By Andrew Purcell
I haven’t really been keeping a diary. It just seemed to be a format that worked well. It is not strictly chronological, but it tells the story. Everything I write here is something I saw, both through interacting with Aafia and her family and sitting through her trial in New York City.
I was at my computer reading the news headlines of the day, and an odd item caught my eye. The headline read “FBI Searching for Female al-Qaeda Leader”. Al-Qaeda is incapable of having a woman in a position of leadership. It is just not the role in life that women are destined for. Did the FBI miss that memo? I’m always up for a good laugh, especially at the expense of those who assure us that they know best.
So I clicked on the link and my life changed.
The article explained that the FBI was looking for a woman named Aafia Siddiqui. I know a woman named Aafia Siddiqui, and I know her brother, and I know her sister, and I know their mother. They have been close friends of mine forever. Her brother once mentioned that she had a rare combination of names. That there just weren’t that many women named Aafia Siddiqui. This must be a different one.
The article continued that she was married, had three small children, she had lived for many years in Boston, that she had degrees from MIT and Brandeis… This stopped being funny very quickly. I e-mailed her brother. What’s going on?
“Aafia was picked up over the weekend. Pak government said she was handed over to FBI. The FBI denies having her. Pak government then denied she had been arrested. In that part of the world this is very bad.”
Later in the day I spoke to him and learned that her three children, Ahmad, six years old, Maryam, four years old, and Suliman, six months old, had also been taken.
A day that began with “Gee, this is funny” went downhill very quickly.
In the months following her kidnapping really odd headlines began to appear. “Lady al-Qaeda Leader Totes Three Small Children, Ex-Husband, New Husband, Boyfriend Around World While Directing bin-Laden’s Biological Weapons Programs, Internet Programs, Smuggling Diamonds from Africa, Laundering Money, Planning Attacks On Gasoline Stations In Maryland…”
These were all news story headlines. There was even one web site that claimed she can be found in the Bible, mentioned by name, as a sign of the coming of the anti-Christ, by using information published in the popular book “The Bible Code”.
If this Aafia really existed al-Qaeda would have had no need for Osama bin Laden.
I met Aafia’s brother in 1979/1980 when we were going to school in Texas. You will notice that I refer to him only as “Aafia’s brother”. This is not an attempt to make him sound mysterious. He has tried to keep a low profile through this ordeal and I will respect his wishes.
By the time Aafia came to Texas in 1990 her brother and I had established a longstanding tradition of meeting for lunch during the weekends, seeing a movie, just hanging out, or if it was football season, watching the long lost Houston Oilers play. Aafia joined in, although she never did warm up to either the Oilers or American football.
After we were introduced, Aafia told her brother, “Your friend is very nice, but he has such a terrible accent.” You have to realize that this was three days after she arrived from Karachi. She had an accent that could cut steel. I told her brother to tell her that I would have an accent when I visited Pakistan, but as long as she was in Texas she had the accent.
One day I showed up at the house. We were going out to lunch. Aafia came downstairs wearing this very pink, very fluffy, very Pakistani, and very Islamicly modest outfit. She looked like an extra-large serving of cotton candy with eyes.
Her brother glared at her. “You’re not going out dressed like that.” I told her that she looked very nice. (I have three sisters. I lie about their outfits all the time. They know it. They don’t care.) I’m not certain which bothered her more, that her brother disapproved of her clothes or that a male who wasn’t a relative complimented them, but she wore the outfit.
Aafia was very quiet. She didn’t care much for TV, movies, or music. The only time I could get her to talk comfortably was when I asked her about her schoolwork or about her religion. I can participate in an intelligent conversation on the nuts and bolts of science for about five minutes, so we talked a lot about Islam.
