Shortly after dusk on a fall evening in 1993, a group of local Muslim students came together on the pale blue carpet in MIT’s Muslim prayer room to discuss a recent fund-raiser they had held on behalf of the beleaguered Muslims in the Bosnian war. The students were discussing further relief efforts when a petite woman among them spoke up and shocked them into silence.
Instead of collecting food and clothing for their fellow Muslims, she declared, they should give them guns to repel the Serb aggressors. When another student half-jokingly declared he did not want to wind up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, the woman leapt to her feet.
“She raised her skinny little wrists in the air and said, ‘I’d be proud to be on the Most Wanted list because it would mean I’m doing something to help our Muslim brothers and sisters,’ ” recalled Waqas Jilani, then a graduate student at Clark University. “She said we should all be proud to be on that list.”
Her name was Aafia Siddiqui, then a studious 21-year-old biology major. Eleven years later, she not only made it on to the FBI’s list, possibly the lone female at Al Qaeda’s highest echelon, but was dubbed by US officials as the “most wanted woman in the world” before she was convicted in 2010 of the attempted murder of American agents. Siddiqui’s name resurfaced this fall when the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq group twice sought to trade captives for her release before beheading them, thus elevating the Brandeis-trained neuroscientist to iconic status in the radical Islam world, where she has long been regarded as a martyr.
In a letter to the family of journalist James Foley, Islamic State militants declared that they had offered prisoner exchanges “to free the Muslims currently in your detention like our sister Dr. Aafia Siddiqui,” but they executed Foley when the US government did not act. Her supporters believe that Siddiqui, serving an 86-year prison sentence in Texas, was framed by the US government.
As law enforcement officials work to diminish the allure that the Islamic State is proving to have for some young Americans far removed from the fight, Siddiqui’s turbulent decade in Boston offers a crucial window upon the process of radicalization. The story of her 2008 arrest in Afghanistan and the celebrated trial that followed has been told many times, but the details of her transformation from a pious schoolgirl in saffron silk hijab into a querulous jihadi clad in dark abaya have not been fully examined or understood.
It was a personal migration witnessed by few. Siddiqui formed few close relationships with her classmates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and she shared her evolving political views with only a handful of Muslim students. When she decided to learn how to shoot in hopes of joining the jihad overseas, she enrolled in a class at a Braintree gun club by herself. Not long after her arrival in Boston, she became a regular at the Islamic Society of Boston’s newly opened Prospect Street mosque, which would later become a favorite of another alleged jihadi of future renown named Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
By the latter part of the 1990s, Siddiqui’s devotion had turned into a spiritual rage against those she considered hostile to her faith. Then married with children, she worked closely with activists later linked to Osama bin Laden’s organization, and she was a passionate speaker at local mosques and schools. At Brandeis University, where she earned a doctorate, she was repeatedly admonished for introducing the Koran in the classroom. At home in their Roxbury apartment, she begged her husband, a resident in anesthesiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to leave his work to accompany her to Bosnia or Afghanistan.
But what led Siddiqui, a highly intelligent woman who was from a prominent Pakistani family and whose options seemed limitless, to ultimately take up arms on behalf of Al Qaeda, as the FBI says she did, is something some experts and investigators still want to know. Siddiqui, 42, declined through an administrator at the federal prison in Fort Worth to be interviewed.
“It would be useful to know why Aafia did what she did,” said Evan Kohlmann, an international terrorism consultant with Flashpoint Global Partners, a private security firm. “She does not fit into any of the stereotypes of an extremist. Was she radicalized by sociopolitical factors or something more personal? What was it?”
The answer lies partly in the gradual unfolding of her radical inclination during her Boston years and partly in something she arrived here with — a passionate understanding of what it means to be a Muslim woman. Two days before she arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1991, Siddiqui gave an impassioned speech to a roomful of Muslim students in Houston on that very subject. Siddiqui, who had spent the previous year studying at the University of Houston while living with her brother, was as adamant as she was engaging. Captured on video, wisps of her long brown hair slip from her yellow hijab and her almond eyes flash with fervor.
“The hijab is not a restriction. It allows a woman to be judged by her content, not by her packaging, by what is written on the pages, not the pretty artwork on the cover,” she declared. “Islam does not see the woman as a prize cow to be paraded before the world.”
Spreading the faith
They called it the Wheel of Fortune.
A handful of MIT’s Muslim students had built the 3-foot-wide wooden wheel and mounted it on a spinner pegged to questions about the five pillars of Islam. Who were the prophets of Islam? In what direction do Muslims face when they pray? The wheel was placed on a table outside the student center and students took turns inviting passersby to play. No one loved the game more than Siddiqui.
