Read It Now: Wanted Women—Faith, Lies and The War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui.
Photo: AP Photo/FBI
A welcome respite from the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric in post-9/11 international affairs is Deborah Scroggins’ eagerly anticipated Wanted Women: Faith, Lies and The War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui (Harper Collins). The book, which grew out of a 2005 article forVogue (below) chronicles the wildly divergent, oddly parallel destinies of two women raised in Islam: the Somali-born author (and former member of the Dutch parliament) Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who became famous—or infamous, depending on one’s point of view—as a scathing critic of Islam and a champion of the West; and the MIT-educated Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who was linked to Al Qaeda and disappeared for several years before she was eventually captured and convicted, in a New York courtroom, of attempted murder. Highly intelligent, ambitious, and seemingly motivated by an intriguing mix of idealism and self-interest (and perhaps self-delusion), both women have become figureheads of sorts—on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.Emma’s War author Scroggins has a gift for locating the complex human narratives behind the all-too-reductive headlines, and here she captures the critical disconnect between the West’s perception of Islam and its multifaceted reality—at the heart of which is a lightning-rod issue: the status of women. “In the mirror symmetry operating here, the jihadis claimed that they weren’t really fighting to maintain their control over women but rather to throw off Western dominance. Right-wing Westerners, meanwhile, claimed that they weren’t fighting to maintain Western dominance but to liberate Muslim women,” concludes Scroggins. “Women like Ayaan and Aafia became symbols in battles that were really about other things.” Currently, Hirsi Ali is married to the historian Niall Ferguson, with whom she has an infant son; Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence in Fort Worth, Texas.
“The Most Wanted Woman in the World” by Deborah Scroggins was originally published as an Upfront in the March 2005 issue ofVogue.
Aafia Siddiqui, a 33-year-old Boston neuroscientist and the mother of three young children, became the most wanted woman in the world on May 26, 2004. That was the day U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft strode onto a Washington podium lined with gigantic black-and-white mug shots of Aafia and six Muslim men. Standing there, Ashcroft grimly warned the American people that every one of the individuals pictured could be involved in a plot to “hit the United States.” “They’re all sought in connection with terrorist threats against the United States,” he intoned in typically sonorous fashion. “They all pose a clear and present danger to the U.S. They all should be considered armed and dangerous.” With black hair severely pulled back and her mouth set in an uncompromising line, the diminutive Aafia looked at least as menacing in her FBI photo as the others, and U.S. officials soon were saying privately that the only woman officially named as an Al Qaeda operative might well be the most threatening of them all.
I’d first heard of Aafia more than a year earlier, around the time she suddenly vanished along with her children from her hometown of Karachi. That was when Washington started issuing warnings, often mentioning her by name, about the possibility that Al Qaeda might start using women in its attacks and that those attacks might involve chemical weapons or even a dirty bomb. With degrees from Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was said to be one of the few alleged Al Qaeda associates with the ability to move about the United States undetected and the scientific expertise to carry out a sophisticated attack. U.S. officials said she and her ex-husband, a former anesthesiologist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, had made suspicious money transfers and purchases of military equipment on the Internet. More ominously, they claimed that she had helped the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, with a plot to blow up underground gas tanks around Baltimore.
Aafia’s friends and relatives vehemently disputed everything about the FBI’s picture of her, including the photo itself, which they said was a composite drawn up from her Massachusetts driver’s license to make her look as if she were a terrorist. “It just seems so unlikely,” said Salma Kazmi, a Boston resident who knew Aafia from her student days. “I mean, she was just a mom!” In Boston, her family enlisted Elaine Whitfield Sharp, who first gained national fame as the attorney who defended British nanny Louise Woodward against charges of accidentally killing a baby in her care, to stress that Aafia had not been charged with any crime and was only wanted by the FBI for questioning. Sharp said Aafia’s ex-husband had beaten her and their children and might have had a hand in their disappearance. She added that the Siddiqui family had not seen Aafia since she got into a minicab in March 2003 accompanied by her six-year-old son, three-year-old daughter, and six-month-old baby boy, and were desperately worried about all four of them.
Then, some ten weeks after Sharp’s press conference, came another thunderclap. Witnesses at a United Nations war-crimes-tribunal meeting in the African nation of Sierra Leone identified Aafia Siddiqui as the woman who had visited Liberia in the months before the 9/11 attacks to oversee a $19 million diamond deal on behalf of Al Qaeda. Aafia Siddiqui, the witnesses seemed to be saying, wasn’t just an “operator and facilitator”—she was the Mata Hari of Al Qaeda.
