WASHINGTON - President Bush's announcement this month that the CIA has emptied out its secret prisons has raised new questions about what has happened to dozens of Al Qaeda suspects who were believed to have been in US custody.
One of them is Aafia Siddiqui , an MIT-educated Pakistani scientist and Roxbury mother of three who disappeared with her children in 2003. A newly declassified government document says Siddiqui married a top Al Qaeda operative who is among the 14 suspects moved by President Bush from a secret prison to Guantánamo Bay for trials.
Born in 1972 in Pakistan, Aafia Siddiqui studied as an undergraduate and postgraduate in Massachusetts, and is also thought to have spent time in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. She apparently returned to Pakistan after 11 September 2001 attacks on America with her husband and three children and has not been heard of since March 2003. She is believed to be a "fixer", someone with knowledge of the US offering support to al-Qaeda operatives. Her husband, Dr Amjad Mohammed Khan, is also wanted for questioning. (Photo/BBC News)
But the document gave no further information on Siddiqui's whereabouts.
Siddiqui's mother said she believes her daughter was being held by the US military, and she traveled to the United States to search for information after reading Pakistani newspapers articles that said Siddiqui had been arrested in Pakistan and sent abroad in a private plane, said Elaine Whitfield Sharp , a Marblehead lawyer and the family spokeswoman.
``Nobody knows where she is, but one has to wonder if she is one of these secret detainees," said Sharp.
Bush's announcement of the transfer of prisoners to Guantánamo Bay was the first official confirmation that the CIA had secretly arrested suspected terrorists and held them in undisclosed places overseas.
A senior administration official briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity last week said that fewer than 100 detainees had been held in the CIA program and that all of them have been ``turned over to the Department of Defense to be held as unlawful enemy combatants [at Guantánamo Bay], returned to their country of origin, or entered into a legal process to be held accountable for their crimes."
But human rights groups say the fate of dozens of detainees who were in CIA custody is still unknown.
``The Red Cross has said 36 high-level suspects have been in CIA custody," said Zachary Katznelson , senior counsel to Reprieve, a British legal aid society. ``Fourteen have been transferred to Guantánamo Bay, and President Bush says that there are now no terrorists in the CIA program. Where are those 22 other men?"
Joanne Mariner , a terrorism specialist at Human Rights Watch, said, ``There are certainly detainees unaccounted for, and we are very concerned about their present circumstances and the possibility of continued arbitrary detention and abusive treatment."
Human Rights Watch released a list last year of 27 suspects who were thought to be in CIA detention. Thirteen of the 27 were among the 14 transferred recently to Guantánamo Bay.
Mariner said many on the list came from countries such as Egypt and Jordan, which have been cited by international bodies for torture and arbitrary detentions. She said that if detainees had been returned to those countries, little would be known about their fate.
Human Rights Watch had too little information about Siddiqui's case to include her in the list of the 27 ``disappeared" suspects, but considered her a possible secret CIA detainee, Mariner said.
The story of Siddiqui has become one of the most bizarre chapters of the war on terror. Her whereabouts have been a mystery since she climbed into a taxi with her three children outside her mother's home in Karachi in 2003 .
Although Siddiqui was not among those who were transferred to Guantánamo Bay, she knew at least three of the 14 men who were. A newly declassified, one-page biography of alleged Al Qaeda facilitator Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali , otherwise known as Ammar al-Baluchi , states that he ordered Siddiqui to help get travel documents for a plotter who intended to blow up gas stations and bridges or poison reservoirs in the United States.
His biography also states that he married Siddiqui shortly before his capture, an allegation that, if true, sheds new light on Siddiqui's alleged relationship to top Al Qaeda planners.
Sharp said that Siddiqui's family had never heard of Ali and that it was hard to imagine how she could have re-married so quickly, just months after her separation from her first husband.
The biography of Majid Khan , the suspected plotter who was also among the 14 detainees transferred, said Siddiqui helped him get documents to reenter the United States. US officials have also asserted that Siddiqui traveled to Liberia to trade diamonds to raise funds for Al Qaeda.
The newly released documents are the latest twist in the story of a promising student-turned-terror suspect. Siddiqui traveled from Pakistan to Texas in 1990 to live with her brother, an architect, and attend the University of Houston. She eventually transferred to MIT, where she studied biology and raised money for what she said were charitable Islamic causes, such as the sponsorship of orphans and wi dows in Bosnia.
``Please keep up the spirit and motivate others as well!" she wrote her fellow MIT students in an e-mail that she signed, ``Humbly, your sister, Aafia."
After graduation, she studied neuroscience at Brandeis University and eventually married a Pakistani anesthesiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. The couple's apartment on St. Alphonsus Street in Roxbury also doubled as the headquarters for a nonprofit group called the Institute of Islamic Research and Teaching, which distributed copies of the Koran.
In April or May 2002, the couple were questioned by the FBI after Siddiqui's husband purchased night-vision goggles, body armor, and military manuals from American websites. A few months later, they moved back to Pakistan, but by August, they had separated.
Months later, Siddiqui visited Baltimore, where her sister, a Harvard-trained doctor, was working. Sharp said she was interviewing for a job at Johns Hopkins University, but US government documents allege that she was opening a post office box for Khan to receive travel documents.
In March 2003, around the time US agents brought Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, a top Al Qaeda terrorist, into custody, the FBI announced it was searching for Siddiqui. Around the same time, Siddiqui got into a taxi bound for a train to Islamabad with her children, ages 7, 5, and 6 months, and was never seen again.
Several Pakistani newspapers ran articles citing unnamed officials as saying that she had been arrested and handed over to the United States, but Pakistani officials publicly denied the reports.
Copyright 2006 Boston Globe