In 2003 an MIT-educated expert in children’s learning patterns, Dr Aafia Siddiqui, disappeared with her three children in Pakistan. Was she, as the Americans said, an Al-Qaeda operative who in 2008 emerged after five years undercover, carrying a handbag full of chemicals and plans for major terror attacks in the US, and then attempted to shoot US soldiers? Or was she, as her family, and most people in Pakistan have always maintained, seized by Pakistani agents for reasons unknown?
Now new evidence of the kidnapping of Dr Siddiqui prises open part of one of the most shocking of the myriad individual stories of injustice in the war on terror. It also underlines the recklessness and perfidy of a key United States’ partner in the war on terror, which carries its own threat of explosion.
Dr Siddiqui was sentenced in a New York court last year to 86 years for attempted murder of US soldiers in Afghanistan. Her mysterious five-year disappearance before that, her reappearance in Afghanistan in 2008, her subsequent trial in the US, and the confusion surrounding all these events, have made Dr Siddiqui’s a symbolic case in much of the Muslim world. Now a senior law enforcement officer has claimed to have been involved personally on the day she was seized, with her three children, by Pakistani police agents in Karachi in March 2003 and handed over to the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI.
The FBI put out a “wanted for questioning” alert for Dr Siddiqui just before she disappeared. She was later high on the US wanted list, with the US claiming that she was living undercover as an Al-Qaeda agent. She was a "clear and present danger to the US", the then-US Attorney General John Ashcroft said in 2004. For all these years the Pakistani government repeatedly denied holding her, and after her arrest in Afghanistan in 2008 spent $2 million on US lawyers for her trial. After her conviction, the Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani committed himself to work for her return from a US prison. Dr Siddiqui had become “the daughter of the nation” and the centre of a popular cause he could not afford to ignore.
The new evidence, on a secretly recorded audio tape, is a potential earthquake in the chronically unstable political situation in Pakistan, where rage against the US runs deep and wide, especially as civilian casualties mount with the use of drone aircraft. Already the case of Aafia Siddiqui has periodically brought tens of thousands of people out on the streets in the last two and a half years in protest at what has been done to her by the United States’ military and legal systems since she reemerged, in US custody and seriously wounded, in 2008. The Pakistani media have always claimed that the ISI was responsible for her disappearance and that the Americans were involved too. The tape reopens the whole question, not just of Dr Siddiqui, but of the corroding effect of the US alliance with Pakistan’s military and intelligence elite in a war on terror which has had so many Pakistani victims. The ISI has run its own agendas, hand in glove with various US officials at various periods, ever since the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then becoming godfathers of various Afghan factions tearing that country apart. There are plenty of astute Pakistani journalists with the language skills to use this tape to the utmost to embarrass their own security services and the government.
For the US too there are questions to answer about the extensive cover-up of what happened to Dr Siddiqui and her three children -- two of whom are US citizens, and appear to have spent five traumatized years separated from their mother and from each other, in various prisons. It is scarcely credible that high officials in the Bush and Obama administrations over the years were unaware of what their troublesome allies in Pakistan had done with her and her children.
On April 21 2003, a “senior U.S. law enforcement official” told Lisa Myers of NBC Nightly News that Siddiqui was in Pakistani custody. The same source retracted the statement the next day without explanation. “At the time,” Myers told Harpers Magazine, “we thought there was a possibility perhaps he’d spoken out of turn.”
According to the Associated Press, “[t]wo federal law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, initially said 31-year-old Aafia Siddiqui recently was taken into custody by Pakistani authorities.” But later, “the US officials amended their earlier statements, saying new information from the Pakistani government made it ‘doubtful’ she was in custody.”
An FBI spokesperson also formally denied that the agency had any knowledge of Dr Siddiqui’s whereabouts, stating that the FBI was not aware that she was in any nation’s custody.