She did not speak about the Islam of beheadings, suicide bombings, or those infamous seventy-two virgins. Nor did she speak about Islam as a uniform ideology to be enforced at the barrel of a gun. She spoke about a very personal Islam, the Islam of the relationship between God and the individual. A God who demanded obedience and discipline, but also a God of love, forgiveness, and redemption. A lot of what she said sounded very much like the Catholicism that my mother taught me.
I saw her without her hair covered by a scarf exactly once, and that was because she didn’t realize that I was in the house. Needless to say she remedied that very quickly.
Aafia is a devout Muslim. She does think that we would be better people if we became Muslims. This does not make her a terrorist. To use a Christian term, this makes her a missionary. Not the fire and brimstone sort of missionary, but the one who teaches God’s word through example.
We kept in touch when Aafia moved to Boston. By mail and telephone and through her brother and her rare trips back to Texas.
We had all come to terms with the fact that Aafia and the children weren’t coming back. The FBI resurrected her briefly when they announced that she was one of seven individuals who were heading to the United States to disrupt the presidential elections that November, but no one seemed to take this seriously. All seven of them were widely believed already to be in American custody or dead. The story disappeared within days.
This episode had a side effect. Aafia’s sister Fowzia had been forced into a deal with the military dictatorship ruling Pakistan at the time. The family would not speak publicly about the kidnapping of Aafia and her children and the government would not kill the family. The government considered this episode to be a violation of that agreement despite the family having had nothing to do with it. While everything blew over in a few days, those were a few days that Aafia’s brother didn’t know if he had any surviving relatives in Karachi.
For the next few years it was as if Aafia and her children had never existed…
Aafia has a sister. Fowzia came to the United States to finish her medical studies at Harvard. Her last job in America was director of the epilepsy program at Johns Hopkins. She is very good at what she does.
After Aafia and her children were kidnapped Fowzia was forced to return to Pakistan. I sent an e-mail to her and her mother. Just a few words of support. I wasn’t expecting a response. If Fowzia remembered me at all I thought it would have been as one of her brother’s friends. I was wrong. She remembered me.
I wish I had kept a copy of that e-mail. It must have been pretty good because I got a response that went on and on.
Over the years we have kept up a correspondence. Mostly about family stuff. Her kids. My guitars. My motorcycle. Her Texas relatives. One of the funnier stories involved her little girl. She wanted a horse.
“No, you can’t have a horse.”
“Can Uncle Andy bring one from Texas?”
Aafia reappeared in the news. This is part of an e-mail from Fowzia:
-There is a lot of news spreading here about Aafia being locked up in Baghram jail, and some prisoner who was released says he saw her. His interviews are all over the place and being quoted:
“All day and all night long we would hear horrifying screams of a woman… Upon my release I inquired who it was and they informed me it was her… We would all sit at night and pray that lord let her die in peace…”
Not at all pleasant. My mom has not heard the whole thing and I am censoring the papers, but Andy this really hurts. I don’t think my brother knows either, I am not sure what he can do other than getting depressed further. I have tried independently to ask the authorities. I did go to Lahore and talk to a few people who had published the story for authenticity… I don’t know.-
As upsetting as as it sounded, I told Fowzia that it sounded too strange to be true. Surely after three years Aafia couldn’t still be alive. It would have made no sense to leave a living witness.
Fowzia had spent five years living with intermittent death threats from the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf. A group of journalists and human rights activists came to her with evidence suggesting that Aafia was alive and being held at a secret prison in Bagram, Afghanistan. They were going to hold a press conference to present this evidence that Aafia, a citizen of Pakistan, was being held without charges in an Afghani prison, and demand that the government of Pakistan act on this evidence and bring her home. Fowzia was asked to participate. They said it would help if a family member was present.
She had been shown evidence that convinced her that Aafia was alive.
Fowzia was being asked to risk her life, risk her mother’s life, and risk her children’s lives on the chance that she could save her sister.
Make the choice.
I spoke to Fowzia a few days after the press conference. She had been repeatedly warned by representatives of the military dictator that if she spoke publicly she, her children, and her mother would be killed.
