Lady al Qaeda: The World's Most Wanted Woman

The Taliban wanted to trade Bergdahl for her. The Islamic State offered to swap Foley. Why does every jihadi group want the U.S. to free Aafia Siddiqui? 

Two years ago, a group of senior U.S. national security officials received a tantalizing proposal from officials in Pakistan. If the United States would release a Pakistani woman serving a lengthy prison sentence in Texas for attempted murder, Islamabad would try to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been missing since 2009 and was thought to be held in Pakistan by Taliban forces.

According to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the proposal, President Barack Obama's national security advisors swiftly rejected the offer. To free the prisoner, Aafia Siddiqui, who's linked to al Qaeda and was convicted in 2010 of attempting to kill Americans in Afghanistan, would violate the administration's policy of not granting concessions to terrorist groups, the officials concluded. It would also put a potentially dangerous fighter back on the street. Siddiqui, 42, who's known in counterterrorism circles as "Lady al Qaeda," has been linked to 9/11 ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and was once on the FBI's most-wanted terrorists list. Educated in the United States -- she studied at M.I.T. and received a doctorate from Brandeis -- Siddiqui was arrested in 2008 in Afghanistan carrying sodium cyanide, as well as documents describing how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs and how to weaponize Ebola. When FBI and military officials tried to question Siddiqui, she grabbed a weapon left on the table in her interrogation room and fired upon them.

Although U.S. officials never seriously considered trading Siddiqui, she has been a perennial bargaining chip for terrorists and Islamist militants who've made her release a condition for freeing a number of American and European prisoners over the years. The militants had repeatedly threatened to execute Bergdahl if Siddiqui wasn't set free. And the Islamic State terrorists who murdered American journalist James Foley last week had demanded Siddiqui's release to spare his life.

On Tuesday, the Islamic State again demanded her freedom, this time in exchange for a 26-year-old American woman kidnapped last year in Syria while working with humanitarian aid groups. Officials believe the Islamic State is holding at least four American prisoners, including journalist Steven Sotloff. The militants have also insisted upon a $6.6 million ransom for the young American woman, whose family doesn't want her identified. The Islamic State's demands were first reported by ABC News.

While the White House has steadfastly refused to put Siddiqui's release on the table in negotiating for American prisoners, a team inside the Defense Department has proposed trading her for American captives, according to a U.S. lawmaker.

"We are aware of at least one entity in the Defense Department that has developed possible options to trade Siddiqui. And we can say with certainty that the option was weighed for Bergdahl and several others in captivity," said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former Marine who has criticized the Obama administration for not doing more to free American prisoners.

A heated debate over whether the U.S. government should pay ransoms or conduct prisoner swaps in order to free American captives erupted after Foley's murder. The United States, unlike many European countries, doesn't pay ransoms. Some terrorism experts say that Americans are less likely to be kidnapped as a result. But some former prisoners and their families want the government to pony up if doing so will free Americans.

Kasper said the Siddiqui option in Bergdahl's case never reached Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. "That's a real shame, because right or wrong on trading Siddiqui, all valid options should be explored and exhausted," he said.

Senior administration officials said they were unaware of any proposal by a Pentagon unit to offer Siddiqui's freedom as part of hostage negotiations. And acquiescing is legally complicated, experts said. President Barack Obama would possibly have to pardon Siddiqui or commute her sentence because the United States and Pakistan don't have a treaty allowing Pakistanis incarcerated in the States to serve out their sentences back home. Experts said that the administration could probably have fashioned some solution, but doing so would have opened the White House to criticism that it was directly negotiating with terrorists.

And yet Bergdahl, for whom swapping Siddiqui was at least briefly considered, was ultimately freed in May in exchange for five high-ranking Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. That deal was criticized as a concession to militant groups and as a potential security risk. U.S. intelligence agencies two years ago concluded that those prisoners would eventually return to hostilities against the United States, according to a former senior official who helped write the assessment. The prisoners were remaindered to the Qatari government, which is to keep them in custody until next year.

Current and former officials have said that trading the "Taliban 5" for Bergdahl was in line with the tradition of exchanging prisoners in wartime and part of a broader effort to enter into peace negotiations with the Taliban to end fighting in Afghanistan. In that sense, officials have argued, Bergdahl's release was fundamentally different than any proposed swap for Siddiqui.

"I'm not going to get into any alleged internal deliberations and what ideas may have been generated, if any, on this issue," White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told Foreign Policy. "Aafia Siddiqui is serving a sentence of 86 years in prison for the attempted murder and assault of U.S. nationals and U.S. officers and employees in Afghanistan. The United States government, as a matter of long-standing policy, does not grant concessions to hostage takers. Doing so would only put more Americans at risk of being taken captive."