“She was like, ‘This is how we are going to get people to learn about the faith, by making it fun,’ ” Jilani said.
It was a lesson she had learned well during a childhood in Zambia and Pakistan. Her father, a prosperous neurosurgeon, was a devout man. But it was her mother, a scholar of Islam and an advocate for the poor, who directed her three children to commit themselves to the good of the “ummah,’’ an Arabic word meaning community. Siddiqui and her siblings memorized large portions of the Koran and often helped out with their mother’s relief operation.
Siddiqui, by her family’s account, was a gentle child who cultivated a small zoo of pets including rabbits and cats. She was also highly intelligent, and by the time she was in her late teens, her parents made the somewhat unusual decision to send her to college in the United States, on her own. She spent one year in Houston, eschewing the usual student pastimes of drinking and dating, before MIT offered her a partial scholarship.
“We were all thrilled,” said her sister Fowzia Siddiqui, a neurologist living in Karachi, Pakistan.
On her arrival at MIT, Siddiqui took up residence at her request in the all-female McCormick Hall dormitory. She promptly immersed herself in the study of biology. Dressed in her hijab and conservative long sleeves as she bustled across campus, she was regarded by her dormmates as reserved but driven.
“She was very sweet,” recalled a McCormick resident who asked not to be identified. “But if you talked to her about something not up her alley, she just smiled and did not argue. You could tell she was not hearing you.”
Her more determined side surfaced rarely and then primarily when matters of faith were at stake. Although grateful for the scholarship money she received from MIT, she tangled repeatedly with the university, concerned that she might violate Islam’s restrictions on loans.
“She was always battling with the bursar’s office about the loan thing,” recalled the dormmate. MIT declined to address questions about Siddiqui.
The focus of Siddiqui’s social and spiritual life at MIT was the Muslim Student Association, a group of about a hundred students, some of whom met in the school’s prayer room, or “musalla.” Siddiqui plunged into the group’s activities, regularly hosting an information, or “dawah,” table about Islam and writing leaflets on the faith. Impressed by Siddiqui’s zeal and her encyclopedic knowledge of the Koran, the association’s leaders chose her to serve as secretary of the group.
“When I knew her, and I knew her pretty well, she was very gentle and had no political agenda,” recalled Arif Khalid, former president of the association and now an engineer in Ohio. “She just cared about being a good person and explaining the religion to others.”
In her sophomore year, Siddiqui won a $5,000 grant, the Carroll L. Wilson Award, for a research project on “Islamization in Pakistan and its Effects on Women” that took her back to her home country. Her return to Cambridge coincided with a radical shift in the focus of the global Muslim community; her focus shifted with it. With the conflict in Afghanistan fading from center stage after the Russian forces retreated, the civil war in Bosnia and its brutal ethnic infighting came to dominate the headlines. Reports of ongoing mass rape and murder of Muslim citizens at the hands of Serb nationalists riveted Muslims around the world.
As the terrorism consultant Kohlmann puts it, “Bosnia was a wake-up call to Muslims in the West. If it could happen in Europe, it could happen anywhere.” As many Muslims leapt to aid their Bosnian brothers and sisters, Siddiqui was at the front of the line.
That line led her into the arms of Al Qaeda. Sometime in the early 1980s, an organization called the Al-Kifah Refugee Center rented a mailbox in a squat brown building on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston. It was one of several addresses that belonged to the Brooklyn-based center, now believed to have been the heart of Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist operations in the United States. The center, whose Brooklyn office has been linked to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, operated publicly as a pro-jihadi fund-raiser for Muslim refugees and routinely solicited student activists. In the early 1990s, Siddiqui and several other Muslim Student Association members volunteered to help out, and they distributed the group’s newsletter, “Al-Hussam,” which means “The Sword” in Arabic.
In March 1993, Siddiqui sent an e-mail to local Muslim students asking them to send pledges to Al-Kifah for orphans and widows they were sponsoring. She concluded, “Please keep up the spirit and motivate others as well!!!!!! The Muslims of our Ummah need ALL the help we can provide them.” She signed it, “humbly, your sister, aafia.”
Primed by her mother’s example, Siddiqui was an inspiring fund-raiser whose rousing speeches prompted many to open their pockets. Never mind that her tiny frame, barely 5 feet tall, was almost hidden behind the lectern; the audience could see her small fists slashing the air.
