How America Makes its Enemies Disappear

November 1, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Petra Bartosiewicz, Harpers

When I first read the U.S. government’s complaint against Aafia Siddiqui, who is awaiting trial in a Brooklyn detention center on charges of attempting to murder a group of U.S. Army officers and FBI agents in Afghanistan, the case it described was so impossibly convoluted—and yet so absurdly incriminating—that I simply assumed she was innocent. According to the complaint, on the evening of July 17, 2008, several local policemen discovered Siddiqui and a young boy loitering about a public square in Ghazni. She was carrying instructions for creating “weapons involving biological material,” descriptions of U.S. “military assets,” and numerous unnamed “chemical substances in gel and liquid form that were sealed in bottles and glass jars.” Siddiqui, an MIT-trained neuroscientist who lived in the United States for eleven years, had vanished from her hometown in Pakistan in 2003, along with all three of her children, two of whom were U.S. citizens. The complaint does not address where she was those five years or why she suddenly decided to emerge into a public square outside Pakistan and far from the United States , nor does it address why she would do so in the company of her American son. Various reports had her married to a high-level Al Qaeda operative, running diamonds out of Liberia for Osama bin Laden, and abetting the entry of terrorists into the United States . But those reports were countered by rumors that Siddiqui actually had spent the previous five years in the maw of the U.S. intelligence system—that she was a ghost prisoner, kidnapped by Pakistani spies, held in secret detention at a U.S. military prison, interrogated until she could provide no further intelligence, then spat back into the world in the manner most likely to render her story implausible. These dueling narratives of terrorist intrigue and imperial overreach were only further confounded when Siddiqui finally appeared before a judge in a Manhattan courtroom on August 5. Now, two weeks after her capture, she was bandaged and doubled over in a wheelchair, barely able to speak, because—somehow—she had been shot in the stomach by one of the very soldiers she stands accused of attempting to murder.

It is clear that the CIA and the FBI believed Aafia Siddiqui to be a potential source of intelligence and, as such, a prized commodity in the global war on terror. Every other aspect of the Siddiqui case, though, is shrouded in rumor and denial, with the result that we do not know, and may never know, whether her detention has made the United States any safer. Even the particulars of the arrest itself, which took place before a crowd of witnesses near Ghazni’s main mosque, are in dispute. According to the complaint, Siddiqui was detained not because she was wanted by the FBI but simply because she was loitering in a “suspicious” manner; she did not speak the local language and she was not escorted by an adult male. What drove her to risk such conspicuous behavior has not been revealed. When I later hired a local reporter in Afghanistan to re-interview several witnesses, the arresting officer, Abdul Ghani, said Siddiqui had been carrying “a box with some sort of chemicals,” but a shopkeeper named Farhad said the police had found only “a lot of papers.” Hekmat Ullah, who happened to be passing by at the time of her arrest, said Siddiqui “was attacking everyone who got close to her”—a detail that is not mentioned in the complaint. A man named Mirwais, who had come to the mosque that day to pray, said he saw police handcuff Siddiqui, but Massoud Nabizada, the owner of a local pharmacy, said the police had no handcuffs, “so they used her scarf to tie her hands.” What everyone appears to agree on is this: an unknown person called the police to warn that a possible suicide bomber was loitering outside a mosque; the police arrested Siddiqui and her son; and, Afghan sovereignty notwithstanding, they then dispatched the suspicious materials, whatever they were, to the nearest U.S. military base.

The events of the following day are also subject to dispute. According to the complaint, a U.S. Army captain and a warrant officer, two FBI agents, and two military interpreters came to question Siddiqui at Ghazni’s police headquarters. The team was shown to a meeting room that was partitioned by a yellow curtain. “None of the United States personnel were aware,” the complaint states, “that Siddiqui was being held, unsecured, behind the curtain.” No explanation is offered as to why no one thought to look behind it. The group sat down to talk and, in another odd lapse of vigilance, “the Warrant Officer placed his United States Army M-4 rifle on the floor to his right next to the curtain, near his right foot.” Siddiqui, like a villain in a stage play, reached from behind the curtain and pulled the three-foot rifle to her side. She unlatched the safety. She pulled the curtain “slightly back” and pointed the gun directly at the head of the captain. One of the interpreters saw her. He lunged for the gun. Siddiqui shouted, “Get the fuck out of here!” and fired twice. She hit no one. As the interpreter wrestled her to the ground, the warrant officer drew his sidearm and fired “approximately two rounds” into Siddiqui’s abdomen. She collapsed, still struggling, then fell unconscious.

