In recent months, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) offered to release American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff in exchange for Aafia Siddiqui—an MIT-trained Pakistani neuroscientist convicted in an American court in 2010 of trying to kill Americans. She now is serving an 86-year sentence in a Texas federal prison.
Washington said no. ISIL went on to execute Foley and Sotloff.
A Cause Celebre
This isn’t the first time militants have taken up Siddiqui’s cause. Many jihadists in Pakistan, where she is a cause celebre, have demanded her freedom. However, militants outside of Pakistan have said less about her (one exception is an al-Qaeda affiliate in Algeria who called for her release last year). ISIL’s decision to invoke her name suggests there may be influential Pakistanis within the group’s ranks or whispering in the right ISIL leader’s ear.
Additionally, it could mean that ISIL wants to use Siddiqui as a way to gain sympathy and support in Pakistan—and across the broader Muslim world. For many Islamist militants, Siddiqui embodies Muslim victimhood in the face of U.S. evil, and she stands as a powerful symbol of how poorly Americans treat innocent Muslims in the global campaign against terror. Many jihadists likely believe they are channeling the grievances of Muslims in Pakistan and beyond by taking up the cause of what they regard as a deeply wronged innocent Muslim woman and demanding that she be freed.
The reasons behind ISIL’s decision to latch onto Siddiqui have generated much media speculation. However, one angle of this story has largely gone unexplored: Could the United States actually decide to release Siddiqui?
The Case Against Siddiqui
Conventional wisdom would say absolutely not. The United States believes she is a hardened terrorist. It would never free a hardened terrorist. And it would certainly never negotiate with the terrorists calling for her release.
Indeed, the evidence presented by U.S. prosecutors at Siddiqui’s 2010 trial does constitute a damning indictment. According to American accounts, Siddiqui became increasingly radicalized while studying at MIT. She divorced her husband for refusing to launch jihad in Afghanistan. She then married a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. U.S. officials say she returned to Pakistan and helped Osama Bin Laden plan attacks. In 2008, according to the American case, U.S. troops found her in Afghanistan bearing chemical solutions, bomb-making instructions and other evidence suggesting she was planning terror strikes. Then, according to witnesses, while being interrogated by U.S. agents she grabbed a gun, screamed profanities at U.S. agents, threatened to kill them and pulled the trigger.
This account is strikingly different from the one presented by Siddiqui’s family, which describes her as a sweet and gentle soul who has done absolutely nothing wrong. Her lawyers and supporters say that she was abducted while riding to the Islamabad airport en route to visit relatives, that she was shuttled between detention camps in Afghanistan and that the chemical materials and other evidence found on her person by U.S. troops had been planted.
Of course, the conventional wisdom—that the United States neither negotiates with terrorists nor releases them—was apparently turned on its head earlier this year. In late May 2014, Washington freed five Guantanamo Bay-based Afghan Taliban members in exchange for U.S. POW Bowe Bergdahl, who was being held captive by the Afghan Taliban. Though the facts about the five freed Taliban fighters remain unclear, it appears that they had been involved in or supportive of some level of terrorist activity.
What’s worth mentioning about the Bergdahl case, however, is that the Afghan Taliban—unlike organizations such as the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda—is not formally classified by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. Although the Afghan Taliban is a member of the U.S. government’s list of Specially Designated Terrorist Groups, this classification is separate from State’s foreign terrorist organizations list. Some will point to reports that Bergdahl was actually being held captive by members of the Haqqani network, a part of the Afghan Taliban that does appear on State’s foreign terrorist organization list. Critically, however, Washington did not negotiate Bergdahl’s release with any Haqqani members. Through the mediation of Qatari officials, the United States negotiated the prisoner swap with Tayyab Agha, the Taliban’s political representative in Doha.
What It Would Take to Get Siddiqui Released
This all suggests that if Siddiqui has any chance of freedom, the demand for her release and negotiations to secure her release would need to involve a militant group (or some other entity) that the State Department does not formally classify as a foreign terrorist organization. Another more obvious criterion is that Siddiqui would need to be released in exchange for a U.S. citizen.
Given these criteria, there may not be many opportunities for a potential swap. There are currently no U.S. POWs. Most if not all Americans now known to be captives of Islamist militants, who are most likely to demand Siddiqui’s release, are being held by the likes of al-Qaeda or other groups that Washington formally classifies as foreign terrorist organizations. Warren Weinstein, kidnapped in Pakistan several years ago, is being held by al-Qaeda. Abdul-Rahman Kassig and an unidentified American woman are captives of ISIL. The identities of the captors of several other Americans, including Austin Tice—who disappeared in Syria in 2012—are not known, at least not publicly.
Then there is Caitlin Coleman. She is an American woman who, along with her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, has been a captive of the Afghan Taliban since 2012. Just after Bergdahl’s release, a video surfaced of the two pleading with their governments to get them freed. Based on the Bergdahl precedent, Coleman and her captors seem to meet the criteria for a potential swap for Siddiqui. However, the U.S. government has given little indication that it is actively seeking her freedom. More importantly, American authorities have suggested that they agreed to the Bergdahl swap because of Bergdahl’s POW status, not simply because he is an American.
Until recently, there may have been another reason for Washington to consider releasing Siddiqui: its relationship with Pakistan. The United States continues to rely on safe passage into Afghanistan through Pakistani-based supply routes. Washington might have considered a swap in order to build more goodwill with Pakistan, and Siddiqui’s release would breathe all kinds of goodwill into the tortured U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
To be sure, however, such a scenario was always unlikely. Back in 2012, Islamabad offered to use its influence with the Taliban to try to free Bergdahl if the United States would free Siddiqui—an offer immediately nixed by President Obama. Just last year, U.S. officials rejected rumors of a proposed swap between Siddiqui and Shakil Afridi, the imprisoned Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA track down Bin Laden.
In reality, the notion of orchestrating a swap to help boost U.S.-Pakistan relations is now essentially a non-starter given that the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan is nearly complete. (Washington has now concluded an agreement with Kabul that ensures a post-2014 presence, but this residual force will be small in number—less than 10,000 soldiers—and it will mainly provide training to Afghan security personnel.) In the coming months, Washington won’t have as much of an incentive to build goodwill with Islamabad.
Conventional Wisdom to Carry the Day?
In the end, the conventional wisdom will likely hold: Washington won’t release Siddiqui because it regards her as an unrepentant terrorist. Additionally, the narrowly defined criteria that would need to be in place to warrant the release of such a dangerous figure simply do not appear to exist.
Also, a final note on the Bergdahl precedent is in order. The five Taliban members exchanged for him had been detained at Guantanamo as enemy combatants; they had not been convicted or imprisoned. By contrast, Siddiqui was convicted in a U.S. federal court and sentenced to nearly 100 years in prison. Releasing her would presumably require a legal reversal of her conviction, a presidential pardon or a presidential commutation. Of course, none of this applied to the Guantanamo Five. Ultimately, drawing parallels between the Bergdahl swap and a potential one involving Siddiqui may simply amount to comparing apples and elephants. With an exchange or release unlikely, Siddiqui appears destined to spend the rest of her life in U.S. federal prison. Earlier this year she asked to withdraw what is likely the last appeal of her conviction. Her reasoning? She had no faith in the American legal system and refused to participate in it.
On October 9, a U.S. district judge granted her wish to withdraw the appeal.
Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.