x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Mother of '20th hijacker' wants US to show evidence of his guilt

The mother of the man known as the '20th hijacker' in the 9/11 terrorist attacks is demanding the US show any evidence it has of her son being linked to Al Qaeda and terrorism.

Aïcha El Wafi at her home in Narbonne, in south-east France. The mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person convicted of complicity in the September 11, 2001 attacks, is an activist against extremism.
Aïcha El Wafi at her home in Narbonne, in south-east France. The mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person convicted of complicity in the September 11, 2001 attacks, is an activist against extremism.

NARBONNE // Five years after her son became the only person to be convicted of crimes relating to the attacks of September 11, 2001, Aïcha El Wafi has thrown down a blunt challenge to the US authorities.

"You've killed Osama bin Laden," she said. "You must have retrieved all his archives. If there is proof my son was linked to Al Qaeda and terrorism attacks on the US, show me it and put my mind at rest."

More than 8,000 kilometres from Mrs El Wafi's home in a smart, leafy suburb of the French city of Narbonne, her son Zacarias Moussaoui is serving life imprisonment without prospect of parole in a Colorado prison for conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.

Moussaoui has commonly been called the 20th hijacker, though it has never been clear what role he played in the plot to fly planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Mrs El Wafi, 65, a French citizen born in Morocco, says she is more convinced than ever that her younger son is innocent of the charges he chose to admit. She clings to the belief that his rambling, often incoherent confessions were driven by despair at the conditions of his detention.

But she is no apologist for the radicalism he embraced while studying in London and meeting jihadists intent on waging war against the West.

Mrs El Wafi not only expresses unqualified opposition to extremism but devotes time to visiting schools and community centres to urge young French Muslims to be wary of militants.

In meetings organised by Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissives), a pressure group created by Muslim feminists to fight oppression by men of women and girls in the French banlieues, grim estates with high populations of poor immigrant families, she preaches the virtues of self-assertiveness.

"I warn them about forced marriages and accepting lives dominated by husbands who would keep them virtual prisoners in their homes," she said. "You wouldn't believe what still goes on in 2011."

Her broad message is clear: "All extremism and hatred is bad, whether it is from Muslims, Christians or Israelis. We cannot hope to live with tolerance and respect if we are frightened of people we do not even know."

Mrs El Wafi's support for her son may reflect a mother's unconditional love, plus feelings of guilt about the dysfunctional family environment in which he grew up.

She admits to some estrangement from Moussaoui's two sisters and his elder brother, Abd Samad, an academic who, in a book published in 2002, described a troubled home life.

"Things between Zacarias and Aïcha had never been easy," he wrote. "I managed to let the storm pass when shouts and screams filled the house, until she calmed down. Zacarias, though, seemed to have run out of patience completely. Little by little, I think he stopped feeling any love for her."

Mrs El Wafi accepts that her children had flawed upbringings, but says she always worked hard to give them better futures.

Family accounts vary. Mrs El Wafi says she was forced at 14 by her family in Morocco to marry a stranger, that she gave birth to six children, two of whom died in infancy, and that her husband treated her appallingly after the family moved to France when she was 18.

She claims she was beaten by him, even when very pregnant with Zacarias, and finally left him in 1972. The children spent time in orphanages after the divorce. Her elder son says he and his brother were not mistreated by their father.

Mrs El Wafi later met a man with whom she ran a shop, earning enough to have a bungalow built on a development where the family stood out as the only Maghrebins. That relationship also ended and she now lives alone.

All the children encountered racism. Mrs El Wafi says the father of Moussaoui's white French girlfriend told him his daughter was too good for an Arab, adding: "Don't think you'll ever be welcome at my table."

Moussaoui lacked self-esteem but was bright, passed his Baccalauréat and went on to obtain a master's degree in international business studies at university in London.

"I believe the abuses he suffered helped to change him and made him easy prey when he fell into the hands of extremists in London," Mrs El Wafi says. "But he was sentenced in America not for what he did, but for what he said. It was unacceptable for him to say 'death to Americans' or 'death to Jews' but he shouldn't be buried alive for that."

Moussaoui's parting words, when she last visited him in prison, were: "If you love me, go away and never speak to a lawyer or journalist again."

But she says she cannot understand how any mother could turn her back on a child. She knows her son's court outbursts won him little sympathy but pledges to fight to try to clear his name or have him transferred to prison in France.

Among Mrs El Wafi's unlikely allies is Phyllis Rodriguez, a "secular Jew" whose son, Greg, died in the World Trade Centre. They subsequently shared the German Die Quadriga award as "role models for reconciliation".

Mrs Rodriguez has written: "Zacarias is an admitted member of Al Qaeda, but there's no evidence that he knew anything about the attacks on the World Trade Centre. He pleaded guilty either because he felt it would get him more humane conditions of confinement, or because he was in no fit state to make any rational decisions."

Mrs El Waif has heard nothing from her son since the trial. Letters are ignored; the authorities say he wants no contact.

In a message recorded by a French journalist in the hope her son would hear it on American radio, she said a "good Muslim" would not let his mother suffer and his siblings feel abandoned.

But Moussaoui developed different ways of defining a "good Muslim". His brother watched him change from warm and communicative into someone who could "spend a whole day slumped in an armchair, barely speaking" but also passed remarks, at odds with his previous outlook, against education for women and in favour of wife-beating.

That was in 1995. Moussaoui returned to London to continue his studies and, his brother believes, the process of being indoctrinated. Abd Samad next saw his face in a media photograph days after September 11. He believes he and his sisters were also scarred by childhood experience, but that his brother became an ideal target for the "scum" who turned him towards extremism.

At the heart of this tangled family story, Mrs El Wafi is left with one pressing hope. "From the bottom of my heart, I want to live to see Zacarias free," she said. "I don't know whether I will. My mother in Morocco longed for the same, to see her grandson again, but she died last year."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae