Convicted Lady Al Qaeda: Chillingly Calm and Collected, When She Wants to Be

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Siddiqui in 2004. Photo: Getty Images

Though the future trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other 9/11 hijackers was moved out of New York City, for the past couple of weeks we've been privy to a preview of what that sort of trial might look like. In the same courthouse where KSM and his cohorts were scheduled to be tried, a jury just handed down a guilty verdict in the strange case of Aafia Siddiqui, a.k.a. "Lady Al Qaeda," a neuroscientist with degrees from MIT and Brandeis who was detained by Afghan police in 2008 after being found loitering outside the governor's compound with a purse full of chemicals, a recipe for a dirty bomb, and handwritten descriptions of a "mass casualty attack" and major sites in New York, among them the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.

According to the complaint against her, the day after being detained, while in prison, Siddiqui managed to get a hold of an M4 rifle that had been left unattended, and ambushed the American team —two American soldiers and interpreters, and two F.B.I. agents— that had been brought in to question her. Shouting "God is Great," she fired at least two shots, but no one was hit.

During her trial over the past couple of weeks, the press made Siddiqui out to be a babbling zealot, and critics have lambasted federal judge Richard Berman for allowing her to turn the courtroom into her own soapbox. The Daily News editorial board warned that "long ago, Berman should have banished Siddiqui to observing the proceedings via closed-circuit television from a remote location — thereby achieving decorum and depriving Siddiqui of a platform from which to espouse a demented agenda that she has advanced quite effectively." And Michelle Malkin wrote, "she has used the civilian court system to shout anti-American propaganda and spew hatred against Jews, cause legal chaos, and make a mockery of the rights she has been granted." (At the start of the trial, Siddiqui told the judge in her case that she wanted the members of her jury to take a DNA test to make sure they weren't Jews. At the end, as the jury exited after issuing their verdict, she said to them: "This is a verdict coming from Israel and not from America.")

Truly, Siddiqui had trouble controlling herself, announcing that she did not trust her lawyers, and interrupting proceedings with loud, seemingly unhinged outbursts several times. By the time the trial was reaching its endpoint, even Siddiqui's own lawyers didn't want her to take the stand, but she insisted on doing so — and this is where the trial's most startling twist occurred: She put on an eloquent, carefully innocent performance. Looking impossibly tiny, swaddled in a loose-fitting tunic and flowing pants, she wore her silky white veil up to her nose and down to her eyebrows. (At one point, a five-minute pause was called so she could demurely drink water behind a wall, thus not having to pull down her veil to hydrate in front of everybody). Occasionally she would gesture her ladylike hands enough to dislodge her veil — she wasn't allowed to handle pins in order to secure it — but other than that, she was the picture of calm. Under cross-examination she bantered and she countered; at times, she even giggled.

"You can't build a case on hate," she told the jury at one point. "You have to build it on fact."

She called allegations that she'd fired the M4 at Americans "the biggest joke." "Sometimes I've been forced to smile under my scarf," she said, eyes crinkling at the mystified prosecutor. She had never touched an M4, she said. "The first time in my conscious recollection that I have seen one was in this courtroom." She giggled.

Siddiqui claimed that the purse had been given to her, and that the documents inside it were copied from a magazine, something she had been forced to do in the "secret prison." As for incriminating statements she made to her FBI security detail while being treated at Bagram Air Force Base, she thought they were giving her "an exercise to retain false information."

"That's how they played the game before," she explained. "It was standard practice of the fake Americans" — that is, the Americans at the "secret prison" — "for so many years. If I don't say what I've been told hundreds of times to say, it's torture." She smiled. "If I knew I was in the hands of real Americans, I would have offered to help."

The details of Siddiqui's whereabouts during those five years were not made any more clear during her trial. Two of her children are still missing — the oldest showed up with her in Ghazni, and officials are saying he's been brainwashed. But one fact is clear, guilty verdict or no: Siddiqui's disjointed performance — half crazed and half coherent — was enough to seriously muddy some already murky waters. Anyone watching this trial closely is bound to wonder how much perceptions will change when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — who some say is Siddiqui's uncle-in-law — gets in front of his own jury and is given the opportunity to tell whatever story he wants to tell.