Siddiqui is something of a cause célèbre in Pakistan, where her 2010 U.S. conviction sparked numerous protests. "The reaction to the Siddiqui verdict was front-page news in all the major newspapers," according to a U.S. State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks. "A number of press articles condemned the U.S. and blamed the verdict on anti-Muslim bias," the cable read, noting that Siddiqui's conviction also "resurrected familiar allegations" that she'd been kidnapped by Pakistani intelligence agencies and the FBI, illegally detained in Afghanistan, and "physically and mentally abused by American soldiers." Some Pakistanis also protested their own government "for failing to do more to secure the return of Siddiqui and for its allegedly muted response to the verdict," the cable read. Her conviction bolstered ongoing internal criticism that the Pakistani government is too close to the United States, which has for years launched drone strikes on Pakistani soil with the consent of the country's leaders.

In Pakistan, a group of militants calling itself the Aafia Siddiqui Brigade has attacked government facilities in order to avenge what they see as her unfair trial and wrongful incarceration. A 2012 bombing of a police van in Peshawar that killed two officers, as well as a 2013 attack on a judicial complex that killed four people and wounded more than 50, were reportedly blamed on the pro-Siddiqui group.

Siddiqui's release has figured in several lower-profile prisoner negotiations, and not just for American citizens. In 2010, the Taliban demanded her freedom in exchange for British aid worker Linda Norgrove. The following year, a top Taliban official offered to swap her for two Swiss citizens who'd been kidnapped in Baluchistan. And al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has called for Siddiqui's release in exchange for freeing American contractor Warren Weinstein, who was kidnapped in Pakistan in 2011 and is now in al Qaeda custody, according to U.S. officials.

Kasper, the spokesman for Congressman Hunter, doubted that Siddiqui posed a serious risk to U.S. security and suggested that she was mentally impaired and likely incapable of carrying out any of the deadly attacks she may have been plotting when she was arrested. "If done correctly, there might have been ways to make [an exchange] work," Kasper said, adding that the possibility of freeing her for Bergdahl and others has never been properly presented to "the right entity within [the Defense Department]."

That assessment is at odds with former U.S. officials who said that Siddiqui's possible release for Bergdahl was quickly dismissed as unrealistic. But al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State don't appear to have gotten the message that the United States will not trade the imprisoned scientist.

In a letter published by ABC News, Siddiqui's family members said they were "very distraught" that her name had been invoked in the latest demands over the 26-year-old American woman held by the Islamic State.

"If the issue is true, we would like to state that our family does not have any connections to such groups or actions," the letter reads. "We believe in a struggle that is peaceful and dignified. Associating Aafia's name with acts of violence is against everything we are struggling for."

The family added, "While we deeply appreciate the sincere feelings of those who, like us, wish to see the freedom of our beloved Aafia, we cannot agree with a 'by any means necessary' approach to Aafia's freedom. Nor can we accept that someone else's daughter or sister suffer like Aafia is suffering."


Forgotten Missions

Out of the headlines but not out of action, the U.S. military is still engaged in long-forgotten interventions.

Remember the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped in April by Boko Haram? They're mostly still missing. The world's attention has moved on, but the U.S. military is still flying reconnaissance missions looking for them. It's also still searching for Joseph Kony, the murderous leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla group that first operated in Uganda but has since moved into a handful of other central African countries. Like the missing schoolgirls, Kony once inspired a viral social media campaign but lately has garnered little attention. Authorities think he's hiding in Kafia Kingi, a contested area along the Sudan-South Sudan border where U.S. and African Union troops have little access.

In this crisis-heavy summer, once high-priority missions are quickly falling off the public's -- and sometimes the national security establishment's -- radar. Even the biggest of U.S. military missions --Afghanistan, where roughly 29,000 U.S. troops are deployed -- seems to be on Washington's back burner compared with Ukraine and the threat of the Islamic State. But the commanders running these operations, as well as the personnel carrying them out, certainly haven't forgotten.

The Pentagon's top five "forgotten missions" follow.

The missing Nigerian schoolgirls:

In April, Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group, kidnapped nearly 300 teenage schoolgirls in Nigeria. Spurred to action by a global social media campaign with the hashtag "#BringBackOurGirls," Barack Obama's administration deployed manned and unmanned aircraft to help find the girls. It also dispatched advisors from the State and Defense departments as well as the FBI. In late May, 80 troops deployed to Chad to support and maintain unarmed Predator drones providing the mission with surveillance.

Approximately 60 girls have escaped, but the rest remain missing. Meanwhile, the United States flies manned and unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance flights 32 to 42 hours a week, according to the Pentagon. And the personnel sent to Chad are still there. U.S. Africa Command also has approximately five people on the State Department-led interagency coordination and assessment team at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja to assist the Nigerian government.

"While this effort is not an open-ended mission, there is also no specified end date," a spokesman for Africom told Foreign Policy.

