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How Aafia Saddiqui's case relates to the hostage taking incident in Texas


Police in Great Britain have announced they've arrested two more individuals in connection with a Texas synagogue attack. When a gunman took four people hostage last Saturday, including the rabbi, at Congregation Beth Israel near Fort Worth, he invoked the name of Aafia Siddiqui. She's a Pakistani neuroscientist who attended MIT and earned her doctorate at Brandeis. But in 2010, Siddiqui was convicted of attempting to kill American soldiers and officials while in Afghanistan. She's now serving an 86-year sentence in federal prison in Texas.

Last Saturday, those synagogue hostages managed to flee, and the gunman, a British man named Malik Akram, was killed. But authorities are still trying to piece together the man's motive and how Aafia Siddiqui's cause fits into it. I talked with Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, about that connection.

Michael, it's been years since we've even heard her name come up, so were you surprised to hear her name invoked?

MICHAEL KUGELMAN: Well, unfortunately, it wasn't too much of a surprise, just because over the last decade or so, a number of extremists, terrorists, militants, radicals have invoked her name and tried to champion her cause. I mean, there have been several different terrorist groups that have demanded that she be released in return for U.S. captives. So in that sense, the fact that you would have this individual, who appears to be an extremist who came to the United States and did what he did - unfortunately, it's not the first time that someone like that has called for her release.

Now, there have been - she has a number of supporters, Siddiqui, that are not radicals, are not militants. They're very mainstream. They're very peaceful. They don't want their cause to be hijacked by the types of people that have, in fact, tried to bring attention to her cause. But, yeah, Aafia Siddiqui - the name is certainly not very well-known in the United States. But within the network of Islamist militants, it's actually a household name.

MARTÍNEZ: Why is she still relevant today, though?

KUGELMAN: Well, it depends on the context. I think that for the militants and the radicals that feel so strongly about her, her story really feeds this victimization narrative that fuels the causes and actions of many Islamist militants - the idea being that Muslims are under siege by hostile actors and that they require supports. Now, for her more mainstream supporters, they see her as a symbol of the injustices of the U.S. legal system. They believe that she's been treated very poorly in her federal prison in Texas. And so these are the types of reasons why her cause has been kept alive by a lot of different types of individuals and groups.

MARTÍNEZ: We've seen that the British intelligence services have said the attacker was known to them. We've also seen reports of extremist British cleric Anjem Choudary recently urging supporters to help free Siddiqui. Is there a connection between the synagogue attacker and this cleric?

KUGELMAN: Well, I think at this point it's too early to know. Though, you know, naturally, once it became known that the synagogue attacker was British and had been based in the U.K., I mean, I myself and many others immediately thought of Anjem Choudary just because he is this very notorious hatemonger who has, indeed, as you suggest, brought attention to Siddiqui and has sought to have her released. But I think at this point, it's too early to know if there are any links between that person and this - and the person that attacked the synagogue. The investigation will make that clear.

But the bottom line is that they're just - they're - unfortunately, there are many extremists and people with nasty views that have tried to take up the cause of Siddiqui. And I emphasize, there are others that are not extremists, are not radicals, that want to bring attention to her cause for very different reasons. But unfortunately, there are a lot of bad actors out there that have sought to take a very strong position on Siddiqui's case.

MARTÍNEZ: And just wondering then - I know that the attacker came from the U.K., where there's a large Pakistani population. Is Aafia Siddiqui's name tied to any other attacks in Britain or somewhere else?

KUGELMAN: No, not that I know of. And it is notable that there have been a few cases in Pakistan of terrorist organizations carrying out attacks on the Pakistani state and have been justified on this idea that Pakistan's government did not do enough to protect Siddiqui, who, of course, again, is from Pakistan. And there is one case of an al-Qaida affiliate that had been accused of trying to plot an actual attack in the United States to try to free her. In other words, there had been an operation that had been plotted in which somehow something would be done to actually get her out of that prison in Texas. Obviously, nothing came of it. But, you know, clearly, it's very troubling when you hear that dangerous organizations have tried to hijack this cause and have tried to do things to bring attention to her plight. So - and I think what happened here in the U.S. the other day is a reminder of how dangerous this phenomenon is.

MARTÍNEZ: And that attention that her cause is getting - I know Siddiqui's lawyer condemned the violence on the synagogue this past weekend, but she is serving a sentence of 86 years. Considering the attention this case has gotten, do you think Washington will ever release her, or does she even have a possibility of parole?

KUGELMAN: Well, it's interesting. That - back in 2014, Siddiqui had actually requested that she not pursue her last appeal of her conviction, and a U.S. judge granted that request. And, you know, as I understand it, her reasoning was that she had no faith in the U.S. legal system, and she didn't want to participate in it. And this is - you know, this is the type of defiance that really animates many of her supporters.

But, no, the chances of Siddiqui being released before what happened at the Texas synagogue were slim to none. And I think now it's even more unlikely that that would happen just because, you know, if there were to be even the suggestion with anyone in the U.S. government of receptivity to looking into the possibility of an early release or a swap or whatever the case may be, that would be perceived as essentially giving in to the demand of this extremist that stormed a synagogue in the U.S. and took hostages. So my sense is that I would be utterly flabbergasted if she were to be released. And at the end of the day, you know, U.S. officials - successive U.S. governments - believe unequivocally that Siddiqui is an unrepentant terrorist and that she must stay behind bars at all costs.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Michael Kugelman from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Michael, thank you.

KUGELMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUVAL TIMOTHY'S "PINK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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