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Who is Aafia Siddiqui? Details on the woman mentioned during negotiations by the man who took a North Texas synagogue hostage

The Pakistani neuroscientist is currently imprisoned for trying to kill American service members in Afghanistan.

COLLEYVILLE, Texas — As the hostage situation in Colleyville garnered international attention, questions remained about what led a suspect to hold four people hostage inside a synagogue.

The situation began around 11 a.m. Saturday, and ended at around 9:30 p.m. 

Authorities confirmed that all hostages were safe, and that the suspect, later identified by the FBI as 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram, died at the scene. 

Details on how Akram died were not immediately released.

During the situation, the Associated Press reported that Akram had demanded to speak to Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist imprisoned on charges of trying to kill American service members in Afghanistan.

This immediately led to questions about who Siddiqui is, and why the suspect mentioned her during hostage negotiations.

Who is Aafia Siddiqui?

Siddiqui was born in 1972 in Pakistan. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a social worker. She spent a significant amount of her childhood in Zambia.

In 1989, she got a student visa to the United States. She enrolled at the University of Houston in the spring of 1990. After several semesters, she transferred to MIT, where she graduated summa cum laude with her bachelor’s degree in 1995. She was then admitted into the PhD program at Brandeis University later that year. Her doctoral thesis explored how children learn.

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That same year, Siddiqui married Pakistani anesthesiologist Mohammad Amjad Khan by telephone in an arranged marriage. The couple had three children, but the marriage was full of conflict. Co-workers later said Khan abused Siddiqui and their children. The couple divorced in 2002.

Siddiqui has two siblingsMuhammad Siddiqui, who lives near Houston and is an archivist, and Fowzia Siddiqui, a Harvard-trained neurologist in Karachi, Pakistan.

Siddiqui’s attorneys claimed that she was abducted in 2003 as she traveled from Karachi to Islamabad with her children. They say she was held prisoner, and that she was tortured before being released in 2008. 

At some point, Siddiqui reportedly married Ammar Al Baluchi, the nephew of terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Al Baluch is accused of helping finance the 9/11 attack. He has long been held at Guantanamo.

Later in 2008, Siddiqui was detained by the Afghan National Police in Afghanistan, along with her 13-year-old son. She was accused of abandoning her children and became an al-Qaida operative.

According to authorities, Siddiqui held in her possession at the time of her arrest handwritten notes referring to a “mass casualty attack” that listed various locations in the U.S., including Plum Island, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge. The notes also referred to the construction of “dirty bombs,” chemical and biological weapons and other explosives.

Siddiqui also allegedly had in her possession a thumb drive that contained correspondence referring to “cells” and attacks by certain cells. She is also alleged to have had two pounds of sodium cyanide in her possession.

She tried twice to escape from Afghan custody. While being questioned, Siddiqui allegedly managed to get a weapon and aim it at Americans guarding the facility. She allegedly pulled the trigger while pointing the weapon in their direction and fired off several shots, saying, "I want to kill Americans," "death to America" and more. She was shot in the stomach before being restrained.

In September 2008, she was indicted on seven counts. She went to trial in January 2010.

Two experts hired by the defense in her trial said she had serious mental illness. One said she was incompetent to stand trial. Two experts hired by the government said she was “malingering,” or feigning incompetence.

In June 2009, the federal judge overseeing the case found her competent to stand trial.

“This is most certainly a situation where the defendant’s political beliefs and perspectives blur the line between mental health issue and political advocacy,” the judge said during her September 2010 sentencing hearing.

By all accounts in the trial record, Siddiqui was a combative defendant, refusing to come to court. 

“She also complained that a Zionist conspiracy existed and would prevent her from getting a fair trial," the judge said at her sentencing. "Indeed, during the course of the proceedings, she said 'All I did say was that Israel was behind 9/11.'"

The judge recounted that Siddiqui had a number of outbursts in front of prospective jurors, and the government requested she be excluded from the trial. The judge declined to do so. Whenever Siddiqui became disruptive, she was put in a cell adjacent to the courtroom, where she could watch her own trial on TV.

At her sentencing, Siddiqui's own attorney, Dawn Cardi, argued for a reduced sentence, saying that her client suffered from “diminished capacity.”

"You look at her life, you look at her prior life before this incident, there is no indication of violence," Cardi told the judge. "She was not a violent person. She was an abused spouse, that is for certain."

Cardi said there was no evidence Siddiqui had expertise in chemical warfare. She told the judge that one of the experts had found that Siddiqui suffered from paranoid delusions and schizophrenia.

Siddiqui eventually took the stand during her sentencing, denying that she was “mentally sick” or had “schizophrenia.”

"I am not anti-Israel," she said, "but yes, I have said that they mastermind 9/11 and I have proof of that. Now I am saying that there are attacks being planned against America, big wars being planned and they are involved in it.” 

Siddiqui then said that she loved America.

As the hearing came to a close, the judge sentenced her to 86 years in prison.

In 2021, Siddiqui filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that she needed agency records and medical files. The lawsuit said she had been assaulted by another inmate in July of that year. 

The lawsuit said the other inmate threw hot coffee in her face, then kicked and punched her. The suit said Siddiqui suffered burns around her eyes, a three-inch scar near her left eye and a wound on her right check, as well as bruises to her arms and legs.

The suit complained that she was moved into administrative segregation, pending the investigation.

Why did the suspect in the hostage situation mention Siddiqui?

It's still unclear why, exactly, the hostage-taker at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville on Saturday mentioned Siddiqui during the incident -- or if there is any direct connection between the two.

During a news conference Saturday evening, Matthew DeSarno of FBI Dallas said he was unable to release information on the suspect, any possible motives or any demands made, as theirs is still an active and ongoing investigation.

"I'm not ready to add more about the demands, except they were specifically focused on one issue that was not specifically threatening to the Jewish community," DeSarno said.

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