in the male-only prison.
“I call her the Grey Lady of Bagram because she is almost a ghost, a spectre whose cries and screams continue to haunt those who heard her,” Ridley said. “We don’t know her identity, we don’t know her state of mind and we don’t know the extent of the abuse or torture she has been subjected to.”
Although the identity of Prisoner 650 remains a mystery, Ridley’s speculation that she might be Aafia Siddiqui triggered waves of demonstrations, letters to newspaper editors ,and inquiries by politicians into the matter. The Pakistan foreign ministry was emphatic about its information from the US government that it was not holding any Pakistani woman at Bagram. But the issue refused to die down and received international media coverage; for Pakistanis, their izzat (honour) was at stake. This was unlike all the previous prisoners “renditioned” to the US as part of the war on terror: this was a helpless Pakistani Muslim woman with three young children.
On 4 August, the US government announced that Aafia Siddiqui had been extradited to the US from Afghanistan to face charges of attempting to kill US officers and employees and of assaulting US officers and employees. Federal prosecutors alleged that on 17 July, Afghan police officers noticed her loitering outside the compound of the governor of Ghazi. The federal indictment against her states that the Afghan police officers who arrested her found suspicious items in her handbag, including notes referring “to the construction of ‘dirty bombs,’ chemical and biological weapons, and other explosives” as well as descriptions of various landmarks in the United States, and “substances that were sealed in bottles and glass jars.”
US federal prosecutors further allege that, the day after her arrest, while still in Afghan custody, she grabbed a US army M-4 rifle that a soldier had left lying around, and fired it at a team of US soldiers and federal intelligence agents who were visiting the Afghan police compound where she was being held. Nobody was killed in the scuffle, but she was shot and wounded by a US officer. Prosecutors allege that despite being wounded she continued to struggle with officers, and struck and kicked them before losing consciousness.
She was then held for a further two weeks before being extradited to the US.
The alternative version of events put forward by Aafia Siddiqui and her lawyers, which is rapidly gaining credence, is that she and her children were kidnapped by the Pakistani ISI in March 2003 and transferred to US custody, where they have been ever since. While in custody, she claims that she was repeatedly tortured and raped.
This has been the account consistently given by her family since March 2003. Her mother, Ismet, claimed at the time that a few days after her disappearance a man on a motorcycle arrived at her house in a leather suit and helmet and told her that her daughter was being held and that she should keep quiet if she ever wanted to see her daughter and grandchildren again. Aafia’s sister Fauzia says that in 2004 she was told by Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat, then interior minister, that her sister had been released and would return home shortly.
For five years Cageprisoners, a London-based Islamic human-rights organisation, has spearheaded the campaign to free Aafia Siddiqui and her children. It seems highly coincidental that, within two weeks of the press conference in Islamabad of Cageprisoners’ patron Yvonne Ridley, Aafia Siddiqui was apprehended after allegedly avoiding captivity for five years, despite tremendous interest from both Pakistani and American intelligence agencies.
The charges against her also appear to be a sham. It is ridiculous to suppose that an individual as intelligent as Aafia Siddiqui, someone accused of being al-Qa’ida’s microbiologist, would loiter outside a governor’s compound with her son and a mobile explosives kit. It is also highly improbable, as former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg points out, that a woman as frail and small as she is could lift a US M-4 rifle without anyone noticing, and then put up such a struggle against American soldiers whom he describes as “huge”.
Further, it is notable that despite being accused of being a senior al-Qa’ida operative and being allegedly apprehended with the material it is claimed she had, she has not been charged with any terrorism-related offences. At a time and in a country where to be even suspected of being connected to a terror suspect can get one a twenty-year sentence, this omission gives rise to a reasonable suspicion that all is not as it seems.
One must also consider the fact that other suspects to whom she was linked, such as Majid Khan and Ali ‘Abd al- ‘Aziz Ali, also disappeared from Karachi at almost precisely the same time as she did. They did not reappear until September 2006, after their transfer to Guantanamo Bay from CIA custody. For more than three years they had been secretly held by the CIA or one of the CIA’s proxies. Like many others, they had been arrested by the Pakistani intelligence services and handed over to CIA. When one realizes that the people she was allegedly linked to were themselves held in secret detention, and that the Pakistani intelligence services were covertly arresting dozens of people in Karachi during this period, Aafia Siddiqui’s own version of events gains plausibility.
One particularly worrying aspect of this case is the whereabouts of Siddiqui’s children, who are all US citizens. To date the whereabouts of the two youngest children, who should now be about 5 and 10 years old, are unknown. The oldest, Ahmed (11), was recently released from Afghan custody into his aunt’s care. According to an Afghan interior ministry official quoted in the Washington Post, Ahmed Siddiqui was held briefly by the interior ministry after he was arrested with his mother, and then transferred to the custody of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country’s intelligence agency, which is notorious for its brutal treatment of detainees. Aafia Siddiqui has said that her younger son died in custody; her five-year-old daughter remains unaccounted for.
Siddiqui’s lawyers say that she has been physically and psychologically scarred. After she was shot, more than a week passed before she received any medical treatment. She has suffered multiple bullet wounds and extensive surgical incisions, resulting in multiple layers of external and internal stitching. She had also been told that she lost part of her intestine during the surgery to remove the bullets. One of her kidneys was also removed while in US custody. She is now refusing to attend court hearings or see her lawyers, because she is unhappy with the prospect of invasive strip-searches.
Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s situation is a badge of shame which we must all wear. For her there is no al-Mu’tasim to cry out to. There is no army to go out to rescue her and no state in which she can seek refuge. Even a demonstration in support of her on a Friday evening at iftar time during Ramadan, the month of action and victory, only drew a few hundred Muslims out to express their solidarity with their sister who has had to spend yet another Ramadan alone in US custody.
This sister has only has her iman to keep her steadfast. In a brilliant piece on her plight by American Muslim writer Abu Sabaya who attended her court hearing (‘The Aafia Siddiqui I Saw’), the classical scholar Ibn al-Qayyim is quoted as saying that a person rises in his closeness to Allah until:
... there remains only one obstacle from which the enemy calls him from, and this is an obstacle that he must face. If anyone were to be saved from this obstacle, it would have been the Messengers and Prophets of Allah, and the noblest of His Creation. This is the obstacle of Satan unleashing his troops upon the believer with various types of harm: by way of the hand, the tongue and the heart. This occurs in accordance with the degree of goodness that exists within the believer. So,the higher he is in degree, the more the enemy unleashes his troops and helps them against him, and overwhelms him with his followers and allies in various ways. There is no way around this obstacle, because the firmer he is in calling to Allah and fulfilling His commands, the more the enemy becomes intent upon deceiving him with foolish people. So he has essentially put on his body armor in this obstacle, and has taken it upon himself to confront the enemy for Allah’s Sake and in His Name, and his worship in doing so is the worship of the best of worshippers.
Abu Sabaya concludes his piece with the following observation:.
Despite Aafia’s apparent physical weakness and frailty, there was a certain ‘izzah (honor) and strength that I felt emanating from her the entire time. Everything from the way she forcefully shook her hand at the judge when the prosecutor would lie, to how she was keen to wear her hijab on top of her prison garments despite horrible circumstances that would makehijab the last thing on most people’s minds, to the number of FBI agents, US Marshals, reporters, officials, etc. who were all stuffed in this small room to observe this frail, weak, short, quiet, female “security risk” - everything pointed to the conclusion that the only thing all of these people were afraid of was the strength of this sister’s iman.