Witness to an assassination plot
July 27, 2021
July 27, 2021
The sun was shining and nothing seemed amiss on July 17, 2008, when Jason B. Burke almost became collateral damage in a thwarted assassination attempt in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Burke, Quinnipiac’s director of veteran and military affairs and a retired U.S. Navy captain, was having tea with the governor of Ghazni Province, along with a U.S. Army battalion chief. Burke was serving as the commander of a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan at the time. The men had just sat down to discuss voter registration and several reconstruction projects when their meeting was interrupted by Afghani police, who swept Gov. Osman Osmani out of his heavily guarded compound. Osmani, new to the job, was a distant relative of then-Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
An hour later, Osmani returned to inform them that he’d been the target of a would-be assassin — Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani terrorist. Siddiqui, also known as “Lady Al-Qaeda,” was spotted outside the compound without a head covering or a male escort, both customary. And she was speaking Urdu, not Pashto, the language of Afghanistan.
“She stood out like a sore thumb,” Burke said. Upon questioning her, the police found her in possession of maps, a manifesto with lists of U.S. landmarks that were probable targets, cyanide and plastic explosive devices. They arrested her and took her away. Siddiqui’s name had been on the FBI’s “kill or capture” list for the past four years, Burke said.
It’s the stuff of a James Patterson novel, and in fact, Burke did recount this story to U.S. Army 1st Sgt. (Ret.) Matt Eversmann, who recently collaborated with Patterson on “Walk in My Combat Boots” (February 2021, Little, Brown), a book that features the true stories of 47 military men and women who displayed valor and heroism on the field of duty. The book was No. 1 on the best-seller list for several weeks and in the top 10 for a month.
Tim Malloy, an analyst for the Quinnipiac Poll and a former broadcast journalist, was acquainted with Eversmann and introduced him to Burke. Malloy has traveled to Afghanistan numerous times for stories. Eversmann, a former Army ranger whose unit was featured in the book and film, “Black Hawk Down,” interviewed Burke about his eye-opening day.
After learning about the plot, Burke said Osmani wanted to lay eyes upon the female terrorist. Burke escorted him in an armored SUV to the Ghazni police facility where Siddiqui was being held. “She was pretty disheveled and was hysterical, spitting and kicking at him as the guards dragged her out,” Burke recalled.
In the book, Patterson describes Siddiqui as “a young, dark-skinned woman with doe eyes, black hair and an incredibly open, innocent-looking face.” Burke describes her very differently.
“She was very manic and lashed out at everyone,” he said. “There are reports she suffers from mental illness ranging from bipolar to multiple personalities.” What surprised him the most, though, was her connection to the United States. She had attended college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a full scholarship and Brandeis University as well. While she studied in the Boston area, she may have been plotting ways to destroy America, Burke said.
The day after Siddiqui was captured, a group of U.S. Army officers and federal agents gathered for a briefing at the Afghan police facility where she was being held. Burke had returned to his base at this point, the excitement presumably over.
Unbeknown to the U.S. officers, Siddiqui had been brought into the briefing room and was hidden behind a black curtain, as it was customary to conceal Pashtun women without a male family member present.
To the officers’ surprise, Siddiqui burst forth from behind the curtain with an M4 rifle one of the soldiers had rested on the floor near the curtain, oblivious to her presence. She lurched forward and pointed the rifle while everyone in the room scrambled for cover and reached for their weapons.
An officer pushed Siddiqui, and the gun went off, barely missing the head of one of the intelligence officers. She was shot in the torso, hospitalized and released to the FBI. In September 2008, she was indicted for assault and attempted murder of a U.S. soldier and later convicted and sentenced to 86 years in a Fort Worth, Texas, prison.
“At one point, Al Queda had asked the U.S. government to trade her for a captured American journalist, but that didn’t happen,” Burke said.
Although his close call with catastrophe 13 years ago was a bit unnerving, Burke said there were other times during his military service that put him on edge even more. He saw combat action as a Navy pilot and squad commander in Afghanistan, but he said adrenaline flowed during those incidents and fear took a backseat to the action.
Not knowing what the Taliban was planning — when, where or how — that was frightening, he said.
“There were times we’d get lost in the desert knowing that IEDs [bombs] were pretty prevalent under the sand or the times we’d meet with district leaders, families and kids for ribbon cuttings and surveying sites for construction, and we’d take off our body armor and be exposed,” he remembered.
Other times, just traveling in a convoy along quiet, deserted roads with no traffic, he’d get a premonition that something was amiss. “Sometimes, my hair would stand up,” he said.
Burke, a Philadelphia native, retired from the military in 2013. At QU, he assists veterans in navigating the college application process as well as the sometimes rocky waters of the VA benefits system.
“I’m their advocate,” Burke said. “When you come from the military, you are used to getting pretty good customer service. That is what I try to provide to them.”
At present, he assists 270 enrolled veterans at Quinnipiac, ranked as the top four-year university in Connecticut for veterans by Military Times. The university also earned a 2020-21 Gold Military Friendly® Top Ten School designation through VIQTORY. In 2020, Burke received Quinnipiac’s highest staff honor, the Excellence in Service to Students Award.
Burke also helped spearhead a new Veteran College and Career Transition Summer Program at Quinnipiac, which will be introduced in 2022. The eight-week, on-campus program is for student veterans and their dependents, who are looking to advance their academic and career readiness.
“It is a bridge program, which gives them a jump start, not only in courses, but also just getting a sense of the college experience,” says Burke.
Photo by Autumn Driscoll
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