Dr Siddiqui’s mother was visited by an unknown man a few hours after her disappearance and warned to keep her mouth shut if she ever wanted to see her daughter and grandchildren again. In 2003, in a closed hearing when the FBI had subpoenaed some documents from Dr Siddiqui’s sister, an FBI official confirmed to her family that she was alive and well, but would answer no questions on her whereabouts.
The new audio evidence was secretly taped in a social situation last year; children can be heard in the background. It was given, unsolicited, to one of the many lawyers involved in Dr Siddiqui’s case in the US. The source, whose identity has been protected, told lawyers at the International Justice Network that he had made the tape after a social evening when he had heard shocking things about Pakistani counter terrorism, about the fabrication of evidence, and about Dr Siddiqui’s disappearance, discussed casually by a senior official. He felt outraged and returned for a second evening with a recorder and got some of the previous discussion repeated. “If it can help anyone I had to do it,” he said to the IJN Executive Director Tina Foster who has represented Dr Siddiqui’s family since January 2010. IJN are experienced hands in war on terror cases. They represent a number of prisoners in Bagram air base prison in Afghanistan, some of them rendered from Abu Ghraib, Dubai and Thailand by the CIA, as well as several disappeared people in Pakistan.)
The witness is a Pakistani/American and he has been extensively interviewed by IJN’s lawyers who tell me they are entirely confident of the tape’s authenticity, the source’s account and thus the identity of the prime subject.
IJN’s source says he was introduced by a mutual friend whose home he was visiting, to a man he identified to lawyers at International Justice Network as Imran Shaukat, the Superintendent of Police for Sindh province.
A full report, and the four hour tape, in Urdu, Punjabi and English, is being released by the International Justice Network in the United States at 6am EDT Monday, and can be accessed here and here with the permission of the witness. Portions of the tape concerning Dr Siddiqui were made available to this reporter and were independently translated for this article. As of midnight Sunday, EDT, this excerpt can be listened to here.
Mr Shaukat (who is voice 2 on the tape) says, “I am stationed in Karachi. I head the counter terrorism department for Sindh province.”
In the key passage in the tape for the Siddiqui case he is asked by:
Voice 1 (who is the witness): ”Did you arrest her?”
V2: “Yes, I arrested her. She wore glasses and a veil ... When she was caught she was travelling to Islamabad ... She was hobnobbing with clerics ...
V1: “ So what happened after the arrest. Did ISI ask for her custody?”
V2: “Yes, we gave her to ISI”
V1: “ISI or something else?”
V2: “ISI, so we gave her to them.”
Mr Shaukat also describes her as “stick thin” and “a psycho”, and, elsewhere as “not a handler, a minor facilitator” -- presumably for Al-Qaeda -- and he mentions a connection to Osama Bin Laden. Asked then why couldn’t she help them get Bin Laden, he replies, “Well, they are not fools. They wouldn’t inform her of their forwarding address.” And he says too about the children, “we took them with us. They were American nationals, children are American nationals, they were all born there.”
There is some discussion on the tape about the return of her daughter, Maryam. (Two unidentified voices are also heard.)
V1: Oh, another thing. They found her daughter yesterday.
V2: She’s home already.
V1: Yes, she’s home. She speaks English only. She was in the prison. She is seven or eight years old. And she only speaks English.
UM1: Eight years old?
V1: Yeah. Children were in prison and they spoke to them in American English.
UM1: Is she home?
V1: Yeah. They got her home.
V2: They were actually, I.
V2: It’s five or six months.
UM2: Is she in Karachi?
V1: She got home today, yesterday.
V2: Well, it goes back to before I came here.
V1: I read the news just yesterday, today. Maybe, in the night.
V2: It’s two or three months old.
All that has been reported in the public domain to date is that Maryam was returned a day or two before the recording. But, according to the childrens’ lawyer, Tina Foster, Mr Shaukat’s description is consistent with how Maryam was repatriated to Pakistan.
