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Why the man who held Texas synagogue hostages invoked the name of Aafia Siddiqui


We do not yet know much about the man who took hostages on Saturday at a synagogue outside Fort Worth, Texas. We do know he invoked the name Aafia Siddiqui. Now, Aafia Siddiqui was born in Pakistan, studied here in the U.S. at Brandeis and MIT, returned to Pakistan after September 11, 2001. U.S. intelligence suspected her of terrorist links. She was arrested and interrogated. That ended with violence, and she has been in a federal prison near Fort Worth, Texas, since 2008.

In the years since, her case has stayed in the public eye. She has become a cause celebre for extremists and those who believe she is innocent. For some context, I want to bring in Mubin Shaikh. He's a counterextremism specialist, a professor of public safety at Canada's Seneca College. Mr. Shaikh, welcome.

MUBIN SHAIKH: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Tell us briefly what happened in 2008 that led to Aafia Siddiqui ending up in prison in Texas.

SHAIKH: Yeah. Well, what had happened is she had been studying in the U.S. from the '90s, after the 9/11 attacks returned to Pakistan and kind of disappeared after that. From 2003, nobody knew where she was or what she was doing, or there's limited information on what was happening. But by 2008, she had been picked up by the Afghan police, found in possession of sodium cyanide as well as materials regarding dirty bombs or chemical weapons and a number of landmarks - physical landmarks in New York City. She was then arrested by the authorities.

The U.S. authorities had come over to interrogate her or interview her, and it was here that she attempted to shoot. There was apparently a rifle that was unattended or at least within her reach. She discharged the weapon in an attempt to, you know, kill one or more of the U.S. personnel that were there. And it was for this that she was charged with attempted murder, brought back to the U.S. and successfully prosecuted on those charges.

KELLY: Right. She was convicted. She has been in prison ever since. Why now, more than well over a decade later? Why has her cause been taken up by so many people and remained so prominent?

SHAIKH: Yeah. I mean, I think this follows the anxieties and grievances of the Muslim communities at large since 9/11 and post-9/11, particularly the, I think, egregious case of Guantanamo Bay and picking people up even in Afghanistan, Bagram Air Force Base and some other places where you did have actual al-Qaida members and other members, you know, in custody being interrogated. But there were, unfortunately, some cases of people who others felt should not have been there. So the argument goes is that she is one of those people. The fact that she is a woman being arrested in this context made it, I think, easier for these individuals or people who are in those networks to feel sympathy for her. And this is why - part of the reason why her case became such a cause.

KELLY: Well, and you're touching on something which is so interesting, which is that her cause has been taken up by CAIR, a mainstream Muslim American group, by ordinary people, everyday Pakistanis, also by ISIS, by al-Qaida leaders who have reportedly been invested in her release. Has it ever been documented whether she has had contact with or ties to either of those groups - ISIS, al-Qaida?

SHAIKH: Well, there is - this is the debate because there was some reporting early on which suggested she was a, quote, "high-ranking member" of al-Qaida, which I personally am not so convinced of. But I think it is reasonable to assume that she was a member of al-Qaida and that she was being used by the group or that she was herself willing to put her competencies in support of these groups that were fighting the U.S. You know, for her to return back to Pakistan after 9/11, of course, in and of itself is not a warning sign. But her getting picked up with the information that she had on her does indicate that there was some level of interaction with one of those groups.

The fact that you have these other groups, mainstream groups - like, whether it's CAIR or - you know, the thing is when it comes to these Muslim activist groups, especially because of the post-9/11 environment, they have been, you know, very resistant to any and all cases that deal with counterterrorism. Even if you look at the perception and the mentality that a lot of these groups have, it's - I think it's worth questioning why they have taken up her cause.

KELLY: Has she commented? Have her lawyers commented on the events of this past weekend?

SHAIKH: The family of Aafia Siddiqui did comment on the events in Texas. They, of course, were totally against it. They have made statements even as far back as 2008, you know, saying that we - when she was arrested and prosecuted, that we don't believe in an ends-justifies-means approach to freeing Aafia Siddiqui. So they have come out, of course, condemning the attack and saying that it has nothing to do with us and certainly does not have our acquiescence or acceptance.

KELLY: It's been reported that the man who held hostages in the synagogue over the weekend was demanding her release. Is there any possibility of her release? She is serving a sentence of 86 years.

SHAIKH: I can't see there being any possibility of her release anytime soon. I mean, other groups have tried to swap her for some high-ranking, high-level prisoners. The U.S. said David Foley. There were some others - some other individuals who they have - various groups have tried to use her to swap. But you know, it's been denied every single time. So I don't see what kind of information could lead to her release this time.

KELLY: That is Canadian counterterrorism expert Mubin Shaikh speaking with us about Aafia Siddiqui. Thank you very much.

SHAIKH: Thank you for having me.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Miguel Macias
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.