The Colleyville Hostage Crisis: Aafia Siddiqui's Continued Pertinence in Jihadi Terror Plots against the United States.

AuthorClifford, Bennet

On the morning of Saturday, January 15, 2022, at 10:00 AM local time, a man later identified as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram entered Congregation Beth Israel, a Jewish synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and took four individuals hostage at gunpoint during a livestreaming of Shabbat morning services. (1) Local police arrived at the scene at approximately 12:30 PM. (2) During negotiations with police, Akram demanded the release of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted in 2010 of attempting to murder U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. (3) Siddiqui is currently serving an 86-year sentence at a federal prison in nearby Fort Worth, Texas. (4)

Throughout the hostage crisis, Akram espoused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, told hostages that he expected to be "going to Jannah [heaven]" after the conclusion of the standoff, and repeatedly demanded to talk to Siddiqui. (5) At 5:00 PM, Akram released one hostage but continued to hold three others as negotiations with the FBI, local police, and his own family continued. (6) One hostage--the congregation's rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker -- reported that Akram became "increasingly belligerent and threatening" in the later parts of the standoff. (7) At around 9:00 PM, two FBI Hostage Rescue Teams (HRT), which had arrived on the scene earlier that day after being mobilized by the FBI in the early hours of the crisis, prepared to breach the synagogue. (8) Shortly thereafter, at 9:33PM local time, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and local police sources confirmed that the HRT breached the synagogue and that the remaining hostages escaped unharmed. (9) During the rescue, Akram was shot and killed by HRT officers. (10) In total, the standoff lasted 11 hours. (11)

The FBI's Joint Terrorism Taskforce is currently investigating the Colleyville hostage crisis as "a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted." (12) In the weeks following the attack, law enforcement investigations in the United States and United Kingdom and reporting by international media have uncovered additional information about Akram's background, motives, planning process, and travel from the United Kingdom. (13) Prior to the attack, Akram's longstanding financial problems, criminal record, and mental health issues were well-known to the local community in his hometown of Blackburn, as was his involvement in the conservative Islamist Tablighi Jamaat movement. (14) According to media reports, he was a known figure to British counterterrorism authorities, having been the subject of a 2001 court exclusion order for making threatening comments about the 9/11 attacks, two referrals to the British counter-extremism program PREVENT in 2016 and 2019, and a 2020 counterterrorism investigation by MI5. (15)

Despite this, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that "the U.S. government did not have any derogatory information" about Akram when he arrived in the United States at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 29, 2021. (16) After his arrival, Akram reportedly traveled to Dallas around New Year's Day, stayed in several homeless shelters in the area between January 1 and January 15, and purchased the Taurus Model G2C semiautomatic pistol used in the hostage-taking two days before the attack. (a) FBI and British law enforcement investigations into Akram's pre-incident planning are ongoing. On January 26, 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice charged the individual who allegedly sold Akram the pistol he used in the hostage-taking with unlawful possession of a firearm. (17) Throughout January 2022, police in the United Kingdom arrested six individuals in Manchester and Birmingham in connection with the Colleyville incident, including two of Akram's teenage sons; all were eventually released without charge. (b)

While more details about Akram and the Colleyville siege are likely forthcoming, the initial information, confirmed by the FBI, that Akram demanded Siddiqui's release connects his plot to dozens of attempts by jihadi groups and their supporters in the West toward freeing Siddiqui from U.S. federal prison. (18) To this end, this article examines the enduring role of Siddiqui's case for American jihadis, evaluating the Colleyville hostage crisis within the context of over a decade of jihadi efforts to secure her release from prison through various means. Beginning with a brief summary of Siddiqui's case and role in the jihadi movement, the article then explains how freeing Siddiqui has become a cause celebre for jihadis around the world, particularly in the West. It then evaluates the Colleyville siege alongside other American jihadi plots with a nexus to Siddiqui since her arrest, documenting instances of attack plots with inspirational ties to Siddiqui and attempts by Americans to secure her release through attacking prisons and taking hostages. Finally, the article offers a brief assessment of what the Colleyville hostage crisis and its linkages to Siddiqui might augur for future jihadi activity in the United States.

