(CNSNews.com) – A Pakistani woman serving a lengthy prison term in the U.S. for attempting to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan is back in the headlines in her native country, as its new government vows to secure a deal for her return.
Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT and Brandeis-trained neuroscientist serving an 86-year sentence in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, has for years been the object of impassioned support in Pakistan, where political leaders have labeled her “daughter of the nation.”
Jihadists also champion her cause, and terrorists in several countries have included in their demands her freedom, in exchange for the release of hostages.
U.S. officials have called her a terrorist with ties to al-Qaeda’s 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Pakistani officials raised the Siddiqui case with a senior State Department visitor on Tuesday, and the country’s information minister told a television channel Thursday that Prime Minister Imran Khan – who took office in August – has instructed the foreign ministry to pursue her repatriation.
A foreign ministry spokesman said after the meeting with Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, that the “U.S. side has promised to look into our request” regarding “respecting the human and legal rights” of Siddiqui.
The spokesmen said the Pakistani consul general in Houston visits her in prison periodically. Pakistan’s foreign minister plans to meet in the coming days with Siddiqui’s sister – also a U.S.-educated medical specialist.
At a recent meeting with the consul-general, Siddiqui reportedly asked for a message to be conveyed to Khan, appealing for his help and claiming that her imprisonment was “illegal” as she had been “kidnapped” and taken to the U.S. for trial.
The Dawn daily, quoting from a purported letter written by a foreign ministry official about the visit, said Siddiqui had expressed support for Khan, whom she said she had always considered “as one of my biggest heroes and wish to see him as the Khalifa [caliph] of all Muslims.”
Siddiqui, now 46, was convicted in a Manhattan federal court in February 2010 on attempted murder, assault, armed assault and firearms charges, and was sentenced later that year to 86 years’ imprisonment.
During her trial the court was told that she was arrested in Afghanistan in July 2008 – while observed acting suspiciously in the vicinity of the compound of the governor of Ghazni province – and was found to be in possession of bomb-making instructions, documents referring to “mass casualty attacks” and a list of U.S. landmarks including Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building.
The court heard that as she was being questioned by soldiers and FBI agents at an Afghan police station she had grabbed a loaded assault rifle, shouted “Allahu Akbar” and “Death to Americans,” and opened fire. She did not hit anyone.
An Afghan interpreter testified that he tried to wrestle the firearm from her. A soldier shot and wounded her in the torso. She was brought to the U.S. for trial the following month.
During the trial Siddiqui was at times removed from the courtroom for disruptive behavior. She denied the charges.
(In a White House “We the People” petition calling for her repatriation, supporters characterized Siddiqui as an innocent victim of “faulty intelligence”)
Siddiqui also claims to have been abducted in Pakistan and held in a “secret prison” for five years, before the 2008 incident.
U.S. officials denied the accusation, saying in published reports that she had gone into hiding shortly after the arrest in Pakistan of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003, and that the U.S. was unaware of her whereabouts until her 2008 arrest in Afghanistan.
Siddiqui reportedly married a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ammar al-Baluchi, in 2003. He was arrested a month later and subsequently transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he is one of five Pakistanis still being held.
The day after Siddiqui’s conviction in February 2010, the Taliban threatened to kill U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network the previous year, unless Siddiqui was released. (Bergdahl was eventually released in 2014, in a controversial exchange for five senior Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay.)
Islamic terrorists have invoked Siddiqui or sought to use her as a bargaining chip on a number of other occasions since:
--May 2010: Claiming credit for a foiled car bombing in Times Square, the al-Qaeda-linked Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan give several reasons for what it called “the jaw-breaking blow to Satan’s USA,” including Siddiqui’s conviction.
--October 2010: The Taliban demanded Siddiqui’s release in exchange for the freedom of a British aid worker it was holding hostage in Afghanistan. Linda Norgrove was shot dead by her captors during an abortive rescue mission.
--December 2011: Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri claimed to be holding Warren Weinstein, an American former USAID employee kidnapped in Pakistan earlier that year. His list of demands for Weinstein’s freedom included the release of Siddiqui. (Weinstein was accidentally killed in a U.S. drone strike along the Afghan-Pakistan border in January 2015.)
--January 2013: Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists seized a large number of hostages at a natural gas plant in Algeria, and offered to free Americans among them if the U.S. released Siddiqui and 1993 World Trade Center bombing convict Omar Abd al-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric. The State Department reiterated at the time that the U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists. The crisis ended with dozens of hostages killed, including three Americans.
--July 2013: al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri in an online audio message responding to a hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay said, “We pledge Allah that we will spare no efforts to set them free along with all our prisoners, on top of them Omar Abdel Rahman, Aafia Siddiqui, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and every oppressed Muslim everywhere.”
--July 2014: ISIS demanded Siddiqui’s release in exchange for the life of Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker kidnapped in Syria the previous summer. Mueller’s death was confirmed in February 2015.
--August 2014: It emerged that the ISIS terrorists who beheaded U.S. journalist James Foley in Syria had offered the U.S. his freedom in exchange for Siddiqui’s release. ISIS in a propaganda publication attempted to justify the gruesome murder, saying the U.S. had “arrogantly refused to release our imprisoned brothers and our sister, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui.”