In fact, as I discovered on a search that took me from the teeming cities of Pakistan to the chilly banks of Boston’s Charles River, the truth about Aafia Siddiqui may be both more ordinary and more frightening than has been previously reported. Hers is the story of an idealistic young woman who made the journey from Muslim student activism to possibly helping Al Qaeda terrorists bent on global jihad. But for the fact that she’s a woman, her profile is not so different from that of others who have been drawn into Al Qaeda’s web. Like many of them, she’s a well-bred, computer-savvy professional educated in the West. As General Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, put it, “These are not riffraff—these are the cream of society.” Her story sheds light on what psychiatrist and former CIA analyst Marc Sageman calls “the neglected role of women” in motivating men to fight for radical Islamic causes. And the mystery of her disappearance offers a peek into a secret war against terror that both U.S. and Pakistani officials would prefer to keep in the shadows.
Aafia Siddiqui was born in 1972, the youngest of three children, to Mohammed Siddiqui, a physician, and his wife, Ismat, an Islamic teacher and charity volunteer. After training in Britain, Siddiqui brought his family back to Karachi, a once-sleepy fishing village that has grown into a sweltering megalopolis of 14 million. They settled into a large, white, bougainvillea-draped bungalow in the exclusive “E” section of the Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighborhood. By all accounts, Aafia’s was a happy childhood, filled with pets and dolls. Her sister, Fowzia, says she was an obedient little girl, eager to please because “she could not bear being yelled at.”
The Siddiquis were pious Muslims who combined devotion to Islam with a determination to master Western science and technology. They looked forward to the day when the Muslim umma, or community of believers, would be reunited under a truly Islamic government. Aafia’s forceful and energetic mother, in particular, believed that centuries of colonialism had degraded the position of women in Islam. She urged Muslim women to claim the rights given them in the Quran to education and to control their own money. She taught her daughters to memorize the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed so that they could support any assertion with the quotations to show that it was Islamically correct.
In 1977, the Siddiquis’ hopes got a boost when General Zia ul-Haq, a committed Islamist and a friend of the family, seized power in a coup. (He held it until his death in a plane crash in 1988.) Intent on turning Pakistan into a truly Islamic state, Zia set up a new court system to enforce sharia, or Islamic law. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), worked closely with the country’s religious parties, the United States, and Saudi Arabia to organize a covert Afghan resistance movement based on religious opposition to Communism. He established hundreds of hard-line Islamic schools, or madrassas, including some in Aafia’s neighborhood. As a mark of special favor, he appointed Aafia’s mother, Ismat, to a council set up to oversee two special Islamic taxes meant to be distributed to the poor.
Zia’s son, Ijaz ul-Haq, is now President Pervez Musharraf’s cabinet minister for religious affairs. At a meeting in his office decorated with plastic roses and photographs of his meetings with Saudi and Iranian leaders, Ijaz told me that his whole family respected Aafia’s mother, Ismat, because she “is a religious scholar.” Ijaz himself personifies the dualism so typical of Pakistan’s upper-class Islamists, in which affection for the West coexists with a raging sense of injustice toward it. Square-jawed and clean-shaven, he looks and sounds like the captain of an American football team, and he fondly recalled his son’s college years at Boston University. (Either Aafia or her sister Fowzia—he couldn’t remember which—occasionally made his son home-cooked meals there.) Talking to him, I could never have guessed that a few months earlier, this smooth and Westernized cabinet member, this fan of Boston, became so overcome with jihadist enthusiasm at a party celebrating a pro-Taliban cleric’s book launch that he offered himself, presumably rhetorically, as a prospective suicide bomber.
All three of the Siddiqui children were gifted students, and their parents encouraged them to complete their educations in the United States. Aafia’s brother, Muhammad, led the way, becoming an architect in Houston. Her sister, Fowzia, a neurologist, graduated from Harvard Medical School. Aafia arrived in 1990. After a year at the University of Houston, she won a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We all thought it was an honor and she deserved it,” her sister recalled. In Cambridge, Aafia seemed to blossom. Her mother’s daughter, she naturally gravitated toward volunteer work. In 1993, she won a $1,200 “City Days” fellowship to clean up Cambridge elementary school playgrounds, and the year before, she had spent six weeks in Pakistan as the recipient of a $5,000 Carrol L. Wilson traveling fellowship for outstanding students. Her project was to research the issue of “Islamization and its Effects on Women.”
Many Pakistani human rights advocates regarded Zia’s Islamic laws as a disaster for women. Under the 1979 code, for example, the penalty for having sex outside of marriage is death by stoning, and unwed pregnancy is considered proof of adultery unless four male eyewitnesses testify to rape. But a former education official whom Aafia interviewed for the project recalls that Aafia saw the laws in a positive light. “She was a beautiful girl, very charming, with a fair complexion and very religious-minded, and I must say having a very traditional sort of dress and hijab,” or Islamic head scarf, said Irfan Siddiqui (no relation), now a columnist for the Nawa-e-Waqt newspaper in Islamabad. “You can’t imagine that girl being a terrorist.”
