Aafia Siddiqui has been called "Lady al Qa'eda" and "terror mom" in the United States but to some in Pakistan she is a victim and heroine. Neither the controversy nor the fascination with Siddiqui is likely to end after she appears in a US federal court in New York tomorrow, when she is scheduled to be sentenced for trying to kill US military officials while in custody in 2008 in Afghanistan. She faces 30 years to life in prison.
The Pakistani neuroscientist, a US citizen and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could receive life in prison. Her sentencing is expected to renew outrage in Pakistan, where her case has become a rallying point for a public resentful of what some see as US highhandedness in the country's internal affairs. This week, Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister, wrote to the US attorney general's office petitioning for her repatriation.
Notoriety is nothing new to Siddiqui. In 2004, the then-US attorney general, John Ashcroft, called her an al Qa'eda agent who posed a "clear and present danger to the US". Under questioning, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is reported to have named her as an al Qa'eda operative. One month after Mr Mohammed's arrest in 2003, she and her three children disappeared.
What happened during the next five years is disputed. In a photocopy of a document obtained by The National, her son, Ahmed Khan, has alleged that in 2003 when he was six, he and his mother were apprehended by intelligence agents on a road in Pakistan. He claims that after that he was held and interrogated by US agents in Afghanistan. Ahmed's allegations are in a statement he made to Pakistani intelligence agents this year. The statement supports part of Siddiqui's claims that she was abducted by Pakistan's ISI agents at the behest of the United States and held secretly by them for five years.
Ahmed's statement was taken on January 13 and was leaked by a Pakistani Embassy official to the human-rights group Cageprisoners, which is based in London. It could not be independently confirmed whether the document is legitimate. Ahmed, 13, was born in the United States and now lives with his aunt in Karachi. He claims that he was held after his mother and siblings were intercepted during a taxi ride in Karachi. He says his brother Suleiman, who was only a few months old at the time, was badly injured. He remembers the incident in vivid detail, but says he lost consciousness after being forced to inhale a sedative.
"The people approached us from the other car and then they forced us with their weapons to come out and to get in the other car," the statement says. "From that time, I was separated from my mother, brother and sister." Ahmed also says that a foreign female was present. He described her as "a white inglis lady". He goes on to describe his interrogation by US and Pakistani agents. He said he was later informed by US officials that his brother was dead.
"I met the American consular official in that Afghan-Kabul jail. He told me 'your younger brother is dead, and your mother's name is Aafia Siddiqui'," the statement says. The US State Department confirmed that a consular official had visited Ahmed in custody. "A US consular official visited a US citizen minor who was apprehended by Afghan authorities when Aafia Siddiqui was originally taken into Afghan custody on July 17 2008," a State Department spokesman wrote in an e-mail. "The visit took place in Kabul, Afghanistan. The United States never assumed custody of the boy. Due to privacy concerns, we are unable to provide any additional information at this time."
Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for the US Attorney's office in New York, challenged Ahmed's story of abduction and referred to court papers related to Siddiqui's attempted-murder case. David Raskin, the US prosecutor, told the New York court in 2008 that there was "zero evidence ? not a shred" that Siddiqui and her children were abducted. Mr Raskin confirmed that Ahmed had been interviewed by FBI agents while in custody in 2008. Under questioning, Ahmed denied Siddiqui was his mother, but DNA testing established the link, Mr Raskin told the court.
Much of the evidence surrounding her disappearance was "from intelligence agencies, that is classified, which makes it difficult to share", he told the court. Siddiqui's second husband, Ammar al Baluchi, is the nephew of al Qa'eda's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Al Baluchi was arrested in April 2003, and subsequently held in Guantanamo Bay, the US naval prison in Cuba for suspected terrorists, where he is awaiting trial for aiding the 9/11 hijackers. Mr Raskin told the court.
Siddiqui was believed to have "gone underground" in 2003, and in May 2004 the FBI named her as one of its seven "most wanted" al Qa'eda fugitives. Ahmed's sister Mariam, who had also been missing since the alleged abduction in 2003, was publicly handed over to her family at a press conference this year in Islamabad organised by Mr Malik, the interior minister. Ahmad and his sister now live with their aunt, Fowzia Siddiqui, in Karachi. She declined to comment other than to confirm the children's ages in an e-mail to The National.
Elaine Whitfield Sharp, one of the lawyers defending Siddiqui, said Ahmed's statement was consistent with claims his mother made. "The details fit - right down to his mention of being anaesthetised." Siddiqui was arrested in July 2008 outside the compound of the governor of Ghazni province on suspicion of being an al Qa'eda agent and would-be suicide bomber. Afghan police said she was carrying cyanide, documents detailing how to make chemical weapons and handwritten notes listing targets in New York.
In February, she was convicted in New York of attempting to murder US soldiers at an Afghan jail after that arrest. Prosecutors said she grabbed a guard's rifle and began firing at US troops. Siddiqui testified at the trial and admitted she grabbed the gun but never fired it. The trial attracted widespread media attention and she was dubbed "Lady al Qa'eda" by one New York tabloid. Siddiqui interrupted court proceedings with outbursts. The New York Daily News quoted her as saying in the courtroom: "This is a verdict coming from Israel, not America."
Siddiqui, 38, has many supporters in Pakistan and among human-rights organisations. Her supporters cite Ahmed's statement as evidence corroborating Siddiqui's claims that she was abducted and held in secret. In court, her defence team attempted to argue that Siddiqui was delusional as a result of post-traumatic stress syndrome brought on by her alleged ordeal. Judge Richard Berman ruled against her, declaring her medically fit to stand trial.
Siddiqui has achieved iconic status in Pakistan similar to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist accused of selling nuclear weapons know-how. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari, under pressure from her supporters, paid her legal defence in the attempted-murder case. Several government officials have demanded that she be tried in Pakistan or even repatriated and released. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has described her as a "daughter of the nation".