In a propaganda tape released last week, entitled, “Who Will Avenge the Scientist Aafia Siddiqui,” Ayman al Zawahiri called on Pakistanis to “take the only available path, that of jihad ... which will liberate Aafia Siddiqui.” The woman lionized by Zawahiri is not a real person, but instead an anti-American myth who has garnered widespread sympathy in Pakistan.
The real Aafia Siddiqui, who was sentenced to 86 years in prison for attempting to shoot American officials, has been dubbed “Lady al Qaeda” by the press – and for good reason. She was part of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s network and helped plot new attacks on American soil after September 11. In fact, the FBI issued a “Seeking Information Alert” in March 2003 after KSM identified her during CIA-led interrogations and debriefings as one of his coconspirators.
Siddiqui took Ammar al Baluchi, KSM’s nephew, as her second husband in 2003. Baluchi helped KSM plot the 9/11 attacks and was working on various other plots when he was captured a few months after their marriage. One of the plots involved a former U.S. resident named Majid Khan, who wanted to sneak back into the U.S. to attack gas stations on the East Coast. According to a biography of Baluchi released by Department of Defense, Baluchi directed Siddiqui “to travel to the United States to prepare paperwork to ease Majid Khan’s deployment to the United States” in 2002.
According to an indictment prepared by U.S. prosecutors, Siddiqui was carrying all sort of incriminating items when she was captured in July 2008. Siddiqui had “various documents, various chemicals, and a computer thumb drive, among other things” in her possession when she was arrested. Handwritten notes she was carrying referred to a “mass casualty attack” and listed “various locations in the United States, including Plum Island, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, and the Brooklyn Bridge.”
In addition, according to the indictment, “certain notes referred to the construction of ‘dirty bombs,’ chemical and biological weapons, and other explosives.” The notes “discussed mortality rates associated with certain of these weapons and explosives.” Still other notes “referred to various ways to attack ‘enemies,’ including by destroying reconnaissance drones, using underwater bombs, and using gliders.” Siddiqui’s computer thumb drive contained “correspondence that referred to specific ‘cells’ and ‘attacks’ by certain ‘cells,’” as well as documents discussing “recruitment and training.”
That’s the real Aafia Siddiqui, the MIT-educated woman who conspired with al Qaeda.
The mythological Aafia Siddiqui, the one who Zawahiri wants Pakistanis to avenge, is a victim of the American-led war on terror. Al Qaeda did not invent the myth, but it does seek to capitalize on it.
The stories invented about Siddiqui are too numerous to detail all of them here, but the most popular one has her being captured long before July 2008 (when she was really captured by U.S. forces), imprisoned at Bagram, and tortured. There is no evidence to back any of that up, yet many believe it.
Siddiqui has become so mythologized in Pakistanis’ minds that when she was sentenced in September by a New York court, Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani lobbied for her repatriation to “improve the US image in Pakistan.”
“We all are united, and we want the daughter of the nation to come back to Pakistan,” he told the Pakistani parliament, according to Dawn. “I fought for her, my lawyer fought for her and now I will take up this matter on a political level,” Gilani added.
The Siddiqui myth is therefore so pervasive that a high-level Pakistani official feels it is necessary to lobby on her behalf.
As best as I can tell, the U.S. has no real effort underway to combat the spread of the Siddiqui myth, or a host of other anti-American myths. And the lack of a concerted campaign to fight back means that America is conceding the information war in important ways. It means that rampant anti-Americanism inside Pakistan goes unchecked even as U.S. taxpayers pour billions of dollars of aid into the nation.
And so we find Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s “number two,” lamenting Siddiqui’s fate and calling on Pakistanis to take up jihad on her behalf.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.