Who is Aafia Siddiqui?

Aafia Siddiqui is a singular figure within the history of jihadism, particularly in the West. Her case has understandably acquired a great deal of international interest and scrutiny, especially after her arrest, conviction, and imprisonment during the early 2010s. Without a doubt, the high-profile nature of her case and her relatively unique status as a woman with a reported operational role in al-Qa'ida contributed to her infamy, as does the enduring belief among her supporters that she was unjustly convicted. (19) Nevertheless, decades after her story initially made headlines, today's jihadi groups remain committed to ensuring her release from prison and continue to use her imprisonment as a propaganda device.

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Siddiqui traveled to the United States on a student visa in 1990, eventually settling in the Boston area and enrolling in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (20) She later obtained a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience from Brandeis University in 2001. (21) In June 2002, Siddiqui returned to Pakistan with her children after divorcing her first husband. (22) The U.S. government and several other sources believe that she remarried in 2003 to Ammar al-Baluchi, an al-Qa'ida operative and a key lieutenant of his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. (c) Reportedly, according to intelligence assessments from interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, between 2002 and 2003, Siddiqui provided assistance to a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed-directed operation to smuggle explosives and al-Qa'ida operatives into the United States and United Kingdom for attacks. (23) These reports further allege that Siddiqui traveled from Pakistan to the United States in January 2003 to apply for travel documents and open a post office box in Baltimore, Maryland, for Majid Khan, another al-Qa'ida operative who planned to conduct attacks in the United States. (24) The plot collapsed when Khan was arrested in Pakistan. (25)

Two months after her reported January 2003 visit to the United States, the FBI issued a "seeking information" notice relating to an active counterterrorism investigation on Siddiqui. (26) Days later, her parents reported that she had disappeared from their house in Karachi. (27) Sources vary as to Siddiqui's whereabouts between March 2003 and July 2008. The U.S. government claims that after the FBI issued its notice, Siddiqui fled with al-Baluchi and other al-Qa'ida operatives to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, which at the time was an al-Qa'ida safe haven. (28) In contrast, the government of Pakistan, her family, and many of her supporters claim that she was being held incommunicado by the U.S. military in various facilities, including at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. (29) On May 26, 2004, the FBI named Aafia Siddiqui as one of its most wanted terrorists, making her the first woman wanted by the FBI for her role in al-Qa'ida. (30) Former Central Intelligence Agency counterterrorism analyst Rolf Mowatt-Larssen claimed in a 2012 interview that Siddiqui was the only woman at the time on the CIA's authorized "kill or capture" list. (31)

On July 17, 2008, Afghan National Police officers in the city of Ghazni approached a woman who was loitering outside of the provincial governor's office, holding several bags. (32) The officers became suspicious when the woman did not speak either of Afghanistan's main languages, detained her, and conducted a search of her luggage. (33) They found, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, "numerous documents describing the creation of explosives, as well as excerpts from the Anarchist's Arsenal... descriptions of various landmarks in the United States, including in New York City," as well as "substances that were sealed in bottles and glass jars." (d) The next day, a team of U.S. federal law enforcement officers and military personnel arrived at the police station where the woman was being held. The DOJ claimed that the woman, later identified as Siddiqui, recovered an unsecured U.S. Army M-4 rifle from an Army Warrant Officer present at the scene and fired the rifle at the U.S. personnel. (e) The Warrant Officer returned fire with a sidearm, striking Siddiqui in the stomach, and subdued her. (34) As a result of her injury, Siddiqui lost consciousness and was transferred to Forward Operating Base Orgun-E in southeastern Afghanistan to receive medical aid. (35)

On August 4, 2008, after receiving treatment for her gunshot wound, Siddiqui was extradited to the United States to face trial on several federal charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. (36) After a drawn-out trial process, involving a series of medical and psychological evaluations and frequent endeavors by Siddiqui to frame the trial as a 'Zionist' conspiracy against her, on...

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