The hunt for Joseph Kony:

In October 2011, President Obama sent a military team of 100 to help African forces track down Kony, who officials thought was hiding in the jungles of central Africa. This March, the president authorized more troops and the use of V-22 Osprey aircraft to aid the mission.

Today, the Obama administration is evaluating the mission, which is authorized through Oct. 25, and, as the administration routinely does, is considering whether to extend it. In the meantime, a new team of advisors is scheduled to replace the current team in September.

"The momentum for the mission within the administration is still high, at least for the moment," said Sasha Lezhnev, associate director for Congo, the Great Lakes, and the LRA at the Enough Project, an advocacy group focused on ending genocide and crimes against humanity.

Congress is also still on board. Before the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit this month, 76 House members sent Obama a letter supporting the ongoing operation.

Kasper Agger, who also works for the Enough Project and is based in Kampala, Uganda, said that though Kony remains at large, the mission is still largely viewed as successful.

"If you just look at the number of attacks, abductions, and killings done by the LRA, they're down by 80 to 90 percent over the last three years," he said.

Destroying Syria's chemical weapons:

Almost a year after a sarin gas attack unleashed by the Syrian government killed more than 1,400 civilians outside Damascus, the Defense Department quietly announced last week that Syria's most dangerous chemicals had been neutralized. U.S. civilian and military specialists began destroying the stockpile in early July aboard the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. container ship specially outfitted for the mission. Now that the mission is complete, the ship and its crew will soon return to the United States. Meanwhile, several reports claim that the Syrian government may still be using chlorine gas against rebels in opposition areas.

NATO air policing:

Following Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea in March, the United States contributed more F-15 fighter jets to NATO's Baltic air-policing mission, which began several years ago as a way to guard the airspace of NATO countries that don't have their own air-policing assets. In April, NATO tripled the number of aircraft involved from four to 12.

In the meantime, the United States has stepped up its activities elsewhere in the region. Also in March, the Pentagon announced that 12 F-16 fighter jets and about 300 U.S. troops were heading to Poland in response to the conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government. In October, approximately 600 new soldiers will rotate through to take part in training exercises aimed at reassuring European allies.


After 13 years of war and a force that once numbered 101,000, approximately 29,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan. Combat operations are set to end in December. Then the Obama administration plans to leave behind 9,800 troops through the end of 2015. But first Washington needs a signed bilateral security agreement from Afghanistan outlining the terms and conditions for maintaining a U.S. troop presence.

Outgoing President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the negotiated agreement, but both presidential candidates -- Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani -- have promised to. The problem is that an international audit of June's runoff election is ongoing, and until it's complete, no winner can be declared. The pressure to name a victor is growing. The United States wanted someone named president in time for next week's NATO summit. Meanwhile, Karzai says he's stepping down on Sept. 2 no matter what.

Sometimes being forgotten is not a bad thing:

These stories have fallen off the front page, but the military doesn't forget a mission just because it stops attracting headlines, said Richard Fontaine, the president of the Center for a New American Security. "These missions require real manpower and resources and often subject our fighting men and women to real risk."

And sometimes the lack of media attention signals a level of success, said retired Adm. James Stavridis, who's now dean at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. They could fall off the charts "because the media loses interest as the story line becomes routine -- or at least not disastrous in the day-to-day sense," he said, citing the NATO air-policing mission in Eastern Europe and the effort to destroy Syria's chemical weapons.

"The other reason is the simple press of the news cycle and the lack of new information to feed the 24-hour demand," Stavridis said. "I would put Joseph Kony and the Nigerian schoolgirls in this category." Still, there is an issue of limited capacity within the national security establishment, he said. "We have lots and lots of staff people working all the issues all the time, but a very limited number of high-level decision-makers."

The decline in the Defense Department's budget makes it even more important for officials in Washington to routinely review the department's ongoing missions, said Barry Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

"These shouldn't be forgotten. When a higher priority pops up, it should not be off the table that we pull out of something and we hand it off to a regional ally or another partner," he said.

Following the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu, also known as "Black Hawk Down," in 1993, the Pentagon rethought how to manage smaller missions, deciding to name them small-scale contingencies.

Mogadishu taught the United States that its military and political leadership must ensure that all the relevant tracks of an operation -- humanitarian, diplomatic, and military -- are integrated and in sync, Pavel said.

In Somalia "those got out of whack because no one was watching them on a day-to-day basis," he added.

Pavel said the sheer number of these missions today reveals a United States that is reacting to events rather than getting out ahead of them.

"I think the lack of strategy is contributing to this phenomenon," Pavel said. "The world's a little less certain right now, and without a strategy to help policymakers make sense of what's going on in the world, we're going to be reactive."

Photo by MICHELE SIBILONI/AFP/Getty Images