By Petra Bartosiewicz, Harpers
November 1, 2009
When I first read the U.S. government’s complaint against Aafia Siddiqui, who is awaiting trial in a Brooklyn detention center on charges of attempting to murder a group of U.S. Army officers and FBI agents in Afghanistan, the case it described was so impossibly convoluted—and yet so absurdly incriminating—that I simply assumed she was innocent. According to the complaint, on the evening of July 17, 2008, several local policemen discovered Siddiqui and a young boy loitering about a public square in Ghazni. She was carrying instructions for creating “weapons involving biological material,” descriptions of U.S. “military assets,” and numerous unnamed “chemical substances in gel and liquid form that were sealed in bottles and glass jars.” Siddiqui, an MIT-trained neuroscientist who lived in the United States for eleven years, had vanished from her hometown in Pakistan in 2003, along with all three of her children, two of whom were U.S. citizens. The complaint does not address where she was those five years or why she suddenly decided to emerge into a public square outside Pakistan and far from the United States , nor does it address why she would do so in the company of her American son. Various reports had her married to a high-level Al Qaeda operative, running diamonds out of Liberia for Osama bin Laden, and abetting the entry of terrorists into the United States . But those reports were countered by rumors that Siddiqui actually had spent the previous five years in the maw of the U.S. intelligence system—that she was a ghost prisoner, kidnapped by Pakistani spies, held in secret detention at a U.S. military prison, interrogated until she could provide no further intelligence, then spat back into the world in the manner most likely to render her story implausible. These dueling narratives of terrorist intrigue and imperial overreach were only further confounded when Siddiqui finally appeared before a judge in a Manhattan courtroom on August 5. Now, two weeks after her capture, she was bandaged and doubled over in a wheelchair, barely able to speak, because—somehow—she had been shot in the stomach by one of the very soldiers she stands accused of attempting to murder.
It is clear that the CIA and the FBI believed Aafia Siddiqui to be a potential source of intelligence and, as such, a prized commodity in the global war on terror. Every other aspect of the Siddiqui case, though, is shrouded in rumor and denial, with the result that we do not know, and may never know, whether her detention has made the United States any safer. Even the particulars of the arrest itself, which took place before a crowd of witnesses near Ghazni’s main mosque, are in dispute. According to the complaint, Siddiqui was detained not because she was wanted by the FBI but simply because she was loitering in a “suspicious” manner; she did not speak the local language and she was not escorted by an adult male. What drove her to risk such conspicuous behavior has not been revealed. When I later hired a local reporter in Afghanistan to re-interview several witnesses, the arresting officer, Abdul Ghani, said Siddiqui had been carrying “a box with some sort of chemicals,” but a shopkeeper named Farhad said the police had found only “a lot of papers.” Hekmat Ullah, who happened to be passing by at the time of her arrest, said Siddiqui “was attacking everyone who got close to her”—a detail that is not mentioned in the complaint. A man named Mirwais, who had come to the mosque that day to pray, said he saw police handcuff Siddiqui, but Massoud Nabizada, the owner of a local pharmacy, said the police had no handcuffs, “so they used her scarf to tie her hands.” What everyone appears to agree on is this: an unknown person called the police to warn that a possible suicide bomber was loitering outside a mosque; the police arrested Siddiqui and her son; and, Afghan sovereignty notwithstanding, they then dispatched the suspicious materials, whatever they were, to the nearest U.S. military base.
The events of the following day are also subject to dispute. According to the complaint, a U.S. Army captain and a warrant officer, two FBI agents, and two military interpreters came to question Siddiqui at Ghazni’s police headquarters. The team was shown to a meeting room that was partitioned by a yellow curtain. “None of the United States personnel were aware,” the complaint states, “that Siddiqui was being held, unsecured, behind the curtain.” No explanation is offered as to why no one thought to look behind it. The group sat down to talk and, in another odd lapse of vigilance, “the Warrant Officer placed his United States Army M-4 rifle on the floor to his right next to the curtain, near his right foot.” Siddiqui, like a villain in a stage play, reached from behind the curtain and pulled the three-foot rifle to her side. She unlatched the safety. She pulled the curtain “slightly back” and pointed the gun directly at the head of the captain. One of the interpreters saw her. He lunged for the gun. Siddiqui shouted, “Get the fuck out of here!” and fired twice. She hit no one. As the interpreter wrestled her to the ground, the warrant officer drew his sidearm and fired “approximately two rounds” into Siddiqui’s abdomen. She collapsed, still struggling, then fell unconscious.
The authorities in Afghanistan describe a different series of events. The governor of Ghazni Province , Usman Usmani, told my local reporter that the U.S. team had “demanded to take over custody” of Siddiqui. The governor refused. He could not release Siddiqui, he explained, until officials from the counterterrorism department in Kabul arrived to investigate. He proposed a compromise: the U.S. team could interview Siddiqui, but she would remain at the station. In a Reuters interview, however, a “senior Ghazni police officer” suggested that the compromise did not hold. The U.S. team arrived at the police station, he said, and demanded custody of Siddiqui, the Afghan officers refused, and the U.S. team proceeded to disarm them. Then, for reasons unexplained, Siddiqui herself somehow entered the scene. The U.S. team, “thinking that she had explosives and would attack them as a suicide bomber, shot her and took her.”
Siddiqui’s own version of the shooting is less complicated. As she explained it to a delegation of Pakistani senators who came to Texas to visit her in prison a few months after her arrest, she never touched anyone’s gun, nor did she shout at anyone or make any threats. She simply stood up to see who was on the other side of the curtain and startled the soldiers. One of them shouted, “She is loose,” and then someone shot her. When she regained consciousness she heard someone else say, “We could lose our jobs.”
Siddiqui’s trial is scheduled for this November. The charges against her stem solely from the shooting incident itself, not from any alleged act of terrorism. The prosecutors provide no explanation for how a scientist, mother, and wife came to be charged as a dangerous felon. Nor do they account for her missing years, or her two other children, who still are missing. What is known is that the United States wanted her in 2003, and it wanted her again in 2008, and now no one can explain why.
Petra Bartosiewicz is a writer living in Brooklyn . Her last story for Harper’s Magazine, “I.O.U. One Terrorist,” appeared in the August 2005 issue