Mother's love tested by hijack suspect's innocence claim


PARIS LETTER: Only a mother could love Zacarias Moussaoui as Aicha el-Wafi does. Despite a US Grand Jury indictment on six counts of conspiracy in the September 11th attacks, despite evidence that her son was - as French newspapers call him - "a terrorist apprentice", Mrs el-Wafi hopes against hope that Zacarias will somehow still fulfil his promise to her and prove his innocence, writes Lara Marlowe.

Mrs el-Wafi travelled to Alexandria, Virginia last week, but decided not to visit her son in prison because his lawyers feared he might say something incriminating. She waited in a hotel room while Zacarias (33) appeared in court on January 2nd.

"The television kept showing the World Trade Centre in flames with my son's picture beside it. I realised the building I saw from my hotel window was his prison and I thought I would die." The imprisoned man wrote to his mother in October. "In the name of God the merciful . . ." began his only missive since he was arrested on an immigration offence in August. "About the American story, do not worry. I didn't do anything and I shall prove it when the time comes."

Does she believe him, I asked Mrs el-Wafi in a telephone call to the southern French town of Narbonne where she lives. "How could a mother not believe her own son at such a time?" she said. "He might lie to everyone else, but never to me."

The evidence against him, a US justice official admitted to Newsweek magazine, is "all circumstantial".

But it nonetheless looks bad for Moussaoui. At the second flight school he attended in Minnesota, he raised suspicions by saying he only wanted to know how to fly a Boeing airliner - without learning how to take off or land.Telephone records show that Moussaoui talked with the owner of the apartment in Germany inhabited by Mohammed Atta, believed to have been the main hijacker in the attack on the World Trade Centre.

In the same month, he telephoned Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a Yemeni who is wanted as a suspected member of al-Qaeda. Al-Shibh had wired $14,000 to help pay for Mr Moussaoui's flying lessons. When the FBI finally examined Mr Moussaoui's computer memory after September 11th, they found data about crop-dusting and spreading pesticides in the wind.

None of this explains why Moussaoui apparently had no contact with the 19 hijackers who died on September 11th. Or why, in an operation staged with evil genius, they would have enlisted such a clumsy recruit. "He didn't listen to anything," a flight instructor at Moussaoui's first school in Oklahoma told Le Monde. "He hung onto the controls for dear life. And yet he still talked about piloting commercial aircraft - it was incredible."

Behind Moussaoui's arraignment lies another story, of a divorced mother's desperate attempts to give her children a good life in a country where - despite the fact that they were born in France and hold French passports - Zacarias is invariably referred to as "a Frenchman of Moroccan origin".

When she was 14 years old, Aicha el-Wafi was married in Morocco to a man she did not love. He took her to France, where he worked as a mason. She had four children, two boys and two girls, of whom Zacarias is the youngest. The Moussaouis divorced in 1970 when Zacarias was two years old. Mrs el-Wafi worked as a seamstress, a cleaner and an errand lady to support her children. Their father broke off all contact.

Mrs el-Wafi's relations with her sons soured in 1990, when a cousin named Fawzia arrived from Morocco, saying that Islam forbade men from doing housework and instructed them to take four wives. Zacarias and his older brother, Abd Samad, moved out and Abd Samad married Fawzia.

Zacarias was bitter that French education authorities initially made him study electricity instead of preparing for his baccalauréat. "It's good enough for an Arab," Mrs el-Wafi swears she heard through a door. As a teenager, Zacarias had a European girlfriend. "The other boys called him 'dirty negro' and 'dirty Arab'. Her father didn't want her to go out with him. He was very hurt. I'd tell him: 'It's nothing. You're not a negro'. I'd kiss him and say, 'You're handsome and I love you.' I didn't realise the danger."

Of Zacarias's eight-year stay in London - during which he reportedly travelled several times to Afghanistan - Mrs el-Wafi knew only of a diploma in business studies and a photograph of her son wearing a mortarboard and graduation robes.

Before March 29th, the US prosecutor will announce whether he will seek the death penalty in Moussaoui's trial, which is scheduled to start next October. Mrs el-Wafi is pessimistic. "They can't find bin Laden and Mullah Omar, so they found an Arab and they'll kill him, to calm people down," she says.