Elsewhere in the tape Imran Shaukat talks about how the Pakistani police and ISI work to “disappear” or to use people they have taken into custody. According to Amina Masood Janjua at Defence for Human Rights, there are currently about 500 people who have disappeared in Pakistan as part of the “war on terror” -- this does not include Sindhi and Balochi separatists. Part of the audio describes the doctoring or manufacturing of documents, creating false identities, using body doubles, with reference to various terrorist attacks, including Mumbai. “This is a game of double dealing, direct them right and exit left,” Mr Shaukat says at one point.
Such details are an explanation of the extraordinary litany of contradictory stories about Dr Siddiqui, including curious reported sightings by family members, that were launched into the public domain over the five years after her disappearance. In this John Le Carre world of ruthless manipulation of the vulnerable it is impossible to know how, or whether, she could have been used in counter terrorism’s goal at the time of finding Osama Bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
From other sources it has been established that Dr Siddiqui was separated from her children for the five years of her ordeal, and that the two older children, born in 1996 and 1998, were not together, but in separate prisons, and that the third child, Suleman who was six months old on the day of the disappearance, probably died then.
For nearly eight years now, manufactured confusion has surrounded the disappearance and the subsequent whereabouts of Dr Siddiqui and her three children.
The confusion only deepened with the second section of the story, which was her mysterious reappearance in 2008 in Afghanistan, and the bizarre circumstances of her being seriously wounded by two shots to the stomach by a US soldier. John Kiriakou, a retired CIA officer with extensive background in Al-Qaeda-related work told ABC News, “I don’t think we’ve captured anybody as important and as well connected as she since 2003. We knew that she had been planning, or at least involved in the planning of, a wide variety of different operations.” Such statements set the tone for the Western media on her return under arrest to the US.
Her subsequent trial in New York, ending with the 86 year sentence, is the third section, when, extraordinarily, Al-Qaeda and terrorism were not made part of the case against her which was narrowly focussed on the alleged attempted murder incident.
Dr Siddiqui’s background was an unexceptional one of a highly educated young woman from a privileged, professional family, some of them settled in the US and most of them educated in the West. She spent a decade studying at universities in Texas, and at MIT -- where she graduated in biology summa cum laude -- and at Brandeis, where she took a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. She specialized in the science of how children learn, and in addition had a class teaching dyslexic children. Besides her academic work she lived a busy life in the Muslim community in Boston, attending cake sales and auctions to raise money for Muslim refugees in the Bosnian war. She was married to a doctor from Pakistan in a classic arranged ceremony conducted by phone. The couple had two children.
Life in Boston soured when her marriage began to break down. There are reports from her professors in Boston that they saw her with bruises on her face. And her husband, Dr Amjad Khan, told Harpers Magazine reporter Petra Bartosiewicz in 2008 that his wife had once had to go to hospital after he threw a bottle at her. There are photographs of her with a deep cut across her face. She returned home to Pakistan in late 2001. In a brief reconciliation back in the US a few months later she became pregnant with her third child. On August 15, 2002, after an incident in which witnesses claim that Dr Khan pushed him, Dr Siddiqui’s father collapsed and died of a heart attack. A few days later, while Dr Siddiqui was still pregnant with their youngest child, Suleman, Amjad Khan separated from her and immediately married again. Dr Khan gave custody of the children to Dr Siddiqui on condition they received an exclusively Islamic education
Dr Khan came under FBI suspicion in May 2002 for various items purchased by him on the internet when the couple were living in Boston. He said they were for big game hunting, and he was not arrested, but both he and his wife had come under suspicion.
In March, 2003, a global alert went out with both of them wanted for questioning by the FBI. A few weeks after Aafia Siddiqui disappeared, her husband had a four-hour interview with US and Pakistani agents, and US suspicions of Dr Khan were dropped. About two months later Dr Khan travelled to Saudi Arabia for some time.