She was exhausted and waiting to see what happened next. She had very publicly defied a military dictator who was responsible for the disappearance of thousands of her fellow citizens. What was going to happen was going to happen.
Fowzia did not have to wait long. What happened was beyond anyone’s wildest guesses.
Shortly after the press conference I got a call from Aafia’s brother. An FBI agent had come to his house the night before to tell him that Aafia was alive but injured in Afghanistan. I was in my office at the time and my first reaction was “What do you mean she’s alive? She’s been dead for five years.” That sort of reaction in an office environment gets some very interesting reactions.
Meanwhile, back in Pakistan, Fowzia was waiting to be either arrested or killed. Instead, the military dictator fled the country and Fowzia was asked to address Pakistan’s Senate.
I’m including a link for the text of this address. In the decades to come I think Pakistani schoolchildren will be studying this the same way American schoolchildren study our Declaration of Independence. Fowzia asked what the value of a citizen is to the government of Pakistan, something I don’t think any Pakistani government has really considered.
Pervez Musharraf did not flee the country and go into hiding just because of Aafia. There were other issues besides her, but Fowzia’s press conference touched the consciences of millions and Aafia became the final burden that proved too much for the Musharraf regime to carry.
And then things began to get weird.
To get into the Federal Courthouse in New York City you have to go through a metal detector. Remove your shoes. Just like getting on an airplane. On day two of the trial a second metal detector was set up outside the door to the courtroom. A table was set up to collect the names and addresses of the people watching the trial. No one seemed to know who authorized these procedures. Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States showed up. This is a man who is cleared to visit the President of the United States. He had to go through both sets of security.
A few days into the trial an odd man showed up. His synapses did not seem to be firing in a standard order. He sat next to me one afternoon. Mostly playing with his fingers and humming softly to himself. He began to worry me when he started introducing himself to people as Aafia’s blood brother. I mentioned this to Aafia’s brother, and he reported it to the Federal Marshals who were providing courtroom security. I was unable to attend the trial the next day so I missed the fireworks. This individual showed up wearing a theatrical Arab sheikh costume from a third rate Biblical epic. Someone dubbed him “Lawrence of Lower Manhattan” (it wasn’t me). During testimony he began making his fingers into a gun shape and pointing at the jury. Two of the jurors felt threatened enough to be excused from the jury. “Lawrence” was escorted out of the courtroom. If anybody had any doubts that he was just a random fruitcake, I saw him when he showed up the next day, in full costume again, and they let him in.
I don’t travel well. I don’t travel often. But I had to go to New York for the trial, for Aafia and her brother. They both needed to know that they had at least one friend in that courtroom. Aafia’s brother told me that during earlier court proceedings one female Federal Marshal would make sure that she placed her chair in a position so Aafia and her brother couldn’t see each other. When they brought Aafia in on the first day of the trial her brother said to watch the lady marshal. She looked around the courtroom and put her chair in a position to prevent Aafia and her brother from seeing each other. During the afternoon session we sat in another location and the lady marshal repeated her dance. The second morning we decided to sit on opposite sides of the bench. They brought Aafia in, and the lady marshal began her routine again when Aafia saw me. I got a wave. Not a furtive little wave either. Her face lit up. She didn’t just smile, she beamed. And there was no question who this was all aimed at. The lady marshal gave up her dancing career after that. She couldn’t block all three of us.
The spectator benches in the courtroom were basically church pews without the kneelers. The most uncomfortable church pews. Ever.
The courtroom was on the seventeenth floor. Big windows. Beautiful view of the river and lower Manhattan. I took a few moments to admire the view. One of the marshals told me to move away. Not certain why, but he was not happy I was at the window.
