The Continuing Symbol of Aafia Siddiqui and the “Muslim Women Prisoners” in Sunni Jihadi Narratives

On January 15, a UK citizen, Malik Faisal Akram, took four people hostage in the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. The gunman, who was ultimately shot and killed in a standoff with police, had previously been investigated in 2020 by British domestic intelligence, MI5, which reportedly concluded he was not a threat. Staff at the Islamic Center of Irving in Texas reported that Akram became angry when his request to spend the night at the center was refused. The center’s staff say they escorted him out and he left after this. U.S. law enforcement agencies are still investigating Akram’s activities and timeline for unaccounted days in the U.S. as well as possible connections in the UK. This includes how he was able to obtain the handgun used in his attack.

Akram’s motivations remain unclear and still being investigated. His reported linking of his attack to the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is currently imprisoned serving an 86-year federal term in Texas after being convicted for trying to kill members of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, has drawn public attention. Federal prosecutors allege that she was a member of Al-Qaeda, charges her supporters deny. Her case has become an international cause célèbre among some, with groups formed to petition for her release, claiming her to be “innocent” and Pakistani government officials, including Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, claiming occasionally that they will try to get her released from prison.

Siddiqui’s case and her status at the top of the list of “Muslim female prisoners” held in the jails of “the Crusaders” has remained since her arrest, trial, and imprisonment a regular feature of Sunni jihadi rhetoric and narrative construction. Both Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS) and affiliated and allied organizations have demanded her release and attempted to rally the support of Muslims by invoking her name and the names of other “Muslim prisoners.” This is particularly true of Muslim women prisoners, the “honor” of whom Sunni jihadis claim to be avenging when they carry out, or try to carry out, attacks. Siddiqui and other women prisoners (as a general rhetorical group) have and continue to be regularly named as motivations by a host of jihadi ideologues, leaders, and organizations including Al-Qaeda Central’s amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) and its foreign fighters, and the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Jihadi commanders have also proven adept at using the issue of real and reported/perceived abuses of Muslim women, including prisoners, as a tool to re-socialize their followers to accept higher and more egregious types and levels of violence.

This post highlights just a handful of jihadi media and rhetorical narratives about Siddiqui specifically.

In February 2010, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad tried and failed to set off an VBIED in New York’s Times Square and was convicted and is currently serving to a life term without the possibility of parole. Shahzad admitted that he traveled to Waziristan, Pakistan in 2009 where he received a short bomb-making course to prepare him to carry out the VBIED attack, meeting also with TTP amir Hakimullah Mehsud and recording for TTP media a rather unenergetic “martyrdom” video and last will and testament. Among the causes he named were U.S. drone strikes and the imprisonment of Aafia Siddiqui.

Jihadis frequently have tried to shame Muslim men for not “heeding the call” of “our sister(s)” imprisoned by the “Crusaders.”
Ayman al-Zawahiri in a 2010 message about Siddiqui’s conviction.
The now late AQAP leader Nasr al-Ansi on Siddiqui.
In 2014, Islamic State claimed it would release American hostage James Foley, who it subsequently murdered, in exchange for Siddiqui’s release.
AQAP on Siddiqui’s case.
Siddiqui’s case highlighted in an Al-Qaeda e-magazine, Resurgence, in 2015.
The now defunct Jamiah Hafsa Internet discussion forum, once a hub for South Asian jihadis named after the women’s school in the Lal Masjid, invoking the famous story of the teenage Umayyad general Muhammad ibn Qasim, who is said to have led a military expedition into Sindh in response to calls for rescue from Muslim women imprisoned by a regional ruler there. Muhammad ibn Qasim is invoked as an example for Muslim men today to emulate by fighting to free imprisoned “chaste, pure” Muslim women from the prisons of the kuffar.
Mention of Aafia Siddiqui in the e-magazine of a shadowy East African jihadi group, Al-Muhajiroun, in 2015.

(Above): Lyrics from a particularly bad “rap” by the late Omar Hammami concerning Aafia Siddiqui and other Muslim women prisoners.

Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan e-magazine listing Siddiqui’s case as “proof” of the collusion of Pakistani officials with the “Crusaders.”

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