Texas attacker sought release of Aafia Siddiqui, who blamed Israel for her jailing

Neuroscientist is serving 86 years in US for trying to shoot American soldiers in Afghanistan; didn’t want ‘Zionist Jews’ in jury at trial, said they should be genetically tested

This Federal Bureau of Investigation handout image shows undated images of a woman identified as Aafia Siddiqui (FBI)
This Federal Bureau of Investigation handout image shows undated images of a woman identified as Aafia Siddiqui (FBI)

The man who authorities say held hostages inside a Texas synagogue on Saturday demanded the release of a Pakistani woman who is imprisoned nearby on charges of trying to kill American service members in Afghanistan.

The hostage incident ended Saturday night with the hostages safe and the man holding them dead, authorities said.

The woman whose freedom was sought, Aafia Siddiqui, is serving an 86-year prison sentence after being convicted in Manhattan in 2010 on charges that she sought to shoot US military officers while being detained in Afghanistan two years earlier.

She has a history of antisemitic comments and has blamed Israel for her imprisonment.

For the US Justice Department, which had accused Siddiqui of being an al-Qaeda operative, her conviction was a significant conviction in the fight against international extremism.

But to her supporters, many of whom believed in her innocence, the case embodied what they saw as an overzealous post-September 11 American judicial system.

Aafia Siddiqui, possible al-Qaeda associate, is seen in the custody of Counter Terrorism Department of Ghazni province in Ghazni City, Afghanistan, July 17, 2008. (AP Photo)

A closer look at the case:

Who is Aafia Siddiqui

She’s a Pakistani neuroscientist who studied in the United States at prestigious institutions — Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brandeis is a private research institute that was initially established in 1948 with funding from the Jewish community. Nearly half of its student body identifies as Jewish.

Siddiqui attracted the attention of American law enforcement in the years after the September 11 attacks. Top FBI and Justice Department described her as an “al-Qaeda operative and facilitator” at a May 2004 news conference in which they warned of intelligence showing al-Qaeda planned an attack in the coming months.

Pakistanis rally for the release of Aafia Siddique in Karachi, Pakistan, Sept. 11, 2015 (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

In 2008, she was detained by authorities in Afghanistan. American officials said they found in her possession handwritten notes that discussed the construction of so-called dirty bombs and that listed various locations in the US that could be targeted in a “mass casualty attack.”

Inside an interview room at an Afghan police compound, authorities say, she grabbed the M-4 rifle of a US Army officer and opened fire on members of the US team assigned to interrogate her.

She was convicted in 2010 on charges including attempting to kill US nationals outside the United States.

During her trial, she told her judge she didn’t want Jews in the jury “if they have a Zionist or Israeli background.”

“I have a feeling everyone here is them, subject to genetic testing,” she said.

One of her lawyers told the court that Siddiqui is not antisemitic, just pro-Palestinian, according to a New York Times report at the time of the trial

After her conviction, she said, “This is a verdict coming from Israel and not from America. That’s where the anger belongs.”

At her sentencing hearing, she gave rambling statements in which she delivered a message of world peace — and also forgave the judge. She expressed frustration at arguments from her own lawyers who said she deserved leniency because she was mentally ill.

“I’m not paranoid,” she said at one point. “I don’t agree with that.”

What was the reaction?

Pakistani officials immediately decried the punishment, which prompted protests in multiple cities and criticism in the media.

The prime minister at the time, Yousuf Raza Gilani, called her the “daughter of the nation” and vowed to campaign for her release from jail.

In the years since, Pakistani leaders have openly floated the idea of swaps or deals that could result in her release.

People rally demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who was convicted in February 2010 of two counts of attempted murder, and who was being detained in the US during International Women’s Day in Karachi, Pakistan, March 8, 2011. (Fareed Khan/AP)

Faizan Syed, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said the group considers Siddiqui to have been “caught in the war on terror” as well as a political prisoner who was wrongly accused through flawed evidence. He nonetheless strongly condemned the hostage-taking, calling it wrong, heinous and “something that is completely undermining our efforts to get Dr. Aaifa released.”

She has also garnered support from accused militants in the United States. An Ohio man who admitted he plotted to kill US military members after receiving training in Syria also planned to fly to Texas and attack the federal prison where Siddiqui is being held in an attempt to free her. The man, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, was sentenced in 2018 to 22 years in prison.

What’s the latest on Siddiqui’s imprisonment?

Siddiqui is being held at a federal prison in Fort Worth. She was attacked in July by another inmate at the facility and suffered serious injuries, according to court documents.

In a lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Prisons, Siddiqui’s lawyers said another inmate “smashed a coffee mug filled with scalding hot liquid” into her face. When Siddiqui curled herself into a fetal position, the other woman began to punch and kick her, leaving her with injuries so severe that she needed to be taken by wheelchair to the prison’s medical unit, the suit says.

Siddiqui was left with burns around her eyes and a three-inch scar near her left eye, the lawsuit says. She also suffered bruises on her arms and legs and an injury to her cheek.

The attack prompted protests by human rights activists and religious groups and calls for improved prison conditions. The activists have also called on the Pakistani government to fight for her release from US custody.

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