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Is prisoner teacher or terrorist?

NEW YORK — To supporters, Aafia Siddiqui is a devout Muslim, a scholar educated at MIT and Brandeis, who fled to Pakistan after Sept. 11 because of anti-Muslim sentiment.

To U.S. authorities, she is a reminder of the constant threat of terrorism, someone willing to blow up landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty.

Siddiqui, 36, now sits in a federal lockup in Brooklyn, nursing bullet wounds suffered in a shootout last month in Afghanistan.

Prosecutors say she was shot by an Army officer after she grabbed his rifle from the floor and pointed it at an Army captain, crying "Allah Akbar!"

One of her lawyers, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, said witnesses have said that Siddiqui never lunged for a weapon and that they never heard rifle shots.

According to an FBI affidavit, Siddiqui had been arrested a day before the shooting outside an Afghan governor's compound carrying bottles and jars of chemicals, papers describing U.S. landmarks, and instructions on making chemical weapons.

Sharp maintains that Siddiqui has been in U.S. custody since 2003.

A government official briefed on the case told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the list of targets included the Empire State Building, New York's Grand Central Terminal and the Statue of Liberty. The official described the group of targets as a "wish list" and said there doesn't appear to be evidence of a credible plot to attack any landmarks.

Siddiqui was born into a middle-class Pakistani family, one of three children of a doctor. Her brother, an architect, lives in Houston. Her sister, a Harvard-trained neurologist, lives in Karachi, Pakistan.

She came to the United States in 1990 and studied at the University of Houston and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she got a bachelor's degree in biology in 1995. She later studied cognitive neuroscience as a graduate student at Brandeis University.

Siddiqui's Brandeis dissertation adviser, psychology professor Paul DiZio, recalled her as an intelligent, reserved woman who wore a head scarf. "It's clear she was a woman of faith," he said. "She would describe an experiment and say 'Thanks to Allah, it turned out well.' "

He described her research as an examination of how people learn — nothing that would be useful to al-Qaida. "It's hard to imagine any possible connection," he said.

Another defense lawyer, Elizabeth Fink, said U.S. authorities repeatedly cite her background in neuroscience to make it seem she might have expertise in mixing chemicals, knowledge necessary for making bombs. She said Siddiqui was actually studying cognitive science with a focus on teacher training and had hoped to return to Pakistan to teach.

In the mid 1990s, Siddiqui married Mohammed Amjad Khan, an anesthesiologist from Pakistan, and had three children. Several months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the couple returned to Pakistan. Within a year, they had split up.

In March 2003, Siddiqui and her children dropped out of sight, shortly after Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed mentioned her name during an interrogation. Mohammed later claimed he named some innocent people just to please his captors, and Siddiqui's lawyers say he gave up her name under torture.

In 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly identified her among seven suspected al-Qaida operatives the FBI wanted to find.

Sharp believes her client has been held captive by the United States since being abducted in Karachi in 2003. She said Siddiqui's children also are in U.S. custody.

"What we have learned from her is that she was in custody for over five years," Sharp said.

Siddiqui is charged with attempted murder and assault for the alleged attempt to shoot the Army captain; if convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison.

Sharp insists her client is innocent. "I have no doubt that there really are real terrorists out there but she isn't one of them," she said.

Is prisoner teacher or terrorist? 08/23/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 4:39pm]

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