Mother of three in court after five-year disappearance ends in Afghanistan amid conflicting claims
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington and Saeed Shah in Islamabad
The Guardian, August 6 2008
For five years, no one would say for certain whether Aafia Siddiqui, a mother of three with a PhD from an elite American university, was alive or dead. Her family did not know and authorities in Pakistan and the US were not saying.
Yesterday, as Siddiqui was produced before a magistrate in New York to face charges of attacking US army officers in Afghanistan last month, that central mystery was resolved.
The devout Pakistani-American Muslim, once named by the US as a top al-Qaida operative, is indeed alive and now in US custody. But almost nothing can be said for certain about her whereabouts since March 2003, when she was last seen getting into a taxi with her three children in Pakistan's biggest city, Karachi.
Some campaigners believe Siddiqui was snatched by Pakistani intelligence agents, passed to the Americans, and held in solitary confinement at the US base in Bagram, Afghanistan. There she acquired mythical status - prisoner 650 - whose wails haunted other inmates.
But the US, which has made multiple allegations against Siddiqui over the years depicting her as a courier of blood diamonds and a financial fixer for al-Qaida, has denied holding her, raising the question: where has she been for five years?
Siddiqui's emergence three weeks ago in Afghanistan is riddled with confusion. The official complaint against Siddiqui says she was picked up outside the governor's compound in the eastern Afghan city of Ghazni on July 17 by police who became suspicious of her inability to speak either of Afghanistan's main languages, Pashtu or Darri. They searched her handbag, discovering documents detailing how to make dirty bombs and biological weapons and descriptions of New York landmarks, as well as sealed glass jars of "numerous chemical substances".
A day later, the complaint says, two US army officers and two FBI agents arrived in Ghazni with their interpreters for a meeting - not realising that Siddiqui was standing behind a yellow curtain in the same room.
Siddiqui is then alleged to have jumped out from behind the curtain and snatched up the assault rifle one of the officers had placed on the floor by his feet, pointing it at the Americans, and screaming threats in English. She is said to have fired at least two shots by the time an interpreter managed to wrestle the gun away from her.
According to the complaint, one officer heard her yell "Allahu Akbar" as she opened fire. One interpreter claimed she shouted: "Get the fuck out of here."
She was shot and hit at least once in the torso but, according to the complaint, continued to hit and kick the officers before losing consciousness.
Siddiqui's lawyer, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, told CNN the scenario was utterly implausible. "This is a very intelligent woman. What is she doing outside of the governor's residence?" Sharp said.
"The woman is a PhD. Is a woman like this really that stupid? There is an incongruity, and I have trouble accepting the government's claims."
Yesterday, Afghan police in Ghazni offered another competing version of her detention, telling Reuters that the US troops had demanded she be handed over. When Afghan police refused, they were disarmed. The Americans shot at Siddiqui, thinking she was a suicide bomber. A teenage boy who was with Siddiqui remained in Afghan police custody.
Before yesterday's court appearance in New York, Siddiqui was last seen heading for Karachi's railway station, where, along with her three children, then aged seven, five and six months old, she planned to catch a train to visit an uncle in Islamabad.
Her life before that was exemplary. She had studied in America, earning a degree from MIT before moving on to a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from Brandeis University. She was unhappily married, to a Pakistani.
Acquaintances over her years in Boston have described her commitment to Islam. She returned to Pakistan in 2002, where her marriage broke up and she was living with her family at the time of her disappearance. Siddiqui's relatives believe that she was abducted by Pakistani intelligence agents and later transferred to US custody. She first appeared on the radar of US intelligence services in 2001 because of a series of donations to a now-banned Islamist charity that also had Saudi connections. But she became of greater interest after the capture of the alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, in March 2003, who named her under interrogation. The US argues that Muhammed would not have mentioned her unless she was connected to al-Qaida.
The BBC yesterday reported on its website that Siddiqui had married a nephew of Muhammed's called Ali Abd'al Aziz Ali following her divorce. Siddiqui's family denies the connection, but the BBC said it had confirmation from security sources and Muhammed's family.
US and Pakistani officials initially admitted that she was indeed in detention, and some reports said she was being held by the Americans outside Kabul.
But by 2004 John Ashcroft, then US attorney general, said she was among seven high-level al-Qaida suspects still at large.
In the meantime, concern for her grew after accounts emerged from prisoners at Bagram of a solitary woman inmate. Anger at her disappearance was further stoked last month when Yvonne Ridley, a British Muslim journalist, flew to Pakistan and held a press conference claiming that Siddiqui was Prisoner 650 at Bagram.
Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician, hosted the event, where Ridley, who also now does human rights work, said: "I call her the 'grey lady' because she is almost a ghost, a spectre whose cries and screams continue to haunt those who heard her."
A group of Arab prisoners who escaped from Bagram in 2005 said they saw a woman being taken to the toilets at the base. After breaking out, Abu Yahya al-Libi told an Arabic news channel that there was a woman from Pakistan at Bagram who was referred to simply as prisoner 650, held in solitary confinement.
The American account of her capture was dismissed yesterday. "This is one of the greatest lies of the 21st century ... " said IA Rehman, director general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent organisation.
Siddiqui's sister, Fauzia, said she had been raped and tortured. "Her rape and torture is a crime beyond anything she was accused of," she said. "This is the real crime of terror here." She pleaded for the child who was with her sister when she was captured, according to the American authorities, to be immediately handed over to the family. It is unclear what has happened to the other two children.
"She has had no access to any lawyer ... presume her to be innocent before proven guilty, please. How can this punishment be fit for any crime?" said Fauzia Siddiqui.
Asim Qureshi, a London-based investigator for Cage Prisoners, a campaign group, said the US had in the past denied holding other prisoners, such as Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a Spaniard of Syrian descent also captured in Pakistan.
"They just release the information when it suits them ... everything we know about Bagram means that we know she [Siddiqui] would have suffered abuse."