Dr Khan told Harpers Magazine (“The Intelligence factory – how America makes its enemies disappear”, by CounterPunch contributor Petra Bartosiewicz) that his “contacts in the agencies” informed him then that Siddiqui had gone underground. He went on to say that he had no idea where his children were -- a claim he would later contradict. He also told Harpers that he and his driver saw Siddiqui in a taxi in Karachi in 2005. But they did not follow her. After her arrest in 2008 Mr Khan told a reporter from the Pakistani daily News that he thought his former wife was an “extremist” and that of course she had been on the run. After Ms Bartosiewicz left Pakistan, she had an email from Dr Khan saying that he had received “confidential good news” from the ISI that Mariam and Suleman were “alive and well” with their aunt Fowzia. (In fact at that point one was in prison and the other was dead.)
Dr Siddiqui’s disappearance in March 2003 came amid a feverish whirl of arrests and disappearances in Pakistan, including Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, who has claimed to have been the mastermind of 9/11, and many other Al-Qaeda related attacks, and has been named as the killer of US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. Khaled Sheikh Mohammad was important enough to the Americans to be water-boarded 183 times. Shortly after Dr Siddiqui’s disappearance, Khaled Sheikh Mohammad’s nephew, Ammar Baluchi, was arrested in connection with 9/11. The two men were taken to Guantanamo Bay, then to various CIA-run secret prisons known as “black sites” for torture, before being returned to Guantanamo Bay.
US officials then had Dr Siddiqui on an Al-Qaeda “wanted” list and linked her to Baluchi, claiming he was her second husband. Her family, and other sources in Pakistan have denied the marriage, but it remains probably the most repeated detail about her and the one that has given her an indelible image as a terrorist. This was not the only lurid story about her -- she was also alleged in a UN report to have been a courier of blood diamonds from Liberia for Al Qaeda with a sighting reported there in June 2001. Her lawyer, Elaine Sharp stated that Dr Siddiqui had been in Boston at that time and she could prove it. That story died away, but the further damage to her reputation was done.
For five years nothing sure was in the public domain about what happened to her and the children, though the rumours grew, turning her into a tragic martyr for many, or a poster for Al-Qaeda ruthlessness for others. Several former detainees at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan claimed to have seen her there, while US officials quoted in WikiLeaks denied she had been.
A senior Pakistani journalist, Najeed Ahmed, followed the story for five years and reported witness testimony of someone who claimed to have been part of the arresting team, which he said was a joint operation with the FBI. (Mr Ahmed made a public statement about his research in 2009, but died the next day, reportedly of a heart attack.)
In mid-July 2008 Pakistanti lawyers filed a habeas corpus for Dr Siddiqui in Islamabad. And within days, in Act 2 of the drama, Aafia Siddiqui reappeared, in Ghazni, in Afghanistan, allegedly carrying in her handbag chemicals, instructions for making biological weapons, and plans for terrorist strikes with mass casualties in the US. She was then involved in a shooting incident in a police station in Ghazni in which she was badly wounded by a US soldier. It is uncontested that she was seated behind a curtain in a small room, where, according to the US soldiers, one of them put down his gun and she came from behind the curtain, seized it and attempted to shoot. She says she merely looked round the curtain. None of the soldiers or FBI personnel present were hurt, but she was hospitalized with two shots in her abdomen and brought under arrest to the US.
Act 3 was her trial in New York for attempted murder of soldiers and FBI agents with an M4 rifle, picked up from the floor near a US soldier. There were no charges of terrorism or Al-Qaeda links.
Dr Siddiqui had a tangle of high-flying legal teams, several of whom were not on good terms. Her first court-appointed lawyer, Liz Fink, a famous New York political lawyer, withdrew, and the second team appointed by the court, was headed by Dawn Cardi, an expert in matrimonial and family law. The lawyers funded by the Pakistani government were led by Linda Moreno, an attorney with successful experiences in two high- profile war on terror-related cases, those of Professor Sami Al-Arian and Ghassan Elashi, and who is a Guantanamo Bay defence lawyer with security clearance. Ms Moreno is also known for earlier political work as one of the lawyers for the American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier. Her team included Charles Swift, formerly a military defender of Guantanamo detainees who made a reputation as a critic of the Military Commission system, and Elaine Sharp.
