NY charges for woman in Afghan shooting

August 5, 2008 6:22:47 PM PDT
An MIT-educated Pakistani woman linked to al-Qaida appeared in federal court Tuesday to face charges she tried to kill U.S. employees in a gunfight in Afghanistan after police said they discovered suspicious documents about explosives and landmarks in her handbag. Aafia Siddiqui, wearing a burgundy head scarf and suffering from a gunshot wound, was ordered held without bail on charges of attempted murder and assault stemming from the July incident. She had been arrested Monday in Afghanistan and flown to New York to be formally charged.

"Your honor, she's been shot," a defense attorney told a federal magistrate when asked to explain why her client preferred not to stand during the hearing. "She has a wound, and it's oozing."

Magistrate Ronald Ellis agreed to set another hearing on Monday on whether Siddiqui should be released on bail. He also said he would ask prison officials to make sure she was receiving proper care.

Prosecutors allege Siddiqui, 36, was stopped by police on July 17 outside a government building in central Afghanistan's Ghazni province. Police searched her handbag and discovered documents containing recipes for explosives and chemical weapons and describing "various landmarks in the United States, including New York City," according to a criminal complaint, which did not identify the landmarks.

Siddiqui also was carrying "chemical substances in gel and liquid form that were sealed in bottles and glass jars," the complaint said without elaborating.

The next day, as a team of FBI agents and U.S. military officers prepared to question Siddiqui, she snatched a soldier's rifle and pointed it at an Army captain, prosecutors said. An interpreter pushed the rifle aside as she fired two shots, which missed, they said. One of two shots fired by a soldier in response hit her in one of her hips.

Even after being hit, Siddiqui struggled and shouted in English that she wanted "to kill Americans" before the officers subdued her, the complaint said.

Asked by the judge if she understood the charges, she replied in a soft voice, "I understand them."

Siddiqui's defense attorney, Elizabeth Fink, argued that alleging a "90-pound woman" could incite the violence claimed in the complaint was "patently absurd."

"We don't know what happened," the lawyer said. "All I know is that I have a person who's shot here."

In court, prosecutors said that Siddiqui was given good medical care and that a physician had accompanied her on the flight to the United States. They did not discuss the case any further.

At a 2004 news conference, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III identified Siddiqui as one of seven people the FBI wanted to question about their suspected ties to al-Qaida - an allegation her family has vehemently denied.

U.S. authorities said at the time that Siddiqui had received a biology degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had written a doctoral thesis on neurological sciences at Brandeis University, outside Boston. They said they believed she returned to Pakistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and later vanished for several years.

Though they never alleged Siddiqui was a full-fledged member of al-Qaida, they said they believed she could be a "fixer," someone with knowledge of the United States who supported other operatives trying to slip into the country and plot attacks.

If convicted, Siddiqui faces up to 20 years in prison on each of the two charges.

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