Islamist groups in the United States and abroad waged a months-long propaganda campaign to free convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui from a Texas prison before a British national attacked a nearby synagogue in her name this weekend.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) revived a years-long misinformation campaign in August, including a September protest outside the Carswell federal prison, where Siddiqui is serving an 86-year prison sentence on charges that she tried to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan in 2008.
Like many of Siddiqui's allies, CAIR has, without any evidence, disputed allegations of her ties to terrorism or that she shot at American personnel in the course of her capture. In lieu of evidence, the groups offered claims from Siddiqui herself, even as her own defense counsel pointed to questions of her competency to explain her anti-Semitic outbursts at trial. The groups have also put forth a barrage of conspiracy theories about the American government.
"She's been heavily mythologized and turned into a martyr, but there's plenty of evidence she's nothing of the sort," said Thomas Joscelyn, a scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has tracked al Qaeda's network. "It raises questions about why these groups are hell bent on turning her into one."
CAIR began posting about Siddiqui on its social media accounts in August after years of relative silence about her case. In November 2021, the group organized a visit to Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress to free Siddiqui. The group claims that Siddiqui had been "brutally attacked" by a fellow inmate on July 30, 2021, and held in solitary confinement.
CAIR's protest outside Carswell in September coincided with a global online campaign to support her cause. The Twitter hashtag "#free_sister_aafia" trended on Twitter on the same day as the event. The online campaign was supported by Anjem Choudary, a British cleric notorious for his outspoken defense of ISIS. Choudary said on his blog on Sept. 13, 2021, that Siddiqui had been attacked in prison and should be freed by force or ransom. It is unclear if Malik Faisal Akram was aware of Choudary or CAIR's remarks about Siddiqui.
A review of public statements about the alleged jailhouse attack on Siddiqui shows CAIR has inflated the initial allegation. Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, a spokesman for Pakistan's foreign office, said soon after the alleged attack that Siddiqui had sustained "minor injuries" during an altercation with a fellow inmate, but that she "was doing fine."
But CAIR claimed Siddiqui was the victim of a "brutal attack" and was placed in solitary confinement for 60 days. Faizan Syed, the head of CAIR's Dallas-Fort Worth office, claimed during CAIR's protest at Carswell prison on Sept. 19, 2021, that Siddiqui had been held in solitary confinement for 48 days. In an interview a month earlier, Syed said Siddiqui had been released from solitary confinement and had been in contact with her attorney.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to respond to questions about the alleged incident, citing privacy concerns for prisoners. The press office at Carswell did not respond to questions.
CAIR also spread oft-cited but unfounded claims about Siddiqui during a press conference on Saturday to denounce Akram's synagogue attack. Syed reiterated calls for Siddiqui's release from Carswell. Siddiqui's attorney, Marwa Elbially, asserted Siddiqui was the "victim of CIA torture" at a black site before her 2008 arrest.
There is no evidence to support Siddiqui's backers' claim she was held at a secret CIA prison for five years before her arrest. Judge Richard Berman, who presided over Siddiqui's case, said during trial that there was no evidence that Siddiqui was held by the CIA or other U.S. agencies.
Siddiqui was convicted in 2010, years after the FBI placed the MIT-educated neuroscientist on its "Most Wanted" list over her alleged ties to al Qaeda. Siddiqui married the nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and opened a post office box in the United States for another al Qaeda operative. She was also arrested in Afghanistan with papers describing a "mass casualty event" to be carried out in the United States.
Akram on Saturday stormed Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, demanding Siddiqui's release. He held the rabbi and three congregants hostage and was killed after an 11-hour standoff. Akram has not been linked to CAIR.
CAIR did not respond to requests for comment.