According to the testimony at Aafia’s trial, a group of soldiers and FBI agents spent an hour ransacking an Afghani police station looking for her. Unable to find her they stopped to have tea with the police chief. All two dozen of them moved into a room that measured roughly twenty feet by thirty feet, with tables and chairs, and part of the room hidden by a curtain. One of the soldiers made himself at home, propped his rifle against the wall, sat down, and enjoyed some milk and cookies. Aafia appeared from behind the curtained area, grabbed his unattended rifle, made an obscenity filled anti-American speech, and opened fire on a second soldier. A third soldier returned fire hitting her, and an Afghani translator tackled her and pounded her face into the floor. Aafia continued her obscenity filled anti-American speech until she passed out.
Aafia’s legal representation is complicated. She refused to recognize either the lawyer appointed by the United States or the three lawyers paid for by Pakistan. The short version is that as far as Aafia was concerned, those lawyers were working for the two governments and not for her. Bluntly, she doesn’t trust either government.
Aafia demanded that the judge stop referring to the lawyers as her lawyers. They were not her lawyers. The judge asked her who her lawyers were. She responded by asking him how could she pick a lawyer when she wasn’t even allowed a phone book to find one.
The defense lawyers put together a case based on the fact that there was no physical evidence that Aafia ever touched the rifle. No fingerprints on the rifle. No blood stains on the rifle. No gunpowder residue on her or on her clothing. The only physical evidence that shots were fired was a photograph of two bullet holes in the wall. The defense found a videotape that was made the day before the shooting. Those two bullet holes in the wall were clearly visible the day before the shooting. The defense was allowed to show one still frame from this video with no explanation of what it was. Literally. The jury was told to look at the picture. The picture was taken away. On to the next item. I knew what it was only because a lawyer sitting next to me told me.
The courtroom officials would let only fourteen spectators in. Just the way it is. When the verdict was to be announced, two dozen marshals marched into the courtroom to keep the fourteen of us from behaving violently.
Aafia had been sent to Carswell Prison in Fort Worth, Texas. Her brother was already authorized to see her. He tried to contact the appropriate authorities to arrange a visit. No response. He decided on a direct approach. Drive up to the front gate and ask them to let him in. He asked me to come with him.
The drawback to this approach is that Fort Worth is about two hundred eighty miles from his home in Houston. That’s a seven hour trip by car. We pulled up at the visitors’ gate at mid-afternoon. He asked the guard what he needed to do to visit Aafia. The guard took his drivers license and said he needed to make a call and went into his office. We were expecting him to be back in a couple of minutes with either instructions or a refusal. Three quarters of an hour later he returned. It was pretty obvious from his answer that he had been transferred up and down the food chain and that he had been given an answer that made no sense. The short version was that there would be no visit with Aafia that weekend. He was very professional and very correct, but he was also trying to be helpful to people he knew had just driven a long way. He gave Aafia’s brother a phone number to call during office hours and said, “Our normal rules don’t seem to apply to your sister.”
Carswell Prison. Aafia’s brother still hasn’t been able to arrange a visit. Aafia’s family in Karachi has been denied phone calls. I spent several hours standing in front of the prison with about a hundred people to protest both Aafia’s confinement and her isolation from her family. Four days later I got a text message from Aafia’s brother. Aafia had been allowed to talk to her mother, sister, and surviving children. A short phone call. We will take our victories as they come.
Since then the phone calls have been sporadic. Aafia’s brother has been able to arrange a few visits.
Aafia had a visit with her brother. After the visit he returned to the hotel and told me how the visit went. In the middle of this he stopped and told me that Aafia wanted to ask me to do something for her. She asked me to read books about Islam because she wanted to make sure that I went to heaven. Talk about a conversation killer. When I could finally speak I asked why. After all she has been through why would she be concerned about my soul? Her brother paused for a second and said, “Aafia knew a lot of people when she lived in America. She knows that you came to the trial and that you come to Fort Worth with me when I visit her.”
Aafia’s brother was allowed one visit in 2012. That was a year ago. She is still not being allowed to call home regularly.