Texas Hostage-Taking Draws Attention to Pakistani Woman Imprisoned in US
Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S.-educated-Pakistani neuroscientist serving an 86-year sentence in the United States for trying to kill Americans in Afghanistan, is the person whose release was sought by the hostage-taker at a Texas synagogue on Saturday.
U.S. authorities said the hours-long standoff ended with all captives safe and the man holding them dead.
Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist, is being held at a federal prison in Texas.
Marwa Elbially, her attorney, issued a statement condemning the hostage-taking.
“Whoever the assailant is, we want him to know that his actions are condemned by Dr. Siddiqui and her family,” Elbially told CNN.
Siddiqui’s case continues to draw attention ever since she was arrested in the eastern Afghan province of Ghazni in 2008 under suspicion of being in possession of notes on how to make “dirty bombs” and plans to attack U.S. cities. Her family and lawyers have denied the charges.
Siddiqui was immediately flown to the U.S., where two years later a federal court found the 49-year-old mother of three guilty of attempted murder and assault of U.S. officials during interrogation in Ghazni.
The neuroscientist studied at two prestigious U.S. institutions — Brandeis University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — between 1991 and 2002 before moving back to Pakistan.
The Pakistan-born Siddiqui disappeared from her native Karachi a year later and her whereabouts was not known until she surfaced in neighboring Afghanistan and detained.
Analysts say most Americans are unaware of Siddiqui’s case, but militant groups have been seeking her release and using the case to gain more recruits.
In 2014, Islamic State sent an email to the family of American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria, offering to release him in exchange for Siddiqui. Foley was later beheaded.
“Siddiqui isn’t well known in the U.S., but in Pakistan she’s a big name — many view her as an innocent victim. Also, at one point, ISIS had demanded that she be released in exchange for ISIS captives,” Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia program at Washington’s Wilson Center, wrote on Twitter in response to Saturday’s hostage-taking.
The 2010 conviction of Siddiqui sparked outrage in Pakistan, where thousands took to the streets to denounce the U.S.
The Pakistani Senate unanimously passed a resolution in 2018, dubbing Siddiqui as “Daughter of the Nation” and urged the government to take “concrete steps” for her repatriation.
Prime Minister Imran Khan suggested in media interviews after meeting at the White House in 2019 with then-U.S. President Donald Trump that his government could consider the possibility of releasing Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi in exchange for Siddiqui.
In 2018, a Pakistani court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in prison for organizing a fake vaccination campaign to help the CIA locate and kill al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. Afridi’s appeal against the verdict is still pending.
In July 2021, Siddiqui suffered serious injuries after an inmate attacked her.
The Foreign Ministry in Islamabad immediately took up the matter with U.S. authorities through its embassy in Washington.
“We lodged a formal complaint with the relevant U.S. authorities to thoroughly investigate the matter and ensure the safety and well-being of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui,” the ministry said at the time.
The attack prompted protests by human rights activists and religious groups in the U.S., calling for improved prison conditions and Siddiqui’s repatriation to Pakistan.