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.”

Islamic State’s Iconoclasm

Islamic State blows up a Syrian Sufi shrine.
In March 2014, Islamic State blew up the double shrine complex of ‘Ammar ibn Yasir and Uways al-Qarani, two supporters of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib who were killed at the Battle of Siffin against the Umayyad ruler Mu’awiyya I in 657.
In July 2014 Islamic State blew up the Shrine of the Prophet Yunus (Jonah) in Mosul, Iraq.

Jihadi Culture in Somalia: ‘Eid al-Adha 1441

The IS-Somalia khatib (deliverer of the congregational prayer sermon) for ‘Eid al-Adha prayers with the staff signalling his role and the authority of Islam. The act of holding a staff (sometimes a spear or other instrument depending on local practices) is considered by some Muslim jurists to be mustahabb (recommended but not required).
Congregational ‘Eid al-Adha prayers.

My New Article, "Addressing the Enemy: Al-Shabaab’s PSYOPS Media Warfare" (CTC Sentinel)

The article examines 6 cases of Al-Shabaab’s psychological warfare (PSYOPS) & information and influence and information warfare operations:

(1) the group’s January 2020 Manda Bay airfield attack in Kenya on a military base used by U.S. forces;

(2) 2010 Mogadishu stalemate between Al-Shabaab and the African Union & the start of the Somali insurgent group’s new “jihadi journalism media campaign;

(3) 2011 Dayniile ambush by the group killing scores of Burundian African Union troops;

(4) 2014 Mpeketoni raids by Al-Shabaab on a town and its environs in Kenya blamed by the country’s president (falsely) on his political opponents despite clear evidence to the contrary;

(5) Al-Shabaab’s multi-part campaign to sway the outcome of Kenya’s 2017 general elections;

(6) Al-Shabaab’s leader addressing Americans about the use of national resources abroad despite record mass shootings & natural disasters in U.S. during 2019;

In addition to examining the specifics of each case, I look at how Al-Shabaab attempts to broaden the reach of its PSYOPS propaganda products by attracting attention from external news media. Sometimes successful, its success rate is also mixed. Media warfare demonstrates both Al-Shabab’s significant capabilities but also its limitations, particular operationally in its bid to take over the Somali state.

The article can be read online at the CTC Sentinel’s WEBSITE.

A downloadable PDF of the article is available at my Academia.edu profile page.

Jihadi Visual Culture and the Power of Images: A Tale of Two Flags in Somalia

Symbolism is central to proto-state jihadi visual culture and media operations campaigns. From flags to uniforms, insignia, posters and billboards, and street and building names and signage, groups like Al-Shabab in Somalia, like nation-states, understand the power of images, language, and the (idealized) framing of history.

Here in photographs taken by Al-Shabab after its temporary capture of the Somali government’s El-Salin (El-Salini) military base in the Lower Shabelle region, the insurgent group juxtaposes victorious militants with defeated (and fallen) Somali National Army soldiers, represented by a fallen or discarded army flag.