Al-Qaeda Woman? Putting Aafia Siddiqui on Trial

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Aafia Siddiqui, in an undated file photo that was released by the FBI on April 23, 2003

This week the trial of Aafia Siddiqui, once one of the most wanted women in the war on terrorism, begins in a federal courtroom in Manhattan. Siddiqui, 37, an MIT-educated neuroscientist and suspected al-Qaeda operative, is charged with attempted murder for allegedly shooting at a group of U.S. soldiers and FBI agents in Afghanistan. The incident occurred in the city of Ghazni in July 2008, after she was detained by local police near one of the city's mosques on suspicion that she was a suicide bomber. At the time of her arrest, she allegedly had with her a flash drive with references to specific "cells" and "enemies" and various chemicals in cold-cream jars, including a quantity of sodium cyanide. Prosecutors say that the following day, as a contingent of U.S. soldiers and FBI agents prepared to question her at a nearby police station, Siddiqui grabbed an unsecured M-4 automatic rifle from one of the soldiers and opened fire. She hit no one but was herself shot twice in the abdomen by a U.S. warrant officer.

What jurors will not hear when opening statements begin on Tuesday, however, are the strange events leading up to Siddiqui's arrest, which have made her case one of the most baffling in the war on terrorism. For over a decade, Siddiqui lived and studied in the U.S., but shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, she was linked by law enforcement to a number of terrorism suspects. Among them is Majid Khan, a former resident of Baltimore who was allegedly tasked by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to plan terrorist attacks in the U.S. In March 2003, Khan was picked up by Pakistani intelligence, who eventually handed him over to the CIA. Just two weeks later, the FBI issued an urgent alert seeking Siddiqui for questioning. But Siddiqui, who by then had moved back to her native Pakistan, vanished without a trace. Khan, who is now a high-value detainee at Guantánamo Bay, has never been formally charged with a crime.

Human-rights groups, however, believe Siddiqui is no extremist and that she, along with her three young children (two of whom are American-born), was illegally detained and interrogated by Pakistani intelligence, likely at the behest of the U.S. In 2007 she was named a missing person in a briefing paper on U.S. responsibility for what is called "enforced disappearances" that was authored by six leading human-rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Siddiqui has done little to clarify the mystery of her disappearance. After resurfacing in Ghazni in 2008, she gave conflicting accounts of her absence. According to court records filed by the government, she allegedly told FBI agents who questioned her in Afghanistan that she was the wife of Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Al-Baluchi is one of the five accused 9/11 plotters who are expected to face trial in the same courthouse as Siddiqui. She has also alternately claimed that she was kidnapped by U.S. intelligence, kidnapped by Pakistani intelligence and that she was working as an agent for Pakistani intelligence. She has shed little light on the whereabouts of two of her children, who remain missing.

Adding to the confusion are questions over Siddiqui's mental state, which psychiatrists who examined her said could be the result of posttraumatic stress. She was initially ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial last year, a decision that was reversed after she underwent an extensive psychological evaluation at a federal prison in Carswell, Texas — where psychiatrists were divided over whether she was delusional and possibly psychotic or merely faking her symptoms.

While Siddiqui's trial has been highly anticipated, especially in Pakistan, it is unlikely to resolve any of the bigger mysteries surrounding her disappearance. Prosecutors have tailored the case narrowly to the shooting incident in Ghazni and told Judge Richard Berman last week they will avoid any mention of her suspected ties to al-Qaeda. The government's scenario of the shooting in Ghazni has been vigorously disputed by her defense attorneys, who at a pretrial hearing last week offered a preview of their case, saying there were no fingerprints or forensic evidence on the gun that would indicate Siddiqui ever even held it. "We're saying she simply didn't do it," said attorney Linda Moreno. But, in what could be a serious blow for the defense, the judge ruled that some of the suspicious documents found on Siddiqui at the time of her arrest could be introduced to show her alleged intent. According to the indictment, Siddiqui was found with documents that referred to a "mass casualty attack," and listed potential targets like the Empire State Building, alongside notes that mention "dirty bombs" and attacks using gliders.

Siddiqui, who has been held in the U.S. as she awaits trial, has appeared unstable during her court appearances and seems intent on sabotaging her own defense. During two days of jury selection last week, she announced that she would boycott the trial and reiterated her desire to dismiss the U.S. attorneys who were hired for her by the Pakistani government. "I've fired them many times," she said. She then told the judge she didn't want any Jews on the jury "if they have a Zionist or Israeli background," adding, "I have a feeling everyone here is them, subject to genetic testing."

By keeping the focus on Ghazni, the trial will avoid becoming, as human-rights groups had hoped, a referendum on the issue of enforced disappearances. Siddiqui has achieved cult status in much of the Muslim world, where she is a symbol of hundreds of individuals believed to have been "disappeared" in connection with the war on terrorism. Groups like the British-based Reprieve have argued that the practice of enforced disappearances begun under George W. Bush has continued apace under the Obama Administration, and that the use of foreign intelligence to detain and interrogate suspects has in the worst instances amounted to nothing less than torture by proxy. For Siddiqui this means that whether she is found guilty or not, the most serious question raised by her case will not be answered: whether she is, as one of her former attorneys described her, "the ultimate victim of the American dark side."

Petra Bartosiewicz is writing a book on terrorism trials in the U.S., The Best Terrorists We Could Find, to be published by Nation Books next year. You can find her daily coverage of the Siddiqui trial beginning Jan. 19 on Cageprisoners.