Pakistanis protest the conviction of Aafia Siddiqui outside the U.S. Consulate in Lahore on Feb. 16, 2010. Pakistani lawmakers at the time unanimously passed a resolution demanding that the government intervene to secure her release. (AP Photo, File)
(CNSNews.com) – The terrorists who murdered U.S. journalist James Foley claimed to have offered his freedom in exchange for a Pakistani woman whose lengthy prison term for attempting to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan has made her a cause célèbre in Pakistan and among jihadists worldwide.
An email sent to Foley’s family earlier this month by his Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) captors referred to attempts to secure a ransom for his release, then added, “We have also offered prisoner exchanges to free the Muslims currently in your detention like our sister Dr. Afia Sidiqqi, however you proved very quickly to us that this is NOT what you are interested in.”
A copy of the email was released Thursday by GlobalPost, the news service for whom Foley worked. It said it was doing so with the agreement of the Foley family, “in the interest of transparency and to fully tell Jim’s story.”
Aafia Siddiqui (misspelled in the ISIS email) was the only name mentioned by the terrorists, an indication of the important place she appears to hold in jihadist thinking.
A U.S.-trained neuroscientist, Siddiqui was convicted in February 2010 on counts of attempted murder, assault, armed assault and firearms charges, and that September was sentenced to 86 years’ imprisonment.
On Feb. 4, the day after the then 37 year-old was convicted in a Manhattan federal court, the Taliban threatened to kill U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – who had been captured in Afghanistan by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network the previous year – unless Siddiqui was released.
(Bergdahl was eventually released last June, in a controversial exchange for five senior Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay.)
At other times Siddiqui’s release was demanded by various terrorist groups in exchange for hostages, among them a British aid worker who was killed by her Taliban captors during an abortive rescue mission in Oct. 2010; and a large number of hostages seized by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists at a natural gas plant in Algeria last year, an episode that ended with dozens of hostages killed. (In that case the demand named Siddiqui as well as Egyptian cleric Omar Abd al-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.)
Siddiqui’s name has also come up in connection with Warren Weinstein, a 73 year-old American former USAID employee kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Pakistan in 2011.
In a message four months after the kidnapping, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri confirmed that “the American Jew Warren Weinstein” was being held, and in a list of demands for his freedom included the release of Siddiqui.
Weinstein remains missing; the most recent proof-of-life video was released by al-Qaeda last December. On the third anniversary of his captivity earlier this month State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. continues to “work actively with Pakistani authorities to try to secure his release.”
In July 2013 Zawahiri once again raised the case of Siddiqui, in an online audio message responding to a hunger strike at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
“We pledge God 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,” he said.
‘Daughter of the nation’
Siddiqui has not just become a rallying point for terrorists. In her native Pakistan, where her conviction and imprisonment has sparked numerous protests and campaigns, she is fondly and almost reverently referred to as “Aafia” or “Dr. Aafia.” Former Prime Minister Yousef Reza Gilani called her “daughter of the nation.”
Supporters charge that she is a victim of U.S. injustice and anti-Muslim discrimination, and that she was held in a secret prison for years, charges denied by U.S. officials.
Pakistani authorities have been trying for years to get her released, frequently raising the issue with U.S. officials.
As recently as early this month a White House “We the People” petition calling for her repatriation easily garnered the 100,000 signatures required with a 30-day period to merit a formal response from the administration.
The petition writers characterized Siddiqui as an innocent victim of “faulty intelligence” who had “suffered needlessly for more than 11 years.”
During Siddiqui’s trial the court was told that when arrested in Afghanistan in July 2008 she was found in possession of bomb-making instructions, documents referring to “mass casualty attacks” and a list of NYC landmarks including Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building.
The court heard testimony that while 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, though not hitting anyone.
An Afghan interpreter said he tried to wrestle the firearm from her and a soldier shot and wounded her in the torso, the court was told. She was brought to the U.S. the following month.
Siddiqui, who during the trial railed at the judge and was at times removed from the courtroom for disruptive behavior, denied the charges.
Last May she filed court papers seeking to overturn her conviction.
Siddiqui reportedly married a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ammar al-Baluchi, after obtaining a divorce from her first husband in 2002. Al-Baluchi was arrested in 2003 and was later transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Siddiqui was considered so significant a suspect that a Department of Justice annual performance report for 2008 recorded her capture that July as the “notable arrest of an international terrorism subject identified by the FBI.”