As I pieced her story together from interviews, court documents, and published reports, I came to believe that if Aafia was drawn into the world of terrorism, it may have been through the contacts and friendships she made in the early 1990s working for MIT’s Muslim Student Association. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and biggest Islamist movement, established the first MSAs in this country during the sixties and seventies, and the movement’s ideology continued to influence the MSA long after that. At MIT, several of the MSA’s most active members had fallen under the spell of Abdullah Azzam, a Muslim Brother who was Osama bin Laden’s mentor. Before he was killed in a still-unsolved 1989 bombing in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar, Azzam had worked with bin Laden to coordinate the Arab volunteers who flocked to Pakistan during the Afghan War.
In the eighties, he had established the al-Kifah (“The Struggle”) Refugee Services Center to function as a worldwide recruiting post, propaganda office, and fund-raising headquarters for the mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan. Al-Kifah’s U.S. headquarters was in Brooklyn, but it maintained offices in Boston, Tucson, Arizona, and many other American cities. It would become the nucleus of the Al Qaeda organization. At least two contemporaries of Aafia’s at MIT’s MSA, Suheil Laher and Mohamad Akra, were al-Kifah volunteers. Aafia soon took up the cause too.
In 1992, al-Kifah was in the process of shifting its focus from Afghanistan to Bosnia, where an embattled Muslim majority was trying defend itself against better-armed ethnic Serbs intent on “cleansing” the province of Muslims and Croats. In Boston, al-Kifah published A Call for Jihad in Bosnia. Listing reports that more than 100,000 Bosnians had been killed and that thousands of Muslim girls had been kidnapped and kept in Yugoslav army camps for sex, it urged readers who wished “to provide the emerging jihad movement in Bosnia with more than food and shelter” to send their donations to al-Kifah. That Aafia should have been deeply affected by Bosnia’s suffering is not surprising. As her sister says, Aafia was a highly sensitive, emotional person “always touched by anything in pain.” What is unusual is that she chose to respond through al-Kifah.
The group was known to advocate armed violence. In 1990, an al-Kifah member in New York shot and killed Rabbi Meir Kahane, the militant founder of the Jewish Defense League. Then, in 1991, the head of al-Kifah’s Brooklyn office was found murdered, and the blind Egyptian sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman seized control of the group. Though “the blind sheikh” was not then as notorious to Americans as he is today, Muslims knew that he had been accused of giving religious sanction to the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Moreover, as an openly jihadist organization, al-Kifah was extremely male.
Evan F. Kohlmann, the author of the just published book Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe, says Aafia is the only woman known to have regularly raised money for the group. “She’s a very interesting person,” Kohlmann said. “These guys were just so misogynistic, so filled with this bizarre machismo—yet for some reason, they prized this woman.” They may have valued Aafia for the way she played upon that very machismo to shame Muslim men into discharging what al-Kifah’s newsletter Al-Hussam (“The Sword”) called “the obligation to fight the infidels.” Imam Abdullah T. Faaruuq, the African-American spiritual leader of Boston’s oldest mosque, the Mosque for the Praising of Allah, in Roxbury, got to know Aafia through a project she started as a student to distribute Qurans and other Islamic missionary materials to students and prison inmates. He remembers what an effective speaker she was. “She used to encourage Muslim men to be Muslim,” he said. “She used to say that you should take care of your families and be the best Muslim you can. She used to say, Where are the Muslim men? Why do I have to be the one to get up here and talk?’ She wanted us to take a more proactive part in advancing the cause of Islam. Her voice was real sweet, but piercingly high. Some of the brothers used to say, Man, that sister’s tough!’ ” One time, he said, when she was raising money for Bosnia, she asked the men in the crowd how many of them had two pairs of boots. She told them that if they had two pairs, they ought to send one to the Bosnians. “You don’t need boots in this country,” she scolded them. “They’re facing a cold winter there!” The imam said he took off his boots and gave them to her.
The first bombing of the World Trade Center took place on February 26, 1993. Within only a few weeks, investigators were beginning to look into the possibility that the Brooklyn office of al-Kifah was involved. Ramzi Yousef, the Pakistani-born mastermind of the attack, had gone straight to al-Kifah’s office after arriving in New York from Karachi. Several al-Kifah members were soon reported as having helped carry out the bombing. By August, the blind sheikh, along with three others, was indicted in New York for plotting to wage “a war of urban terrorism against the United States.” Eventually the sheikh and nine others would be convicted of planning to blow up the United Nations, the George Washington Bridge, and New York City’s tunnels. Yet less than a month after the bombing, Aafia was sending to Muslim newsgroups an e-mail pledge form for al-Kifah for “brothers” to support Bosnian widows and orphans. “Please keep up the spirit and motivate others as well!!!!!! The Muslims of our umma need ALL the help we can provide them. Humbly, your sister, aafia.”