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Her son was presumably meant to be the 20th hijacker in the September 11th attacks, but was arrested before that fateful day. His mother recounts how 9/11 also changed her life forever.
A US court condemned him to life in prison for his involvement in the terror plot.
It was the first sentence passed against someone involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks. In early May 2006, a twelve-person jury in Alexandria (near Washington) sentenced Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan origin, to life in prison. Moussaoui only escaped the death penalty because the jury did not unanimously agree that he had been involved in the 9/11 plot, although he pleaded guilty.
It is possible that he would have flown a plane into the White House as the 20th hijacker, had he not been arrested at a US pilot training school several weeks earlier after making his trainer suspicious. A few days after the sentencing, Moussaoui surprisingly retracted his guilty plea and unsuccessfully filed an appeal. Aicha el-Wafi, the mother of the alleged terrorist, has accused the US of having turned her son into a “martyr.” After the September 11th attacks, she reached out to the families of the victims.
You wanted to raise your son Zacarias to be a perfect French citizen. Why did he nonetheless head down the wrong path; what went wrong?
Aicha el-Wafi: I tried to raise my son correctly, and to show him the path of respect and tolerance. At first he did live like a French citizen; he went out with his friends, drank alcohol, and smoked.
Where did Zacarias first come in contact with extremists?
In a mosque in Great Britain while he was studying there, not in France. He went to England to improve his English.
Did you see any warning signs? At which point did his behavior begin to make you suspicious?
I never saw any warning signs. After he left for Great Britain, he came to visit me multiple times. That’s when I noticed that he was praying a lot. But that is not unusual for a Muslim. I thought he was praying for me. I never would have thought that he was surrounding himself with extremists.
You came to France as a young bride at the age of 17. You worked hard and studied to ensure that your children would have the best lives possible. Did Zacarias accept the image of a woman that you portrayed—firmly anchored in French culture and daily life?
I came to France in 1965; I was 17 years old and already had two daughters: Nadia and Jamila. My sons were born in France. It was a very difficult period in my life: we had no work, we had nothing to eat, and my children’s father regularly beat me. It was really hard. That is why I decided to take charge of my own life and left my husband, with whom I could no longer live.
What about your children?
When my children were young and I picked them up after school, their classmates always asked them whether I was their sister. They were proud of me and respected me; they did whatever I asked of them. That all changed when they left home and went to university. In particular, my sons’ personalities changed a great deal. All of a sudden they wanted me to wear a veil. They no longer went out with friends, stopped drinking alcohol, and no longer smoked. I did not want to accept these changes. My sons were growing up and changing, but I was already grown, and did not change.
Did you never ask your sons about their friends?
In France, my children even had Israeli friends! I never asked too many questions about who they were spending their time with. When Zacarias began attending university in Great Britain, I wanted to go visit him. He told me that I would have to book a hotel room. I asked him why—he had his own apartment. He answered that other people were now sharing his apartment with him—he called them his “brothers.” It did strike me as strange, but I thought that perhaps that was normal in Great Britain. I didn’t visit him in the end, because I did not want to stay in a hotel room. But I was never really suspicious. Only later did I realize that he was referring to the Islamists as his “brothers.”
And then—did you stay in touch with your son?
We did not speak for years, but when I returned home after a long break in Morocco, I suddenly found several messages on my answering machine from Zacarias. He kept saying “Mama I love you,” and “Mama I hug you.” On September 13, two days after the attacks, I went to Great Britain. There were many protests in front of the mosques. I was completely shocked, because this was my first interaction with Islamists. Everyone knew me; they all knew I was Zacarias’ mother. But I did not know anyone.
The 9/11 attacks changed your life forever. But you also changed the mindset of many people in the Western world toward Muslims, because you approached the family members of the victims. What do you learn from those meetings?
I met those families during an extremely difficult time; they had just lost loved ones. We shared those hard times and I learned a lot from them, and I hope they also learned from me. Our fates are similar, but we are different in one key aspect: my pain grows worse every day, because I don’t know how my son is doing. The family members of the victims at least know where their loved ones are: they are dead. The pain those families feel will lessen over time. But Zacarias is buried alive; he has no contact to the outside world. My stomach hurts every single day, because I do not know how my son is doing. I have so many questions that remain unanswered. I cannot and will not accept this.
In your opinion, did your son not deserve this sentence?
I demand to know what exactly the US government is accusing him of having done. Of course I am thinking of the family members of the victims and their pain. But Zacarias was not sentenced to death, he was condemned to life. It is terrible that he moved in Islamist circles, but he did not engage with those people responsible for this terrible act. He was arrested on August 16, 2001 for visa problems.
Zacarias will spend the rest of his life in prison. If he were to accept a visit from you, what would you say to him?
I have been in touch with him for the past five years, but FBI agents are always nearby and listen to our conversations. He couldn’t tell me how he ended up where he is now. I am sure he would have told me if we had been alone. But he cannot speak in front of the FBI agents. So there is always a barrier between us. But he says that he will read letters.
You encourage mothers around the world to be gatekeepers. In your daily work, do you communicate with mothers whose sons may be susceptible to extremists?
My message to all mothers and parents is: be watchful, and show respect and tolerance. It is not easy to raise children. When they are young, they are with us, but when they get older, they leave and you do not know what they are doing. It is not about Black or White, Jews, Arabs, or Christians—we must respect everyone. I am thinking of all the families who have lost someone. But my pain grows worse by the day. My son is buried alive.
Interview by Edit Schlaffer, founder of "Women without Borders" and SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism). Translated by Elaine Hargrove, Anna Gabriel