Opinion |

Behind Texas Synagogue Standoff: Jihadi Violence, Pakistani Politics and Raging Antisemitism

The Texas hostage-taker tried to free Aafia Siddiqui from U.S. prison. Why she inspires such dangerous fans is a story about Islamism, Pakistan's duplicity, open antisemitism and apologists for terror, from Islamabad to the U.S.

Rally demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, convicted of two counts of attempted murder and  currently being detained in the U.S. during International Women's Day in Karachi, Pakistan last year
Rally demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, convicted of two counts of attempted murder and currently being detained in the U.S. during International Women's Day in Karachi, Pakistan last yearCredit: AP Photo/Fareed Khan

Why would a U.K. citizen travel to Texas and target a synagogue, taking Jews hostage, for the sake of a convicted terrorist who is also a Pakistani national hero?

The story of Aafia Siddiqui, and her zealous fans, is a long saga about the intersection of Islamist violence, Pakistani politics, antisemitism and the relentlessness of apologists for terror, from Islamabad to the United States.

Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British man from Blackburn, perpetrated a jihadist attack targeting the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas last Saturday. Before being shot dead by an FBI rescue team, the attacker had taken four hostages and demanded the release of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, whom the jihadist called "my sister" during the failed raid.

Since 2010, Siddiqui has been serving an 86-year sentence in a Fort Worth prison for shooting U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Before her arrest in Afghanistan in 2008, she luxuriated in the titles of "Lady Al-Qaida" (for her numerous connections with the group) and the "world’s most wanted woman." Despite all this, every single Pakistani regime since Siddiqui’s arrest has made her release a rallying cry.

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Siddiqui’s links to Al-Qaida and Jaish-e-Muhammad, a terrorist group with ties to al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, have been well established by Afghan, Pakistani and U.S. intelligence. When she was first detained in Afghanistan, she was said to be carrying plans for a "mass casualty attack" at U.S. sites, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, documents related to weaponizing the Ebola virus as a weapon, and instructions on how to make chemical weapons.

An aerial view of police in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas where Faisal Akram held hostages for more than 10 hours Credit: AP Photo/Brandon Wade

Siddiqui confirmed in confessions to the FBI that her second marriage was to Ammar al-Baluchi – the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad’s nephew. Al-Baluchi was arrested soon after for plotting a bombing campaign in Karachi and U.S. attacks; Siddiqui assisted him with planning the latter. He is now a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay.

Following her U.S. terror conviction, then-Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani dubbed Aafia Siddiqui "Daughter of the Nation," and that honorific was formally bestowed upon her by a 2018 Senate resolution during the incumbent Imran Khan regime.

The issue was such a national priority that, in his sole White House meeting with President Donald Trump in 2019, Khan offered a prisoner exchange, swapping Aafia Siddiqui for Shakil Afridi, the doctor who helped the U.S. track down Osama bin Laden and who is serving a 33 year jail sentence in an unknown location in Pakistan. It was an exchange initially suggested by the U.S. in 2012 but, at the time, categorically rejected by Pakistan.

Of course, no one in Islamabad would want to allude to the fact that Siddiqui herself was actually arrested by Pakistani security agencies as a terrorism suspect in 2003. She remained a wanted terrorist in Pakistan between 2003 and 2008, when she was arrested by the Afghanistan police over a bombing plot in Ghazni province, before shooting at U.S. army and FBI officials during their investigation of her case.

Indeed, mental gymnastics is the preferred vocation of the Pakistani leadership, and Imran Khan has now taken them to new heights by. Islamabad’s bizarre duplicity on Siddiqui is both familiar and even understated when one considers that Khan loudly called Osama Bin Laden a "martyr" in parliament, and lauded the Taliban for "breaking the shackles of slavery" while leading a country that has taken over $33 billion from the U.S. to uphold that "slavery."

Social media posts in support of the release of Aafia SiddiquiCredit: Twitter

While domestic Islamist parties have rallied for her release over the past 14 years, Siddiqui’s name doesn’t only resonate in Pakistan. Vows to avenge Siddiqui, and offers to exchange prisoners with her, have come from major global jihadist outfits, including the Taliban, Al-Qaida, and ISIS, with attacks being orchestrated as a persuasive tactic towards this aim. Indeed, 57 people have already been killed over the years by jihadis seeking Siddiqui's release.