Even the narrow grounds of the case on the shooting was full of curiosities and contradictions: there was no physical evidence on the gun of Dr Siddiqui having held it, no bullet casings from it or holes in the walls of the small room where it took place, except from the other gun which wounded her. Defence counsel made two visits to Afghanistan to get the forensic evidence, which could, and should, have got the whole case dismissed. Linda Moreno described the defence forensic case as “very compelling, with no physical evidence whatsoever that she ever touched the gun ... no DNA, no fingerprints, no bullets recovered, no bullet holes.” The military and FBI witnesses, Ms Moreno said, contradicted each other, and under cross-examination even contradicted their own earlier stories. She went on to say that “the government wanted to scare the jury with stories of her alleged terrorist past, and steered away from the actual case.”
One key piece of evidence was not in the trial and only emerged from WikiLeaks, which revealed a Defense Department report that was not released by the military, so was unavailable as evidence in Dr Siddiqui’s defence. The incident report does not say Dr Siddiqui fired the gun she is alleged to have snatched and fired, merely that she "pointed" it. “Six American soldiers took the stand -- powerful testimony for a jury. I argued, what happened at the front, stays at the front. The WikiLeaks document would have added to my argument about the dubious credibility of the soldiers,” Ms Moreno told me.
Dr Siddiqui’s relations with her lawyers were impossibly difficult and she tried repeatedly to fire them. Most never saw her except in court. Linda Moreno told me, “She was clearly damaged -- extraordinarily frail, very tiny. It broke my heart when Aafia did not trust anyone, me, the other lawyers ... although I could understand it. She reminded me of American/Indian resisters I worked with way back ... her resistance was clearly to the legal process and she saw all the attorneys as part of that process.”
Against the lawyers’ strongest advice, Dr Siddiqui spoke in court herself. She said that she had been tortured, and rendered to the US, and that her children were also tortured in “the secret prison”. The government never rebutted these allegations. But she lost the jury, who looked openly sceptical. “Sadly, she came over as sometimes arrogant and capricious, and sometimes rambling” according to Ms Moreno. Another observer said, “she was very articulate, intelligent, well-spoken, and people mistook that for well functioning.”
With so much confected fear and prejudice against her going back years, a media that did not hold back in its characterization of her as Al- Qaeda Mommy, and the impact of six soldiers testifying against her, a New York jury’s guilty verdict was probably a foregone conclusion. But Judge Berman’s sentence that would put her away for life, was not. Ms Moreno described the event: “in my 30 years of trials I have never seen anything like what happened on sentencing day -- the judge walked into court and handed out pre-printed power point presentations on how he had come to decide on 86 years ...”
Two veteran lawyers not connected with this case, but with extensive experience in other cases related to the war on terror, described the sentence, respectively, as “extraordinary”, “ridiculous ... outrageous”, and one described the case as “absolutely full of holes.” An appeal is planned.
Meanwhile part of the story of the missing five years is in the heads of two of her three children -- the two older ones who are US citizens. When they emerged -- separately -- in Pakistan, they were reunited with Dr Siddiqui’s mother, and her sister , Fowzia, who is a Harvard-trained child psychiatrist and neurologist, in Karachi. They have never told their stories, but even the little that is known hints at the horror this family has lived through.
The older one, Ahmed, then aged 12, told his aunt that he only met his mother the day after she was picked up in Ghazni, and that he did not recognize her after five years apart. Fuzzy film footage of them together being questioned in a press conference the day after his mother was found, has long circulated on the internet. This was the morning before the shooting incident.
Ahmed remembers nothing about what happened to him next, only that he was visited by a US consular official in Afghanistan who told him that he was a US citizen. The official also told him that his brother, Suleman, was dead.