The authorities in Afghanistan describe a different series of events. The governor of Ghazni Province , Usman Usmani, told my local reporter that the U.S. team had “demanded to take over custody” of Siddiqui. The governor refused. He could not release Siddiqui, he explained, until officials from the counterterrorism department in Kabul arrived to investigate. He proposed a compromise: the U.S. team could interview Siddiqui, but she would remain at the station. In a Reuters interview, however, a “senior Ghazni police officer” suggested that the compromise did not hold. The U.S. team arrived at the police station, he said, and demanded custody of Siddiqui, the Afghan officers refused, and the U.S. team proceeded to disarm them. Then, for reasons unexplained, Siddiqui herself somehow entered the scene. The U.S. team, “thinking that she had explosives and would attack them as a suicide bomber, shot her and took her.”

Siddiqui’s own version of the shooting is less complicated. As she explained it to a delegation of Pakistani senators who came to Texas to visit her in prison a few months after her arrest, she never touched anyone’s gun, nor did she shout at anyone or make any threats. She simply stood up to see who was on the other side of the curtain and startled the soldiers. One of them shouted, “She is loose,” and then someone shot her. When she regained consciousness she heard someone else say, “We could lose our jobs.”

Siddiqui’s trial is scheduled for this November. The charges against her stem solely from the shooting incident itself, not from any alleged act of terrorism. The prosecutors provide no explanation for how a scientist, mother, and wife came to be charged as a dangerous felon. Nor do they account for her missing years, or her two other children, who still are missing. What is known is that the United States wanted her in 2003, and it wanted her again in 2008, and now no one can explain why.

Petra Bartosiewicz is a writer living in Brooklyn . Her last story for Harper’s Magazine, “I.O.U. One Terrorist,” appeared in the August 2005 issue.

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Community News, North America (US & Canada)

April 27, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

Curtain controversy in Chicago

CHICAGO, IL— The board of the Muslim Community Centre in Chicago has voted to let the organization’s president to work on a compromise on whether to replace a curtain hung to separate the men and women’s areas of the mosque.
The curtain was removed during renovations and since then has not been replaced. In an earlier meeting the board had voted 13-2 in favour of the “Not To Raise Curtain” resolution with two members abstaining.
Despite the vote Dr.Abdul Sattar, president of the MCC, said that a majority of the community wants the curtain divider and called for last Sunday’s meeting.
The new resolution calls on the president to take into consideration how women felt and to try to please everyone.

Minister praised for interfaith work

AUSTIN,TX—The Rev.Jim Mayfield, pastor of Tarrytown United Methodist Church, who retired recently was praised for his years of interfaith work. Imam Safdar Razi of the Islamic Ahlul Bayt Association said Rev. Mayfield played an important role in supporting the local Muslim community in the wake of Sept.11 attacks.
Under Mayfield’s leadership, the organization gathered clerics from different religions to pray on the steps of the Texas Capitol and “helped the Muslim communities a lot by letting people understand that Muslims also condemn the acts of terror and terrorism,” Razi told the Statesman.

Muslims join immigrant rights rally

DES PLAINES,IL— Muslims joined hundreds others in a rally calling for immigration rights and reform in the Des Plaines suburb of Chicago.
“We come here to work. We don’t come here to do anything bad or — we come here to have a better future,” said Lizeth Rios to ABC News.
What they’re doing right now is shameful and they’re trying to take away people’s hope. But there are good people who are doing things like that. We re trying do things in a peaceful matter. God did not create any borders,” said Rita Gonzales, Latin Americans United.
The rally ended with a prayer for those who had died trying to cross the border.

