Another terrorist icon becomes a cause célèbre

When Malik Faisal Akram took four hostages at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, he was not the first terrorist to seek the release of Aafia Siddiqui from her 86-year sentence in a federal penitentiary. Siddiqui, an American-educated Pakistani neuroscientist, became a cause célèbre among militants worldwide following her 2010 conviction for shooting at American military personnel in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri demanded Siddiqui’s freedom in exchange for a kidnapped USAID worker, as did ISIS in exchange for American journalist James Foley, who was later beheaded. The Taliban made multiple attempts to trade British and Swiss prisoners for her.

As the niece by marriage of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, it is understandable that radical Islamists attempted to liberate Siddiqui by threatening lives. Interestingly, she has also been championed by mainstream Muslim organizations in the U.S., including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is certain of her innocence.

Siddiqui is not the only terrorists’ icon whose cause has been adopted by American progressives. In 1970, Rasmea Odeh was convicted in Israel for a Jerusalem supermarket bombing that killed two university students. Sentenced to life in prison for murder, her freedom was repeatedly demanded by Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) operatives, including the perpetrators of the Munich Olympics massacre and the hijackers of an Israeli airliner. In 1979, Odeh and 75 other Palestinians were freed in an exchange with the PFLP for an Israeli soldier held captive in Lebanon.

As I detail in my new book, “The Trials of Rasmea Odeh: How a Palestinian Guerrilla Gained and Lost U.S. Citizenship,” Odeh made her way to the United States in 1995, becoming a naturalized citizen in 2004. She eventually settled in Chicago, where she worked as a respected community organizer for the Arab American Action Network.

Odeh’s murder conviction should have barred her from citizenship, or even entering the U.S., but she lied about it on her visa and naturalization applications. She answered “No” to numerous questions on both forms about past crimes, convictions and imprisonment, as well as at an in-person interview, while successfully concealing her membership in the PFLP. Odeh might well have continued living peacefully and productively in Chicago, had her criminal background not been coincidentally discovered during an FBI investigation of one of her coworkers.

Odeh’s 2013 arrest for unlawful procurement of citizenship caused outrage in Chicago’s Muslim community and beyond. Numerous progressive and community organizations immediately rallied to her defense, noting that she had been given an “Outstanding Community Leader Award” by the Chicago Cultural Alliance. Within days, a defense committee issued a press release declaring that Israeli interrogators had tortured her into a confession (probably true), that she was innocent of the supermarket bombing (definitely false) and that she didn’t lie on her immigration forms (absolutely nonsense).

In fact, Odeh had freely admitted her role in the deadly bombing when she was living in Jordan, before her fraudulent immigration to the U.S. She shared the details in an interview with a Lebanese journalist and told an American professor that she had been “active as a guerrilla.” Odeh appeared in Arabic-language film and television documentaries, smilingly acknowledging her participation in the “military work.” Two of her PFLP comrades have proudly named her as an accomplice in the Jerusalem “operation.”

Nonetheless, many luminaries weighed in on Odeh’s behalf, ranging from the left to the extreme left. Angela Davis pronounced Odeh a political prisoner, and Marc Lamont Hill declared that she was “being railroaded for her commitment to justice.” The Puerto Rican revolutionary bomb-maker Oscar Rivera Lopez embraced her at a rally celebrating his release from prison after 37 years.

Following nearly four years of relentless prosecution – leading to a jury trial, conviction and reversal on appeal – Odeh pleaded guilty to naturalization fraud in April 2017, admitting in writing that she “made the false statements intentionally and not as a result of any mistake.” That did not dampen her support. Even after the announcement of her intended guilty plea, the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace gave Odeh a standing ovation at its national convention, where a rabbi proclaimed her defense “one of the most prominent social justice campaigns in the entire United States.”

There may be a place for sympathy, even for avatars of terrorism. Siddiqui’s 86-year sentence was extraordinary for someone convicted of a non-fatal shooting. For the mother of three children, possibly suffering from mental illness, such lengthy incarceration seems excessive and bordering on unwarranted cruelty. It is hard to see how American interests would have been harmed by a shorter, more typical sentence.

Odeh’s plea bargain got her the minimum sentence – denaturalization and deportation – under the relevant statute. Sympathy might still be possible, if not greater lenience, for a woman who endured brutality from her Israeli interrogators, spent a decade of her youth in prison and was later uprooted from her home after two decades of devoted community leadership.

But neither Siddiqui nor Odeh ever sought forgiveness, opting instead to indulge anti-Jewish conspiracy theories as the source of their troubles. Siddiqui frequently interrupted her trial with anti-Semitic outbursts, demanding genetic tests to see if any jurors were Jewish. At sentencing, she shouted “This verdict is coming from Israel, not America.”

Odeh’s defense committee posed its own conspiracy theory about the enforcement of U.S. immigration law, charging the prosecutors with “doing the bidding of Israel.” Her attorney, from Chicago’s legendary Peoples Law Office, was only somewhat more circumspect, repeatedly arguing without evidence that the case, initiated and pursued by the Obama administration, was “politically motivated [by] prejudice against Muslim people fueled by the Israeli lobby.”

Colleyville’s Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said that Akram likewise “thought that Jews control the world,” which evidently led him to believe that attacking a small suburban synagogue could force freedom for Siddiqui. Perhaps that was because he’d heard so many tales of Israel’s sinister power over America, spread by those with scant regard for Jewish lives.

Steven Lubet is the Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. His most recent book is “The Trials of Rasmea Odeh: How a Palestinian Guerrilla Gained and Lost U.S. Citizenship.”

Tags Aafia Siddiqui Antisemitism Ayman al-Zawahiri Congregation Beth Israel synagogue Khalid Shaikh Mohammed Malik Faisal Akram Rasmea Odeh

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