Ahmed remembers being taken out of the taxi where he was with his mother and siblings five years before, and remembers, before he lost consciousness, seeing the baby, six month old Suleman, lying in the road and bleeding. Ahmed, told his aunt that he had been called Ali, and several other different names, while he was in custody, and that when he was told his name now was Ahmed, he knew that meant he was going to be moved again. She initially reported that he was suffering from PTSD and that he needed extensive psychological help.
His sister Maryam, reappeared nearly two years later, in April 2010. She spoke perfect English with an American accent and no Urdu. She was simply dropped off outside the family home in Karachi with a note on a string around her neck. At some stage the Afghan prime minister Hamid Karzai was contacted by the family for help in getting both children back.
There are very powerful vested interests that have worked to prevent Dr Siddiqui from ever giving an account that would be believed of what happened to her. The same interests are still at work trying to prevent the two children from ever becoming witnesses in this back story of the war on terror. Late last year a kidnap attempt was made on the children, despite the family home being guarded by armed Pakistani police 24 hours a day. Two men, carrying firearms and holding big sacks, were found behind the door of the children’s bedroom by their grandmother. The men ran off when she screamed, and were driven away by a waiting car nearby, before the police guards to the house could catch them.
The release of the tape gives a lever to Pakistani public opinion and Pakistani opposition politicians such as Imran Khan, who have long supported the family, towards forcing an end to this sinister ordeal, with the return home of Dr Siddiqui.
And there is another lever just now. Tina Foster of IJN has written to the Interior Minister Mr Rehman Malik, reminding him that in over a year of meetings he has been promising to help in Dr Siddiqui’s repatriation. The letter says that now, when the US is demanding the return of the US government employee Raymond Davis, held after a shooting incident in Pakistan in which he is alleged to have killed two men, is the government’s best ever chance to negotiate an exchange. The new threat by some congressmen to withhold aid from Pakistan if he is not returned, Hilary Clinton cancelling a meeting with Pakistan’s foreign minister, and the report of possible espionage charges against Davis, ratchet up a pressure that could change the prospects for Dr Siddiqui.
Whether Dr Siddiqui will ever be able to tell the full story of what happened to her over five years is another question. It is hard to imagine making anything close a recovery from such multiple personal and family trauma, in which she was isolated from every solid link with her past identity. Did the ISI use her, or her identity, on errands to Al-Qaeda? “A minor facilitator”, as the tape calls her? The contradictions in her own reported words, such as allegedly telling FBI agents while she was in a military hospital shot through the stomach and in restraints, that she was indeed married to the notorious Khaled Sheikh Mohammad’s nephew Baluchi, are manifold, but not any guide to the truth.
In her initial weeks in a US prison in Brooklyn she exhibited deeply disturbed behaviour such as saying she was saving her food for her children. Her mental state has since deteriorated and is very unpredictable, according to lawyer Elaine Sharp who has visited her several times. She is now incarcerated in solitary confinement in the Carswell Federal Medical Centre at Fort Worth, Texas, the only US prison medical facility for women. She has no contact with the outside world. Three of the four prison psychiatrists who interviewed her for the court said they believed she was “malingering” and that her mental illness was faked. But, given the record of some doctors’ contribution to government work in the war on terror, it is hard to find this persuasive in the face of the known facts of her separation from her children in traumatic circumstances, her long isolation, and the documented brutal procedures of the ISI in many other cases.
In the US none of the lawyers, doctors, politicians and intelligence agents who devised and participated in the horrors done to so many individuals as part of the war on terror, have paid any price in public for it. But in this case there is the force of public opinion in Pakistan which will demand nothing less than public trials of those responsible for ordering Dr Siddiqui’s kidnapping, as well as those who carried it out, and were part of the vast charade that has been played with her over those years.
Victoria Brittain is a former associate foreign editor of the Guardian, and a Patron of Cageprisoners. Her books include Hidden Lives, Hidden Deaths and Death of Dignity. She has spent much of her working life in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.