Nazir Baig passes away

BALTIMORE, MD—Nazir Baig, prominent Baltimore area Muslim community leader, passed away this week. He was a board member of the Muslim Community Center of Maryland. He also served as the organization’s trustee and chairman for 5 years and as president for 10 years. His tenure saw tremendous growth in the organization. He actively took part in various community building activities. He worked as a town planner for the Montgomery County.

New mosque in San Luis Obispo

SAN LUIS OBISPO,CA—- The Islamic Center of the Central Coast is seeking a building permit to build a new mosque and community center on Walnut Street in San Luis Obispo. The new mosque will be bigger than the centre’s present one.
Architect Heidi Gibson said the mosque’s new location makes it a good fit among San Luis Obsipo’s cultural and spiritual centers.
“We have the mission downtown. We have the other downtown churches,” Gibson told the Tribune. “Now weíll have a mosque.”
The mosque has already received approval from the city’s commissions and it can take three months to a year before permits are granted and construction begins.

Eid ul Fitr poem wins Ray Bradbury award

CHICAGO, IL—Faisal Mohyuddin’s poem Eid-ul-Fitr, 1946 won the coveted Ray Bradbury Poetry Writing Contest surpassing 118 entries received from across the world. Mohyuddin, 27, teaches English teacher at Highland Park High School.
The poem is described as a wrenching, fictional ode to a little boy lost amid the prayers and politics of Pakistan.”
“[The poem] is about impending loss, a lot of violence, pain and suffering,” Mohyuddin told the Chicago Tribune.
Mohyuddin’s other entry, The Sadness, also attained a honourable mention in the contest.

Saudi culture shared at Valparaiso

VALPARAISO, IN— Saudi students at the Valparaiso University held a special program to inform the community about the Saudi culture including music, food, religion and life. Around hundred people attended the event sponsored by the International Studies Office of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Student advisor of the Saudi Culture Mission Dr.Faleh Al Hogbani told the student newspaper: “In the Saudi culture we encourage this kind of event and encourage students to spread the culture to the real people of America, not just in D.C.”
The attendees were treated to a multimedia presentation, demonstration of Azan and prayers and lectures. Dr.Nelly Van Doorn-Harder, Patheja professor of world religions and ethics at the university, discussed the history and significance of Saudi Arabia to the Muslim world.
“Saudi Arabia is a country that despite everything, upholds the true concept of Islam,” said Van Doorn-Harder, who has traveled all over the world to study religion.
There are 80 students from Saudi Arabia currently studying at Valparaiso University.

Egyptian student shares perspectives

MADISON, WI— Ahmed Ayad is computer science student working on his Phd at UW-Madison. He is one of of about 60 students from countries around the world who volunteer to share their experiences and perspectives with audiences on and off campus as part of the university’s International Reach program.
Ayad,31, says he wants to present a more realistic picture of Egyptian culture while speaking to a group of eighth graders at Waunakee Middle School. “I want them to come away with a closer-to-reality idea of what a place like Egypt looks like,” he told the State Journal.
The International Reach program was started in the 1990s by Lise Skofronick, a member of Madison Friends of International Students, and was later adopted by the university, said Merilee Sushoreba, student services coordinator, who coordinates the program’s on-campus component.
But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, International Reach was put on hiatus because of staff constraints and the need to focus on implementing new federal policies for students from other countries, said Stephanie Cowan, international student advisor, who coordinates the program’s off-campus component.
The program began making a comeback in 2004, and is now going strong after receiving a $5,000 grant from the university’s Kemper K. Knapp Bequest, which has paid for a student assistant this year to help with scheduling and other costs, such as materials and transportation.
Ayad, who came to UW-Madison in 2000, said people have a lot of misconceptions about the Middle East. “The most troubling to me is the misconception about religion,” he said.
While the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the current war in Iraq “have not helped,” Ayad said they also have sparked interest in the Muslim faith.
Though he keeps his presentations “as neutral as possible,” sticking to subjects such as history and culture, Ayad told his audience of eighth- graders, “You guys can ask me any question you want.”