“She would tell you that you had to give up some of your clothes for these people,” recalled Abdullah Faaruuq, imam of the Mosque for the Praising of Allah in Roxbury. “I had two pairs of boots and I was going to give up one, but I realized I could always buy another so I gave them both.”
Waqas Jilani, the Clark grad student and a Muslim Student Association organizer, also remembers Siddiqui as a compelling speaker. But somewhere along the way, he said, her message changed from relief to armed resistance.
“Once she had our attention, she switched,” Jilani said. “She wanted us to get training and go overseas and fight. I was like, ‘what?’ ”
Siddiqui also managed to talk some of the Muslim students into taking a shooting course with her, but once they got to the range, they found she had a lot to learn.
“We were all laughing like, ‘Uh-oh, Aafia’s got a gun!’ ” Jilani said. “Part of it was because she was such a bad shot, but also because she was always mouthing off about the US and the FBI being so bad and all.”
Siddiqui wasn’t laughing with them. In the mid-1990s, she took a 10-hour NRA shooting course at the Braintree Rifle & Pistol Club on her own. The instructor, who recalls she was a “reasonable shot,” declined to be identified, saying that after he testified at her 2010 trial he was brutally harassed.
Siddiqui’s newly acquired marksmanship skills presumably added luster to her resume as a budding jihadi. As Al-Kifah became increasingly anti-American in its message and openly blamed the United States for the bloodshed in Bosnia, Kohlmann said, Siddiqui appears to have embraced its violent positions. And the brothers of Al-Kifah, ever hungry for financial support, embraced her right back.
“Aafia was from a prominent family with connections and a sympathy for jihad,” Kohlmann said. “She was just what they needed.”
Mixing family life, jihad
In the spring of 1995, a smiling Siddiqui posed at the edge of the Charles River for a college graduation photograph in mortar board and gown, a string of white pearls around her neck. Her parents presented her with more than the bouquet of red roses she held in her hands: They also had a husband for her.
His name was Mohammed Amjad Khan, the son of a wealthy Pakistani family who had recently graduated from medical school in Karachi. The two had met briefly the previous year, and Khan was pleased that his parents had chosen a “religious” girl for him.
Because of complications with Siddiqui’s visa, they were married over the telephone that fall. Dressed in white shalwar pants — loose pajama-like trousers — and black waistcoat, Khan waited at a nearby mosque while Siddiqui’s father listened on a speaker phone in his Karachi living room as his daughter in the United States formally consented three times to the marriage, as required by Islamic law. The next day Khan flew to the United States.
But when he finally met his bride in Boston, he was shocked.
“I discovered that the well-being of our nascent family unit was not her prime goal in life,” Khan, an anesthesiologist in Saudi Arabia, said in a telephone interview. “Instead, it was to gain prominence in Muslim circles.”
Siddiqui, as Khan recalls it, was actively preparing to go overseas. On weekends, she regularly participated in training trips in New Hampshire with the brothers from Al-Kifah, which had changed its name to Care International after the New York bombing. She was fascinated by Islamic videos, sometimes tearing up as she watched a favorite one showing her hero Osama bin Laden eating from a simple bowl in a cave. And she begged her husband to give up his medical studies in order to serve as her “mahram,” or male traveling companion.
Siddiqui believed she was being watched. Months after the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, she told Khan that the FBI wanted to talk to her and advised him not to call her on her cellphone.
“It seemed very strange to me, but I shrugged it off,” Khan said.
The couple took up residence on Prospect Street in Cambridge, blocks from the recently opened Islamic Society of Boston’s new mosque. Islamic Society spokesmen have said they have no record that Siddiqui visited the mosque, which was reportedly frequented by other extremists, in addition to Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tsarnaev, in recent years. But Khan said the couple attended services daily.
“Aafia was very socially conservative,” recalled Pam Taylor, then a member of the Muslim Student Association at Harvard University and the wife of Arif Khalid at MIT. “She was very comfortable at the mosque, while I, as someone more liberal, was not.”
Despite mounting friction on the subject of jihad, Khan and Siddiqui soon began their family. Not long after they moved to a Malden high-rise and Khan began his residency at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Siddiqui gave birth to their first child.
Following in the footsteps of her father and sister, Siddiqui enrolled in a doctoral program in cognitive neuroscience at Brandeis in Waltham. Consumed with caring for her baby and with a mounting distaste for American culture, Siddiqui assumed a far lower profile there than she had at MIT.
