Who Is the Woman Known as 'Lady Al-Qaida?'

Dr. Aafia Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence in a U.S. prison; the Islamic State and the Taliban are prepared to free hostages to get her released.

Aafia Siddiqui while in custody in Afghanistan.
Aafia Siddiqui while in custody in Afghanistan.Credit: AP

Before brutally beheading American journalist James Foley two weeks ago, the radical Islamic State group offered to release him in return for a ransom and the freeing of a Pakistani woman held in the United States.

"We have also offered prisoner exchanges to free the Muslims currently in your detention, like our sister Dr. Aafia Siddiqui," the group wrote in a message to Foley's employer. The Obama administration rejected the offer.

Following Foley's execution, IS again tried to secure Siddiqui's release, this time in exchange for the freedom of a 26-year-old woman who was kidnapped in Syria in 2013 while doing humanitarian work. It is not known if there has been any response.

There have also been news reports that the Taliban asked for Siddiqui's release in the deal earlier this year that saw the release of U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl. In that instance, the United States released five senior Taliban operatives, but not Siddiqui.

So who is Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, the woman who radical Islamists are so eager to see released from American custody?

Dubbed "Lady Al-Qaida" and once described as the world’s most wanted woman, Aafia Siddiqui, 42, is a Pakistan-born, U.S.-educated neuroscientist who was sentenced to 86 years in a U.S. prison in 2010 after being convicted of attempted murder.

Born in Karachi to an upper-middle class family (her mother served in the Pakistani parliament), she moved to the United States to continue her education, eventually earning a PhD in neuroscience from Brandeis University.

She and her first husband, Amjad Mohammed Khan, an anesthetist, left the United States in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and returned to Pakistan. The couple divorced in late 2002, due to the growing extremism of her views, according to Khan.

“I was aware of Aafia’s violent personality and extremist views and suspected her of involvement in Jihadi activities,” Khan said in a newspaper interview two years ago.

Her next husband, according to Western sources, was Ammar al-Baluchi, nephew of 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Her family denies that the marriage ever happened. Baluchi is currently in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, accused of being one of the moneymen behind the 9/11 attacks.

Siddiqui and her three children fell off the radar in 2003 and were not seen again until 2008, when she was arrested in Afghanistan. There is intense speculation regarding her whereabouts during those five years. Her family believes she was held in a secret American prison at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, while her former husband believes she was detained in Pakistan.

When detained in Afghanistan in 2008, she was carrying plans for a “mass casualty attack” at U.S. sites, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. It’s also alleged she had documents related to using the Ebola virus as a weapon, and instructions on how to make chemical weapons.

When eventually charged in the United States, it was not for terrorism but for attempted murder: attempting to shoot Americans who were questioning her in Afghanistan. She denies the charges.

She is currently held at the Federal Medical Centre in Carswell, Texas, which houses female prisoners with mental health issues. Her release date is 2083.

Siddiqui's family, while calling for her release, are disassociating her and themselves from the jihadist attempts to secure her freedom.

“While we deeply appreciate the sincere feelings of those who, like us, wish to see the freedom of our beloved Aafia, we cannot agree with a ‘by any means necessary’ approach to Aafia’s freedom," the family said in a letter published by ABC News. "Nor can we accept that someone else’s daughter or sister suffer like Aafia is suffering.”

A petition to the White House demanding that she be repatriated to Pakistan, reached 100,000 signatures earlier this month – meaning the White House has to respond to the petition.

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