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Aafia Siddiqui: Another Person Disappeared in the War on Terror

Cullen Goldblatt
Date Published: 
January 01, 2007

SEEKING INFORMATION states the FBI in large bold letters at the top of the notice, then:

Date of Birth Used: March 2, 1972

Details: Although the FBI has no information indicating this individual is connected to specific terrorist activities, the FBI would like to locate and question this individual.

Aafia Siddiqui is one of the War on Terror’s “disappeared.” I have spent six months reading about her, and trying to write a poem. It is difficult not to sound shrill, or obsessed. My unwieldy poem, like the articles and letters I read, is less about her, than it is about the writer's fascinations. Primary among these fascinations is the underlying question – how can someone just disappear?

My files are organized chronologically (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007) and are of unequal sizes. 2004 is the thickest by far, I’m not sure why. Even the simplest facts of her life – her birth date, her degrees, her location, her marital status, her country of citizenship – none of them go uncontested in my pages of my files. All have been denied, ignored, omitted, restated, or misstated, used.

This is what I know. Aafia Siddiqui was born on March 2, 1972, in Karachi, Pakistan. She lived for ten years in the Boston area - attending MIT for college, studying neuroscience at Brandeis for graduate work, and starting a family. She holds or held US-Pakistan dual citizenship. She disappeared from Karachi, Pakistan, with her three young children at the end of March 2003. She is Muslim. She may be dead. Her mother’s name is Ismat Siddiqui. Her older sister’s name is Fawzia Siddiqui. “Siddiqui,” I have learned, means “truthful.”

It has been now slightly over four years now since Aafia Siddiqui’s disappearance. The factual confusion is not limited to the facts of her identity; the ambiguities and conflicting assertions reach a pitch around the circumstances of her disappearance. Some examples:

On March 18, 2003, the FBI first issued an alert that Aafia Siddiqui and her husband were wanted for questioning. At the time of her disappearance, the Press Trust of India, the Indian paper The Hindu, the Pakistani English-language daily Dawn, and the Pakistani Urdu-language press all report that Siddiqui had been “picked up” in Karachi. At least one Urdu article specifies that she was taken by a law enforcement agency.

In the first week of April 2003, a Chicago NBC report, drawing on the Press Trust of India, records that Pakistani authorities “handed over” Siddiqui to US Intelligence officials for interrogation. Similarly, a May 1, 2003, Newsweek article cites the claims of “inside sources” in stating that Siddiqui “had been ‘picked up’ by intelligence agencies on the way to the airport and that initial reports suggest that she was handed over to the FBI.” However, the multitude of widely disseminated initial reports was followed by silence, and then by official denials. At a 2004 press conference, Robert Mueller and John Ashcroft name Aafia Siddiqui as one of the seven most dangerous terrorists, thus moving several steps beyond the previous official stance of merely wanting locate and question her.

Today, neither US nor the Pakistani governments claim to know anything about Aafia Siddiqui’s disappearance, let alone take responsibility for it. Meanwhile inaccurate statements and conflicting statements continue to abound in my files. Alleged Pakistani acknowledgement of Siddiqui’s detention and "hand-over" to the US authorities is later allegedly denied. Siddiqui’s professional field is alleged to be microbiology, she is alleged to be divorced from Mohammed Khan, or estranged from him, or he is simply referred to as her husband. Some statements have her obtaining her PhD from MIT, not Brandeis. Some attempt to portray her as a science and computer mastermind, based primarily on one 1996 article she wrote for the MIT Information Systems newsletter and the recurrent false statement that her PhD is in microbiology. Unfounded accusations appear and recede in the US media. They range from Siddiqui brokering a diamond deal in West Africa on behalf of Al Qaeda to her opening a Baltimore post office box for an Al-Qaeda member. Lately, however, there are few mentions of her, of whatever accuracy or motivation. Some renewed media attention in 2006 seems to have dwindled to silence.

I try not to spend too much time with my articles and reports. I have found the intentional misinformation and the contradictory stories to be less disturbing than the lack of information about even the most banal and seemingly verifiable of facts. The dizzying proliferation of assertions is slightly more manageable than the omissions. I can explain the political motivations behind the accusations, but I cannot come to terms with this second disappearance of her personhood – this gap where fundamental facts of her life should be.

