A Terrorist Tried In Federal Court: The Case Of Aafia Siddiqui

Last week, as Republicans ratcheted up their critism of the administration's counterterrorism framework, a jury in the Southern District of New York quietly convicted a woman named Aafia Siddiqui on charges related to the attempted murder of U.S. soldiers and FBI agents in Afghanistan. She faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

What makes Siddiqui's conviction relevant for the current debate is that she was captured, on a recognized battlefield -- Afghanistan -- and tried to kill FBI agents and American soldiers who had come to question her. Siddiqui, 40, could easily have been designated as an enemy combatant. But the Bush administration determined instead that she be tried in federal court. She was read her Miranda rights, and given access to a lawyer.

Siddiqui is not a run of the mill jihadi. She's an MIT-educated neurobiologist, and was once married to the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the mastemrind of the 9/11 terrorist plots whose status as a federal prisoner is drawing so much debate. In July of 2008, Siddiqi was detained by Afghanistan police as she loitered nearby a sensitive facility on Ghanzi, Afghanistan.

The police found documents on her possession that led them to believe that she was part of a plan to cause a mass casaulty incident in the United States. Specific locations listed on the documents included the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building. Notes on one document referred to the components of a dirty bomb. They found various sealed canisters of chemicals and gells.

FBI agents testified that her personal effects included "the Anarchist Arsenal" and lists of potential U.S. military targets in Afghanistan. Other correspondence indicated that she was involved with -- or knew of -- various cells that were working on various potential plots. The Afghan police notified the U.S. government immediately. The next day, according to court documents, U.S. military interrogators and FBI agents arrived to interview her. As recounted by witnesses, Siddiqui grabbed an M-4 rifle that was resting on the floor -- it had been placed there by an inattentive U.S. soldier -- and started firing, shouting "Allah Akbar!," and screaming that she intended to kill Americans. An Army captain returned fire and wounded her.

A few weeks later, having recovered in a military hospital, she was transported to the U.S., arraigned in New York, and on September 2, 2008, she was indicted. Siddiqui's family hired a good lawyer, who claimed that Siddiqui was being set up -- that the U.S. had secretly imprisoned her and tortured her, forcing her to go underground. After graduating from MIT, Siddiqui had returned to Pakistan and there was speculation among human rights groups that she had been detained.

But In 2004, FBI director Bob Mueller added Siddiqui to the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, given her connections to the United States and to KSM. Intelligence officials believe that Siddiqui, though never formally a member of Al Qaeda, helped to educate its members about the United States, and served as a conduit between potential terrorist cells. The U.S. insists that no entity of the government, overt or covert, detained Siddiqui until she was caught by the Afghans.

At the time of her arrest in 2008, U.S. officials called her capture significant. John Kiriakou, who led CIA operations in Pakistan after 9/11, told ABC News that Siddiqui "is a major capture for the FBI. To find someone who has such rich information, computer hard drives, e-mails, that is really a major capture." ABC's headline writers labeled her the "Mata Hari" of Al Qaeda.

Siddiqui's conviction on February 3, 2010 was noted in a press release by the Justice Department.

So far as I can tell, Republicans on Capitol Hill did not utter a peep of protest.
Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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