America's Most Wanted: 'The Most Dangerous Woman in the World'

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

Aafia Siddiqui was once considered a brilliant scientist. Then the US government called her the new face of al-Qaida -- a Pakistani woman who ranked among America's top terrorism suspects. Now the MIT-educated mother of three is in custody, claiming her long disappearance was a wrongful abduction by the CIA.

On July 17, 2008, men coming from evening prayers at the Bazazi Mosque in Ghazni, a provincial capital south of Kabul, paused when they saw a woman outside the building. They formed a circle around the stranger, who was wearing a blue burqa. She was cowering on the ground, with two small bags at her side, holding the hand of a boy of about 12. One of the men, fearing that this peculiar woman could be carrying a bomb under her burqa, called the police.

A short time later, more than 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) away, a telephone rang at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) in Washington. Someone crossed the name Aafia Siddiqui from a list of suspects and wrote the word "arrested."

After two weeks Aafia Siddiqui was flown from the US Air Force's Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan to New York. She was now wearing a tracksuit, had two bullet entry wounds in her abdomen and weighed around 40 kilograms (90 lbs.). Siddiqui is 1.63 meters (5'4") tall.

On Aug. 11, Siddiqui appeared at a hearing before a US federal court in Manhattan. She sat in a wheelchair, with a scarf pulled over her head. In October she was taken to the Carswell Psychiatric Center in Fort Worth, Texas for a psychological assessment.

Siddiqui is a Pakistani citizen and mother of three children. Born on March 2, 1972, she was the most-wanted woman in the world for four years. The FBI considered her so dangerous that former Attorney General John Ashcroft placed her -- the only woman -- on his "Deadly Seven" list. The American press nicknamed Siddiqui the terrorist organization al-Qaida's "Mata Hari" and its "female genius." She's believed to have raised money for al-Qaida by collecting donations and smuggling diamonds.

"She is the most important catch in five years," former CIA terrorist hunter John Kiriakou said when she was apprehended. The odd thing about Siddiqui's case is that she has not been charged now with being a collaborator or accomplice in terrorist attacks, but with the attempted murder of US soldiers and FBI agents -- whom she allegedly attacked with a weapon in Afghanistan. If convicted, she could face up to 20 years in prison.

The charges against Siddiqui are spectacular because she is a woman. Western life is also not alien to her: She comes from an upper middle-class Pakistani family and spent more than 10 years studying at elite universities in the United States. She studied biology on a scholarship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a PhD in neuroscience at Brandeis University, where she was considered an outstanding scientist.

Five years ago, Siddiqui disappeared from her home in Karachi, together with her three children, Ahmed, 7, Mariam, 5, and Suleman, 6 months. The two older children are American citizens. Siddiqui claims that Americans abducted her and locked her away in a secret prison, and that she was tortured there. Her children, she says, were taken away, and two of them are still missing.

The CIA denies that its agents had anything to do with Siddiqui's disappearance. Michael Scheuer, a member of a unit that pursued al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden from 1996 to 1999, says curtly: "We never arrested or imprisoned a woman. She is a liar." But if it is true that a woman was tortured and disappeared into a secret dungeon, it would be a first in the post-September 11 world -- and yet another example of the decay of standards in America.

The Secret Prisoner

On March 1, 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, was arrested in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi -- the biggest catch to date in the battle against al-Qaida. He was interrogated by the CIA at an undisclosed location, where he revealed aspects of the inner world of internal terrorism. A series of arrests began a short time later, and it is believed that Mohammed also mentioned Siddiqui's name. For the CIA, any name Mohammed mentioned was automatically an important al-Qaida terrorist.

On that same March 1, Siddiqui sent an email from Karachi to her professor, Robert Sekuler, at Brandeis University outside Boston. She was looking for a job. "I would prefer to work in the United States," she wrote, noting that there were no jobs in Karachi for a woman with her educational background. A few days later, Siddiqui disappeared. Early in the morning on the day of her disappearance, she left her parents' house, together with her three children and not very much luggage. She took a taxi to the airport to catch a morning flight to Islamabad, where she had planned to visit her uncle.

Siddiqui says she was kidnapped that day, on her way to the airport. She says her abductors took away Ahmed, Mariam and the baby. The last thing she remembers, she says, was receiving an injection in her arm. She says that when she regained consciousness she was in a prison cell, which she believes was on a military base in Afghanistan, because she heard aircraft taking off and landing. She claims that she was held in solitary confinement for more than five years, and that it was always the same Americans who interrogated her, without masks or uniforms. For days, she says, they would play tape recordings of her children's terrified screams, and she claims that she was forced to write hundreds of pages about the construction of dirty bombs and attacks using viruses.

The baby, Suleman, was taken away immediately, she says. They showed her a photograph of Ahmed, the seven-year-old, lying in a pool of blood. The only one of her children they occasionally showed her, she says, was Mariam -- as a vague outline behind a pane of frosted glass.

Could this story be true?

Several Pakistani media outlets did report her arrest. A year after her disappearance, Dawn, a daily newspaper normally considered to have good sources, quoted a spokesman from the Pakistani interior ministry saying that Siddiqui was arrested in Karachi and later handed to the Americans. On April 21, 2003, the US television network NBC ran a story about Siddiqui's arrest on the evening news.

Pakistani intelligence sources report that Siddiqui was in Pakistani detention until the end of 2003 and that her son Suleman fell ill and died during that time. It is known that terrorism suspects often spend a period of time in the country before being turned over to the Americans. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, there are 52 secret prisons in the country, into which thousands of Pakistanis are believed to have disappeared since the beginning of the war on terrorism.

A number of other prisoners held at Bagram Air Base, the site of the most important US detainee camp in Afghanistan, say they heard a woman screaming. Some claim two women were there. The woman was nicknamed the "gray lady of Bagram."

Elaine Whitfield Sharp, an attorney who has represented the family since 2003, is convinced that Siddiqui was classified as a high-level prisoner and spent five years in a so-called "black site" in Bagram -- in one of these notorious black holes in the legal system.

An Excellent Student

But who is Aafia Siddiqui? Her sister, Fauzia Siddiqui, pulls out several photo albums that she hopes will help answer this question. The books are filled with images of garden parties, family gatherings and children's birthdays. Aafia, Fauzia's younger sister by five years, is shown holding various pets, including a hamster, a cat, a goat and a lamb.

Fauzia Siddiqui, wearing a scarf wrapped loosely around her head, receives guests on the terrace of her house. The cook brings out food; a fountain bubbles in the background. Surrounded by a high wall, the terrace is an oasis in the middle of Karachi, a city of 12 million.

The Siddiquis are a model Pakistani family, modern and devout at the same time. The father was a surgeon, the mother is a housewife, and the family has lived in the British city of Manchester and in Zambia. All three children studied abroad. Mohammed, an architect, lives in Houston and Fauzia, a neurologist, worked at one of the best hospitals in Boston and lived in the same house as her sister for several years.

She returned to Karachi some time ago and now works at the city's Aga Khan University. She says she would like to establish an institute to train neurologists. Helping the poor, says Fauzia, is a tradition in her family. Her sister Aafia, she says, also believed in helping the poor and was always there for other people. "My sister is innocent. She could never harm anyone. Something is simply not right," she says. "There must have been a mistake."

She picks up her photo albums again, holding onto them like a shipwreck victim clinging to a life preserver. Aafia at the piano. Aafia in a student dormitory, together with four Chinese students. A young woman who likes to pose for the camera and loves colorful silk dresses, but rarely wears a headscarf.

Can someone like this be "the most dangerous woman in the world"?

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