She is known as “Lady Al-Qaeda”.
An MIT-trained neuroscientist, The Taliban and Daesh wanted her so badly, that they were willing to trade their prisoners for her. Her name is Aafia Siddiqui and she was, at one point, the most wanted woman in the world.
After news broke out that ISIS was willing to trade hostages for her, various media outlets picked up on her life story. She was a Pakistani neuroscientist who, according to the FBI, became involved in terrorist activities, fled to Pakistan for five years with her children, and when found by police in Afghanistan, tried to shoot at a US agent during her questioning. In 2010, a New York judge sentenced her to 86 years in prison. According to her supporters, she was a prisoner in the Bagram air base for five years and was railroaded by the US justice system.
Whatever the truth be, Mrs. Siddiqui, if in the hands of ISIS, could have been quite a valuable asset for the terror group. Mrs. Siddiqui majored in biology at Brandeis before earning her PhD in neuroscience at MIT. Due to her expertise Mrs. Siddiqui could be lethal in the wrong hands. But how could a neuroscientist inflict massive damage?
Neuroscience, at its most basic form, is the study of the brain and the nervous system. The discipline helps to explain human behavior at the chemical and biological level. Bioterrorism is the use of biological agents, such as anthrax, in order to cause fear and influence policy. This is done through releasing bacteria, viruses, and toxins into the air or water in order to destroy crops and livestock and cause the death of thousands of people. How biological agents can damage the human brain and nervous system is where neuroscience and bioterrorism overlap. Although terrorists prefer less skilled means of causing damage, such as pipe bombs, bioterrorism is an emerging threat. As countries evolve to target more conventional terror tactics, terrorist will turn to more unconventional ones, such as bioterrorism. Furthermore, such an attack would cripple society, cause mass panic and the deaths of thousands of people, and require millions of dollars for reconstruction. In short, it would bring a country to its knees.
However, the bioterrorist threat isn’t treated with the same urgency as other threats of mass destruction. According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration has yet to fill 26 ‘bioterrorism jobs’, meaning that the United States has low preparedness to respond to a bioterror attack.
Now back to Mrs. Siddiqui.
While Daesh hasn’t explained exactly why they wanted (or want) a neuroscientist, it is not implausible to assume that they would use her talents for their own goals. Since their goals are similar to al-Qaeda’s (i.e. crippling US society), along with establishing a caliphate, a Daesh-claimed bioterror attack would work in their favor. Mrs. Siddiqui is just the woman to engineer such an attack. She is familiar with the human body, the human brain, and the nervous system. With access to a lab and a chemist, she could probably engineer a toxin that could inflict the most damage to the human body. Since Daesh is also known to employ chemists, Mrs. Siddiqui would be able to create the perfect toxin, bacteria, or virus.
The United States is particularly vulnerable to viruses such as smallpox and anthrax. Both are highly infectious, deadly toxins that can kill scores of people. In addition, while the US population used to be vaccinated against smallpox, since the disease was said to have been eradicated by the late 20th century, children aren’t vaccinated for it anymore. This means there are millions of people who are not protected in the event of a bioterrorist attack, and Daesh knows this. If the group, along with Mrs. Siddiqui, were to synthesize smallpox, it could be catastrophic for the US.
However, despite the fact that Trump has yet to fill key positions in preventing a bioterror attack, the US government is somewhat prepared. The CDC has various programs in place that raise awareness and preparedness for bioterrorism, and there are emergency vaccination protocols in place.
Even though Mrs. Siddiqui may seem like a lethal threat if she were released from prison, trying to assume the motives of terrorist groups is always a risky business and I may be wrong. But it isn’t implausible.
Connecting Daesh’s wish to create mass panic through any means (i.e. bioterrorism) to Mrs. Siddiqui is a logical conclusion to make. But, all in all, if the US government wants to keep the nation safe, they should treat bioterrorism with the same urgency as conventional weapons.