The uncertainty the FBI inserts into even Aafia Siddiqui’s birth date makes me furious. But the lack of even basic information about her children disturbs me the most, maybe because it was months before I gave the children real thought - I am horrified I overlooked them. Perhaps I did so because I, like the media and presumably the US and Pakistani intelligence agencies, thought the symbol of Aafia Siddiqui was far more important than the three other people who were disappeared with her.

A December 2005 Global Center for Human Rights paper states the ages of Siddiqui’s children as 7, 5, and 6 months old - four years ago, that is. In his spring 2004 letters to the Pakistani paper Dawn, Siddiqui’s uncle writes that she was disappeared along with her children, aged 7 years to 3-and-a-half months. The April 3, 2003, NBC report states the ages of her children as 6, 3, and 9 months. I have found no report, no letter, no statement, no article which gives the children’s names.

I like reading the letters readers write to Dawn, the paper which published one of the early reports of her disappearance. There is an electronic version of the paper; some readers email their responses. Many letters are precise and impassioned, with titles like, “Where are the missing?” and “Hazards of a Closed System.” “Citizens of the republic continue to vanish without a trace,” another begins, before cataloguing the identities and circumstances of some of the Pakistani disappeared.

I like reading Siddiqui’s PhD dissertation abstract the best. I can hear her voice at moments - and I can read firsthand that her field is neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscience, in fact - Siddiqui was interested in how people learn, in particular in how people perceive, remember, and enact what we observe. For her research, she asked volunteers to view and then recreate the movement of a disk across a computer screen, in order to study the components of visual perception and memory. She writes, They saw only the momentary positions of the disc and had to knit together those momentary samples. And, a few paragraphs later, In a sequence of movements without a visible trail, it is harder for the subject to form a picture or a story.

For their 2005 report, “Fate and Whereabouts Unknown: Detainees in the War on Terror,” the Global Center for Human Rights chose to give the stories of 28 disappeared people, believed to be secret CIA detainees. Aafia Siddiqui is one of them. The paper begins by asking, “How are people disappeared?” It answers, that in the "War on Terror," four “practices may entail disappearance:”

  1. Individuals are held in US-controlled secret detention facilities (""black sites") or in foreign facilities run with US involvement.
  2. Individuals are held in foreign facilities at the direction of the United States.
  3. Individuals are extraordinarily rendered.
  4. Individuals are detained in conflict zones and are not properly registered – i.e. CIA "ghosts" held in military facilities.

My shortest and simplest answer, all I know really, is that it is easy to be disappeared. It is easy for a state to disappear a person, easy for the US state in its all-encompassing war. Membership in a social elite, an economically privileged life, a prestigious education, these have not proven to be protection. Neither has US citizenship.

In September 2006, George Bush announced that, with the transfer of 14 people from the CIA’s secret prison program to military custody in Guantanamo Bay, “There are now no terrorists in the CIA program.” What has happened to the other people believed to be in CIA detention?

A February 28, 2007, Human Rights Watch report explains further that Bush had not declared that the CIA was renouncing its ways and permanently closing its secret prison program. HRW continues, “Indeed, the apparent purpose of his speech was the opposite: he argued that ‘as more high-ranking terrorists are captured, the need to obtain intelligence from them will remain critical – and having a CIA program for questioning terrorists will continue to be crucial to getting life-saving information.’"

In February 2001, Aafia Siddiqui wrote in her dissertation’s Acknowledgements, I would like to thank my mother, Ismat Siddiqui, for my dissertation is a direct result of her motivation, strong encouragement and support…. Nothing in the Universe can replace her!

I read about torture too much. I reread my files and Aafia Siddiqui’s dissertation abstract. I wonder about what I am not reading. Where, for example, are the letters to US papers, asking about the disappeared? Where is our public outrage? I did not find one letter to a US paper, in my admittedly limited internet research, inquiring as to the whereabouts of our fellow citizen Aafia Siddiqui.

Where are our words, our signs and marches - listing their names, demanding their release?

The US government has never formally suspected Aafia Siddiqui of any crime. The FBI notice, SEEKING INFORMATION, is still posted.