In July 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Washington and told the Americans that Pakistan would like to exchange terror-convict Aafia Siddiqui, serving a long sentence in America, for Shakeel Afridi, also serving a long sentence in Pakistan for “sneaking” on Osama bin Laden — and thus helping the Americans kill Laden in Abbottabad in 2011.
Why should Pakistan ask for Siddiqui back? An MIT-trained Pakistani neuroscientist, she “was accused by the United Nations and the United States of being an al Qaeda member and named one of the seven most wanted al Qaeda figures by the FBI”, according to veteran Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain in his book, The Scorpion’s Tail (2010).
Hussain writes: “Aafia had disappeared from Karachi in March 2003 after the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with whom she had close ties. After divorcing her first husband in 2003, she had married a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who himself was later arrested and sent to the US government’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp.” That she was “adopted” by al Qaeda and its subsidiaries was clear going by the number of terrorist acts after which demands for her release were raised.
Khan should have realised that he was asking for the release of a terrorist whose backers had killed Pakistanis to vent their anger at her arrest. In March 2012, two policemen were killed in Peshawar. In 2013, the “fidayeen” attack on the Judicial Complex in Peshawar killed four and injured 50-plus — and it was done by the known Aafia Siddiqui Brigade. The brigade is an outfit of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in revolt against the state, has reportedly been doing this for al Qaeda.
In December 2010, a top al Qaeda ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi released a propaganda tape calling on Muslims to wage jihad to avenge Siddiqui. In July 2011, the TTP’s deputy Ameer Commander, Waliur Rehman Mehsud said he had ordered the kidnapping of a Swiss couple in Balochistan who would only be released if the Americans freed Siddiqui. Waliur Rehman said that the Swiss couple had not been tortured, but if Siddiqui was not freed, a Taliban court will decide the fate of the couple. In April 2012, the Afghan Taliban too got into the act, demanding $1 million and the release of 20 Afghan prisoners along with Siddiqui in exchange for the release of an American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, who had been taken hostage in June 2009 in Afghanistan.
A certain Dr Usman, leading a 10-member gang of “fidayeen” terrorists, attacked the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the army in Rawalpindi in October 2009. Holding the heart of the Pakistan army under siege, the assailants presented a list of demands: Release a hundred Pakistani and Afghan Taliban commanders being held by the security forces; and release a woman named Aafia Siddiqui facing trial in a New York court charged with attempting to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan.
At the other end of the spectrum, Hein Kiessling in his 2016 book, Faith Unity Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan, writes: “Dr Afridi was sentenced to 33 years’ imprisonment by a special tribunal, for his cooperation with the CIA in the detection of Osama bin Laden. His release, which will still take some time, would most probably be in exchange for the US-imprisoned physician Dr Aafia Siddiqui.”
No doubt, PM Khan is swayed by some crazy TV advocates of this “daughter of Pakistan”. One such advocate is Zaid Hamid, whose rants on TV had to be ended because of the sheer disconnect from the Pakistani reality. Hamid came on TV to tell Pakistan why Americans were after Siddiqui. This was his crazy quilt of lies: She was a neurologist who had biological weapons’ knowledge that the Americans were afraid of, and that her Indian MIT students were complicit in the frame-up and even went to question her in jail in Afghanistan. He even asserted that her children were killed by the Americans while the fact is, that they are with her family in Karachi.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 21, 2019 under the title ‘Tale of two prisoners’. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan.