The official version of the 11-hours hostage-taking in Colleyville, Texas, on January 15, makes it seem pretty straightforward and limited. Early that Saturday morning, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker allowed a stranger into the synagogue to get warm, later identified as Malik Faisal Akram, 44, a British national of Pakistani descent who had come to the US about two weeks earlier. During the subsequent, live-streamed service, Akram, armed with a pistol, took the rabbi and three congregants hostage.
The first 911 call went out around 10:41. More than 200 local police and FBI agents responded to the scene and established telephone contact with Akram, whose responses were inconsistently coherent. The four hostages assisted with translation. Akram repeatedly said he was going to die. He also repeatedly called for the release of a US prisoner held in a nearby facility, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, whom he referred to metaphorically as his sister.
Around 5 p.m., Akram released one hostage. According to the other hostages later, the negotiations deteriorated and Akram grew more agitated. Relying on previous training in handling hostage situations, Rabbi Cytron-Walker maneuvered the group closer and closer to an exit. Around 9:30 he decided the moment had come, he threw a chair at Akram, and the three hostages ran safely out an exit door.
WFAA video footage shows Akram coming partway out the door a few seconds behind them, then retreating back into the synagogue. Immediately more than a dozen armed agents move in, some entering a side door of the synagogue. There is no call to surrender. The first shot is fired just 16 seconds after Akram appeared at the door. Three more shots follow in the next six seconds and then a flash-bang explosion. Three more shots follow, then one more – all this in less than 30 seconds. Akram is killed with no chance to surrender, even though he is alone and helpless in the synagogue.
Widespread official political and media celebration follows. President Biden acts like he deserves some of the credit for this police homicide of a man now widely disparaged as having mental issues.
Who is the prisoner, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui?
Turns out, after a limited search of the public record, that the underbelly of this hostage situation is way more squalid than the event itself. Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, 50, is a Pakistani neuroscientist currently being held in solitary confinement at the government’s only mental health facility for women prisoners, the Federal Medical Center, Carswell Prison, Forth Worth – about 20 miles from Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville. In 2010, in a judicial farce of a trial, she was convicted of using an M-4 rifle to try to escape from US custody. An appeal failed. She is serving an 86 year sentence.
The US consistently, since 2003, has characterized Aafia Siddiqui as a terrorist, even though she has never been charged with any terrorist act. In Pakistan she is referred to as “the daughter of the nation” and is considered to be a political prisoner. Pakistan continues to seek her release.
Aafia Siddiqui was born in March 1972 to a privileged professional Sunni Muslim family in Karachi. Her father was a neurosurgeon, her mother a teacher and member of Parliament. Like her older brother and sister, Aafia Siddiqui went to college in the US. She earned a BS in biology summa cum laude from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 1994. The next year her mother arranged for her to marry Amjad Khan, an anesthesiologist she had never met, in a ceremony conducted over the phone. They lived in Boston while she went to graduate school. In 1996 she had a son, Ahmed, and in 1998, a daughter, Maryam. In 2001 she earned her MA and PhD in neuroscience, with honors, from Brandeis University, writing her dissertation. Throughout this decade, Aafia Siddiqui was active in Islamist culture and politics, including the struggles in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia. Religiously she grew more conservative, wearing a niqab, a black veil that covered everything but her eyes. She founded two non-profits, the Institute of Islamic Research and Teaching and the Dawa Resource Center, that provided faith-based services to prison inmates. These activities put strain on her marriage, as did her husband’s violence that included one occasion when he threw a baby bottle at her, resulting in an emergency room visit to stitch up her lip (years later he semi-denied this).
The September 11, 2001, attacks changed everything for Muslims in America. Aafia Siddiqui returned to Karachi, leaving her husband in the US while they negotiated their future. She and the children returned to the US in January 2002 and started home-schooling her children. In May, the FBI questioned her and her and her husband about their spending $10,000 on night vision equipment, body armour, and other items. On June 26, the family returned to Karachi. In August, Amjad Khan announced his intent to divorce his wife, claiming she was abusive and possibly involved in extremist activities. In September, Aafia Siddiqui gave birth to her third child, her daughter Suleman. On Christmas Day 2002, Aafia Siddiqui began a ten-day job-seeking visit to the US, during which she assisted in opening a post office box for Majid Khan (unrelated), who the FBI said was an al-Qaida operative. She said it was a favor for a family friend (Kahn was arrested in March 2003 and sent to Guantanamo). In February 2003, Aafia Siddiqui may or may not (it’s hotly disputed) have married Ammar al-Baluchi, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, then being tortured in US custody in Guantanamo by the same agencies claiming the marriage took place. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly gave up Aafia Siddiqui’s name under torture.
In late March 2003, the FBI put out a worldwide alert for Aafia Siddiqui and her ex-husband (not the new husband the FBI said she had). On March 30, Aafia Siddiqui left her family’s home in Karachi with her three children, not to be seen again for more than five years (In 2004 the FBI listed her as one of seven Most Wanted Terrorists). The Aafia Foundation, a US non-profit dedicated to human rights, describes Aafia Siddiqui’s disappearance:
In March 2003, Dr. Siddiqui and her three young children (ages 6, 4, and six months) got into a taxi in Karachi, Pakistan, bound for the airport to visit a maternal uncle in Islamabad. They never made it. The taxi was stopped, all four were forcibly removed, and then they disappeared for the next five years. The day after the kidnapping, Aafia’s family received an ominous visit from a mysterious biker who bore a threatening message. When Aafia’s mother answered the door he warned, If you ever want to see your daughter and grandchildren again, be quiet!
Immediately the Pakistan interior ministry, local newspapers, NBC News, and the Boston Globe carried reports of an unnamed Pakistani woman taken into custody on terrorism charges. The Pakistani Urdu press reported that the family had been picked up by Pakistani authorities and taken into custody (in August 2008, the Daily Times of Pakistan reported on documents confirming that Pakistani Military Intelligence had taken the family into custody and turned them over to US authorities). Subsequent official denials notwithstanding, it’s most likely true that Aafia Siddiqui was separated from her children and held under US control in Bagram Airbase, where she was tortured. That is her testimony and other Bagram detainees report having seen her there. There is no more credible scenario.
On July 7, 2008, the British non-profit human rights NGO Cageprisoners held a press conference in Pakistan demanding to know what had happened to Aafia Siddiqui and her children. This created mass coverage internationally and brought pressure on Pakistani officials.
On July 17, 2008, Aafia and her son Ahmed inexplicably turned up in Ghazni, Afghanistan. They were haggard and unknown, carrying a bag, hanging out on the street near the governor’s palace. On July 17, Ghazni police took them into custody, fearful of a suicide attack. Ghazni police said the bag wasn’t a bomb but had some plans of the governor’s palace. Ghazni police met with a contingent of American officials who wanted custody of this woman, even though she wasn’t identified till several days later. In the meeting, according to the official story, Aafia Siddiqui was hidden behind a curtain in a second-floor meeting room where the officials met to discuss turning her over. She had no restraint or guard. An American soldier left his M-4 on the floor, safety on. She supposedly picked it up, fired two shots, hit no one, and got shot in the stomach. This was the story repeated at trial, with numerous discrepancies and contradictions. On July 19 the Associated Press reported on a conflict between US and Afghan forces over the jurisdiction of an unnamed female detainee who had been shot during the argument over jurisdiction.
In US custody, Aafia Siddiqui was taken to Bagram hospital and treated, tied to her bed with soft restraints and accompanied 24/7 by FBI agents. On July 31, she was charged in a sealed indictment on seven counts associated with her alleged shooting at Americans at the Ghazni police station. On August 4 she was extrajudicially rendered to the US on an FBI jet. Her children remained behind, unaccounted for.
Surprising no one, on February 3, 2010, a Manhattan jury found Aafia Siddiqui guilty on all seven counts stemming from the single Ghazni incident. The two-week trial had been a judicial farce from before the start, when Judge Richard Berman found the defendant competent to stand trial even though she showed clear signs of mental issues. As he usually did, he ruled in favor of the prosecution despite the contradictory findings of several psychiatrists and records showing that Aafia Siddiqui “had also spoken of visions of flying infants, a dog in her cell, and her children visiting her.” He did not address the obvious reality, that anyone who had endured what Aafia Siddiqui had endured during the previous decade could hardly be expected to participate effectively in her own defense. As it turned out, she did not. Her court-appointed attorney was experienced in matrimonial law and didn’t get along with the three high-priced attorneys hired by Pakistan. Their client worked well with none of them.
Then there was the prosecution’s case, which lacked any forensic evidence that the M-4 had been fired by anyone and relied entirely on the contradictory testimony of eye witnesses. That was unlikely to matter to a jury in high freakout over terrorism, fed by media bias calling Aafia Siddiqui “Lady al-Qaida.” Even when a report of a threat led the judge to allow two jurors to be excused out of fear for their lives, he refused to cause a mistrial. Aafia Siddiqui’s behavior, leading to multiple expulsions from the courtroom, only added to the circus atmosphere most likely to produce the desired government result.
At the sentencing hearing on September 23, 2010, after two postponements, Judge Berman sentenced the 38 year-old woman to 86 years in prison. The sentence included significant enhancement for terrorism, even though she wasn’t charged with terrorism. On appeal, everything the judge did was upheld. The US justice system had silenced a difficult suspect as required. She is now held all but incommunicado. Even when she is attacked and almost blinded by another prisoner, authorities don’t even notify her attorney. Whether this attack, on August 19, 2021, played any part in Malik Faisal Akram’s unhinged hostage taking in Colleyville hardly matters when the Muslim world at large continues to see the imprisonment of Aafia Siddiqui as a gross miscarriage of justice.
In a very real sense, the Colleyville attack is just one more instance of blowback against the thuggish madness of the US response to 9/11. The killing and maiming of perceived US enemies, regardless of guilt or innocence, continues now in its fourth malign American presidency. Of course the SWAT team went ahead and executed Malik Faisal Akram even after he was no longer a threat to anyone. He needed to be silenced.
President Biden, with his usual fatuous obtuseness, called this killing “the courageous work of state, local, and federal law enforcement.” The President glibly characterized the hostage taking as anti-semitic, even as he acknowledged he had no idea as to the motivation of the hostage taker. The President called the hostage taking “an act of terror,” demonstrating how little one has to do to be labelled a terrorist these days. But it was an act of terror it its way, as was the killing of the hostage taker, and a long line of acts of terror going back two decades.
So what’s the President supposed to do if not prolong the murderous policies of his three predecessors? He might close Guantanamo. He might recognize legitimate grievances, and try to mitigate them. He might stop using terror to fight terror. He might actually make a positive difference by simply pardoning Aafia Siddiqui and letting her return to Pakistan to live out her shattered life with her two surviving children. That’s likely to do less harm than not doing it.