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, known as the Pakistani Taliban, a jihadist group responsible for years of bloodshed within the country, even formed an "Aafia Siddiqui Brigade" dedicated to her release.

In addition to jihadists, radical Islamist preachers, even in the West, have rallied behind Siddiqui as a symbol of the West’s alleged victimization of Muslims. Even nominally non-Islamist Muslim representative groups, like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), have designated advocacy days for Siddiqui and not for any of the many other Muslims, including women, being denied fundamental rights in American prisons.

And once we start scratching the surface of why Aafia Siddiqui has attracted such vehement backers, from terrorist groups who celebrate suicide bombers to apparently mainstream advocacy groups, we’ll also find the reason as to why the Texas synagogue became the target of the jihadist maneuver designed to free her.

Aafia Siddiqui’s vocal support for jihad was evident in her early years in the early 1990s as an undergraduate student at the University of Houston. Before being involved in the web of global jihad post 9/11, she had raised funds for al-Kifah, which was linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Her long-standing ideological support for jihad against infidels – and the desire to make America a ‘Muslim land’ – is well-documented and corroborated. And that’s precisely what has made her the poster girl for the Islamist cause in the West.

By deeming any crackdown on jihad sympathizers or any counterterror measures in the West as ‘Islamophobic,’ no matter that they are also undertaken by Muslim states, many groups seek to shield an Islamist network that rests on jihadist ideology.

In Aafia Siddiqui, they’ve found the ideal representation of their ideas and ambitions, but also an ideal poster child for what they consider systematic injustice against Muslims, someone with a sufficient buffer of ‘inconclusive evidence’ to delink her – and in turn themselves – from Islamic terrorism.

And the Congregation Beth Israel terror raid, along with the reaction to it, perfectly epitomizes this.

In addition to its relatively close physical proximity to the prison where Siddiqui is being held, the synagogue was chosen for the attack as hat-tip to her virulently antisemitic beliefs, which are an inevitable baggage of Islamism.

In her trial, Siddiqui maintained she was actually being targeted by Israel, citing the conspiracy theories which are second nature to all jihadists, claiming the verdict came "from Israel and not from America."

Siddiqui wanted jury members to be "genetically tested" for signs of being "Jewish or Zionist" and if found, that they be removed. Likewise, she serially asked to fire her own lawyers because they were Jewish (despite her defense counsel being paid for to the tune of $2 million by the Pakistani government).

In a letter to Barack Obama, she wrote that Jews are "cruel, ungrateful, backstabbing… [which is] why ‘holocausts’ keep happening to them repeatedly." She even cited Quranic verses asking Muslims to "not take Jews and Christians as allies," while deriding Pakistan for allying with the U.S. to capture the 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. Almost laughably, Siddiqui’s trial lawyer claimed her client was "not antisemitic but pro-Palestinian."

So how did the so-called ‘representative’ and certainly high-profile Muslim organization CAIR respond to the synagogue attack?

While it condemned it, they obviously did so without calling it out as a jihadist attack. Instead, CAIR’s statement makes it appear as though a deliberate attack on a synagogue in the name of a prominent antisemitic jihad sympathizer (if not jihadist) is incomprehensible, even when synagogues, from Paris to Istanbul, Djerba to Copenhagen, have been consistent targets of Islamist terror. CAIR, hence, is also unlikely to address its own antisemitic or jihadist roots, which prompted even the UAE to list it as a terrorist group.

Populist leaders in the Muslim world who push an Islamist narrative studded with antisemitic tropes, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan’s Imran Khan (who likes to equate caricatures of Muhammad with the Holocaust) do so in the name of "protecting" Muslims. Groups like CAIR in the West are their back-up. Meanwhile, jihadist attacks on Jews will continue to be glorified as "resistance" – to Jewish plots or Zionist imperialism – across the globe.

And Islamist ideologues like Aafia Siddiqui, 'living martyr,' folk hero, al-Qaida operative and prisoner number 90279-054, will continue to boost that antisemitic jihad, whether or not they are the ones actually pulling the trigger.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Foreign Policy, Courrier International, New Statesman, The Telegraph , MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune

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