Armored law enforcement vehicle outside Texas synagogue during hostage crisis
Armored law enforcement vehicle outside Texas synagogue during hostage crisis REUTERS/Shelby Tauber

The Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) released a new study issued by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) documenting how January’s attack and hostage-taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Texas came in the wake of a coordinated social media campaign for jailed terrorist Aafia Siddiqui, known as Lady Al Qaeda, who the attacker Malik Akram demanded released during the synagogue ordeal.

Recently, Akram’s brother revealed that “if these religious nuts hadn’t got a hold of him, this would never have happened.” Gulbar Akram also made a plea for civic action against extremist indoctrination: “The mosques, imams, police,and the authorities all need to do more to prevent this kind of thing happening.”

The extremist solidarity campaign for Aafia Siddiqui – an Al Qaeda-linked scientist sentenced in 2010 to 86 years in prison for attempted murder of US military personnel – had been largely dormant for years. But NCRI research uncovered that Twitter activity in September 2021 with hashtags like #IAmAafia suddenly spiked to thousands per week. The research also found the burst of coordinated social media activity was driven by a network of Pakistan-based extremist influencers and bots, the pro-Taliban Free Aafia Foundation, and the Texas branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations (“CAIR”).

The “Free Aafia” campaign surged after claims Siddiqui was beaten in prison. At a September 18, 2021 rally organized by CAIR-Texas outside Siddiqui’s jail, one speaker denounced “Zionist judges” and another declared of Siddiqui: “She’s our sister.” Three days later, the Free Aafia website run by CAIR-Texas called on followers to use the hashtag #IAmAafia. In November, 2021 CAIR-California leader Zahra Biloo warned in a speech posted to YouTube about “Zionist synagogues” while labeling mainstream Jewish organizations as “enemies.”

“While difficult to make a definitive cause and effect connection, extremist rhetoric can radicalize people, and lead to violent outcomes. Studies have shown online radicalization can be accomplished especially fast,” stated Elan S. Carr, former US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and current member of the Combat Antisemitism Movement’s Advisory Council. “The coordinated campaign for Siddiqui, a raving anti-Semite, indulged in anti-Semitic tropes and inflamed supporters. One radicalized supporter flew from England to Texas to visit terror on an innocent Jewish community during Shabbat services.”

“In the United States, extremists enjoy free speech rights and are allowed to advocate for Aafia Siddiqui despite her anti-American terrorism and abhorrent bigotry,” observed Senator Joseph Lieberman, also a member of the Combat Antisemitism Movement’s Advisory Council. “But, coordinated campaigns rife with inflammatory messages can have a dangerous impact. Leaders must stop promoting hate that invoke anti-Semitic tropes, because this kind of hate damages Muslims and Jews alike and can lead to violent outcomes. We should all heed Gulbar Akram’s plea and take responsible action now to prevent future attacks.”

Original research tracking the recent coordinated Free Aafia social media campaign was conducted by the Network Contagion Research Institute, a non-profit tracking misinformation and hate across social media channels. NCRI analyzed over 50,000 tweets of the top twenty handles that had most used the #IamAafia hashtag, uncovering both bot-like activity and a network of influencers amplifying anti-Semitic content.

The Combat Antisemitism Movement is a global coalition engaging more than 360,000 people and 440 organizations from a diverse array of religious, political, and cultural backgrounds in the common mission of fighting the world's oldest hatred. It acts collaboratively to build a better future, free of bigotry, for Jews and all humanity.