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Reputed al-Qaida supporter set for NYC trial

Monday, January 18, 2010 | 6:57 p.m. CST

NEW YORK — The strange case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui is riddled with curious questions.

Why did she surface in Afghanistan in 2008 carrying notes that authorities claim referred to a "mass casualty attack"? How did she end up in an alleged shootout after her capture? And will she keep up her courtroom rants?

Jurors should get some answers on Tuesday when Siddiqui goes on trial for attempted murder and assault in federal court in Manhattan. The defendant — a frail-looking reputed al-Qaida associate and neuroscience specialist trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University — has already offered her own odd objections and commentary.

"There's too many lies, injustices and hypocrisies here," she announced last week during jury selection.

The 37-year-old Siddiqui, her face veiled with a white head scarf and hands aflutter, also argued that she can't get a fair trial with Jews on the jury.

"If they have a Zionist or Israeli background ... they are all mad at me," she said. "They should be excluded if you want to be fair."

Siddiqui hasn't been charged with terrorism. But her case has drawn attention in part because authorities have accused her of fleeing the United States to her native Pakistan in 2003 after marrying an al-Qaida operative related to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Her supporters maintain she was kidnapped and held in U.S. custody before mysteriously turning up last summer in Afghanistan.

Afghan police turned Siddiqui over to U.S. authorities there, along with a handwritten list of New York City landmarks she was carrying. It included the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, prosecutors said.

They also cited seized notes "that referred to a 'mass casualty attack'" and to "the construction of dirty bombs, chemical and biological weapons and other explosives," but have never alleged a specific terror plot.

The government's version of what happened next adds to Siddiqui's mystique: Prosecutors say that while waiting to be interrogated in a police compound full of soldiers and U.S. agents, she somehow picked up a rifle, announced her "desire to kill Americans" and fired.

She missed, but was wounded by return fire.

Siddiqui was brought to the United States to face charges. Since then, she has denied ever shooting the gun. She also insists she won't work with her defense lawyers.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman had Siddiqui removed from the courtroom for the afternoon after she blurted out to prospective jurors, "I had nothing to do with 9/11."

She suggested Israel was behind the attacks, but insisted she's not anti-Semitic.

The judge later said he would give her a reprieve. He's given her permission to exit the courtroom each afternoon for 15 minutes of prayer.

"She has an open and standing invitation to be here and to behave as everybody else is expected to behave," he said.


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