A US-educated Pakistani woman detained in Afghanistan was carrying handwritten notes detailing "mass casualty" attacks on landmarks in New York, according to a federal indictment unsealed Tuesday. The alleged targets included the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Wall Street.
A biologist and longtime Boston resident, Aafia Siddiqui has not been charged with terrorism offenses. Instead, she is accused of trying to kill US Army and Federal Bureau of Investigation officers in Afghanistan after being arrested there in July and held for questioning. Prior to this, she went missing for five years during a stay in Pakistan, before resurfacing in Afghanistan.
The Associated Press reports that US authorities had previously accused Ms. Siddiqui of assisting Al Qaeda operatives who traveled to the US. She has denied the attempted-murder charges, which carry a possible life sentence.
Aafia Siddiqui had notes "that referred to a 'mass casualty attack' " and to "the construction of dirty bombs, chemical, and biological weapons and other explosives," the indictment said. "These notes also discussed the mortality rates associated with certain of these weapons and explosives."
Other documents "referred to specific 'cells' and 'attacks' by certain 'cells' ... and discussed recruitment and training," the papers said.
Siddiqui, who has a biology degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was to be arraigned Wednesday on charges that she tried to assault and kill Army officers and FBI agents during an interrogation following her detention in July. The indictment alleges she picked up a soldier's rifle, announced her "desire to kill Americans" and fired the rifle but missed. She was wounded by return fire.
Agence France Presse reports that Siddiqui was arrested on July 17 by Afghan police who believed she had been planning a suicide attack in the town of Ghazni. In a statement, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York said US military and law enforcement officers went to interview her the next day in the police compound.
"In a second-floor meeting room at the compound – where Siddiqui was being held, unbeknownst to the United States interview team, unsecured, behind a curtain – (she) obtained one of the (US) Army officer's M-4 rifle" and fired it at members of the US interrogators, the statement read.
Siddiqui, who "repeatedly stated her intent and desire to kill Americans," then assaulted an army interpreter and other team members trying to disarm her, according to the statement.
In 2003, Siddiqui went missing in Karachi, Pakistan, together with her three children, reports The Washington Post. Her supporters believe that she was arrested and detained on US orders. At the time, US officials had sought to question her in connection with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a senior Al Qaeda operative who was detained that year and taken to Guantanamo Bay. Siddiqui allegedly divorced her first husband and married a nephew of Mr. Mohammed, who is also being held in Guantanamo.
Defense attorneys contend that Siddiqui, 36, was "disappeared" and imprisoned for an unspecified period before the shootout and has been set up by authorities.
"These are totally ludicrous claims," said one of the attorneys, Elizabeth Fink. "A woman gets in a cab, never to be seen again, and five years later, she shows up in Afghanistan and gets a gun away from the U.S. military. This stuff is from the Dark Side."
A CIA spokesman said yesterday that the agency had no knowledge of Siddiqui's whereabouts before her July arrest in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, and that she was not in U.S. custody before then.
Last month, Reuters reported that Afghan police in Ghazni gave an entirely different account of what happened to Siddiqui after her detention there. A senior Afghan police officer said that US troops had sought custody of the suspect and insisted on disarming the Afghan police. When Siddiqui approached the Americans to complain of mistreatment, a jumpy US soldier shot her because he feared she was a suicide bomber, the unnamed police officer said.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Siddiqui was detained in possession of a computer thumb-drive with correspondence about terrorist attacks and documents on recruitment and training. But an FBI official said there was no evidence of a credible terrorist plot in the seized material. After the shooting incident in July, she was flown to New York and appeared briefly last month in court, looking frail and gaunt. A judge ordered her to be detained without bail.
Last week Human Rights Watch called for Afghan authorities to release Siddiqui's son, who was detained with her. Ahmed Siddiqui, a US citizen, is reportedly being held by Afghanistan's National Security Directorate, which has a reputation for brutality, the group said in a statement. It urged that the boy be released to family members in Pakistan or transferred to a child welfare organization. Siddiqui's two other children are still missing since her disappearance in 2003.
In a news analysis, The Hindu says many in Pakistan are skeptical of the FBI's version of events that led up to Siddiqui's appearance in a US court. Human rights groups have repeatedly called on Pakistani authorities to investigate the cases of hundreds of people who disappeared under former President Pervez Musharraf and may have been handed over to US custody.
Ms. Siddiqui's case renews the pressure on the new government to trace the remaining missing persons. Forced on the backfoot by the sudden surfacing of Ms. Siddiqui, the Pakistan government has said it was committed to bringing back home "all detained Pakistanis" from "all parts of the world."
Commentators have pointed that the Aafia Siddiqui case also re-underlines the need for an independent judiciary that could enforce the rule of law. The deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary played an active role in prodding the intelligence agencies to track down some of them, threatening to put senior officials of the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] and other spy organisations in the dock if they failed to do, one reason cited for his removal by President Musharraf.