Siddiqui worked in the lab of professor Robert Sekuler, pursuing an inquiry into how imitation relates to the process of learning. But, increasingly, religion began to seep into her studies. Biology professor Gina Turrigiano remembers the hijab-clad Siddiqui in her introductory neurology class in 1996 writing in a short paper how the Koran had predicted a host of biomedical advances. Turrigiano summoned Siddiqui, she said, and “made clear this was not appropriate, and she stepped back.”
But Siddiqui did it again in her second year. This time it was during student presentations before biology professor Eve Marder. Siddiqui’s subject was fetal alcohol syndrome, but halfway through her presentation she veered into an address about how the scientific paper had proven the Koran’s prohibition against alcohol to be correct. Marder walked out of the room without a word.
“She said that all of science was presaged by the Koran,” said Marder. “So I asked her, ‘Why do you have to do experiments?’ and she said, ‘To reveal the Koran’s wisdom.’ ”
At home, things were getting worse. Shortly before Siddiqui gave birth in 1998 to their second child, the couple moved to a Roxbury high-rise to be closer to Khan’s work. But Khan no longer brought colleagues home. Siddiqui, he said, wanted “only to talk about them converting to Islam. Invariably this would lead to unpleasantness, so I decided to keep my work separate.”
Even with the demands of her dissertation and two young children, Siddiqui continued her efforts to spread the Islamic faith. At the squat red-brick Mosque for the Praising of Allah on Shawmut Avenue, she established a Dawa Resource Center that provided free Islamic literature. Some of the volumes she ordered from India are still there, bound in the hopsacks in which they arrived.
But Imam Faaruuq said she never preached violence.
“This sister could be anybody,” Faaruuq said. “This country has an agenda against Islam. Once this country turns on you, this is what can happen.”
Then aligned with Care International, Siddiqui was also working to raise money for the resistance in Chechnya and Kosovo. Although her supporters say that Siddiqui never had any part in terrorist activities, Khan said that his wife was becoming militantly anti-American, angry in her conviction that the country was stifling mujahideen around the world.
“By now, all her focus had shifted to jihad against America, instead of preaching to Americans so that they all become Muslims and America becomes a Muslim land,” Khan said.
Early in 2001, Siddiqui completed her dissertation at Brandeis, titled “Separating the Components of Imitation.” In the acknowledgments, she thanked “my Creator and Sustainer, Allah, The Most Merciful, for helping me in every step of my dissertation.”
Biology professor John Lisman, a member of her dissertation committee, was impressed by her final presentation. But when he moved to offer congratulations, Lisman recalled in an e-mail, Siddiqui refused to shake his hand.
No longer required to go on campus, Siddiqui now dressed like the jihadi she had become, in a conservative black abaya. When she began agitating anew to join the jihad abroad, simmering differences with her husband erupted in physical violence, according to both sides. Siddiqui’s sister says Khan was abusive toward her. Khan, who had gotten a job at Tufts Medical Center, says it was the other way around.
“Things reached their worst stage after she finished her PhD and she had nothing to look forward to except her ambition to wage jihad,” said Khan. “Divorce had become inevitable.”
And then came Sept. 11, 2001. In the hours that followed the attacks, Siddiqui became increasingly agitated. She told her husband that she had learned something terrifying: The American government was “rounding up Muslim children and forcing them to convert to Christianity.” Adamant that she return to Pakistan, she insisted that Khan get airline tickets for her and the children, and somehow he did. Eight days after 9/11, Siddiqui and her children were on a plane headed to Karachi.
A face of Al Qaeda
The case against Aafia Siddiqui did not take long to build.
Two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind, apparently identified her as one of his accomplices. The FBI put out a global alert saying that Siddiqui, who had divorced and was believed to have remarried an Al Qaeda operative, was wanted for questioning.
Then it became official. At a press conference in May 2004, FBI Director Robert Mueller identified the seven most wanted Al Qaeda fugitives as he stood before large red and white posters of their menacing faces. The only female among them was Aafia Siddiqui, whom he identified as “an Al Qaeda operative and facilitator.” She was then the Most Wanted Woman in the World.
That woman remained at large, her whereabouts still unexplained, for nearly five years. In the summer of 2008, she was arrested in Afghanistan while holding a bag that authorities allege contained deadly poison and directions on how to make a bomb. While she was being interrogated the following day, Siddiqui is said to have picked up a rifle and shot at US agents while shouting “Death to America.” She was apparently the only one wounded in the fracas.
Eleven years after she raised her tiny fists in the air in a cramped MIT basement, Siddiqui had achieved her wish of making it on to the Most Wanted List. She may, in fact, have gotten far more than she wished for.
Sally Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.