EXCLUSIVE: A would-be perpetrator of terror. Arrested just before the 9-11 attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui has left a trail of suffering, for his own family.10 September 2021
Often described as the intended 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui cannot speak to us from his American jail cell, where he is spending life imprisonment for involvement in the plot that killed nearly three thousand people on 9 11.
It was in London that the French-born Moussaoui, son of two Moroccan immigrants, was turned into a radical supporter of mass murder. He fell under the spell of the hook-handed Egyptian firebrand preacher Abu Hamza, who controlled the north London Finsbury Park mosque, while he was studying business at Westminster College in 1992. He also met associates of Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohamed, the smiling Syrian-born leader of the Al Muhajiroun group.
When he was flown to the US, Zacarias was funded by the German-based Saudi-Egyptian 9-11 terrorist cell. That money allowed him to pay over 8,300 dollars, mostly in cash, to be taught on a flight simulator how to fly a Boeing 747, according to an FBI report. He wrote to the flight school, listing five types of Boeing and Airbus jets, saying his aim was “to be able to pilot one of these Big Birds, even if I am not a real professional pilot.”
He told the flight school’s instructor that the course needed to be short as he was “on borrowed time”. His behaviour aroused suspicion and he was arrested weeks before the 9-11 attacks.
Only after the onslaught did Moussaoui made a partial confession. He claimed he was part of the Islamist extremists’ plans, but only for the next stage of violent jihad.
Eventually put on trial in a US court in 2005, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to plotting mass murders. One juror out of twelve refused to sentence him to death. Instead the judge ordered that he be totally isolated for the rest of his life in a maximum security prison, without any communication with the outside world. (However through his lawyer he has made a series of complaints: the last known one, in 2018, was that the clock in his cell had been removed deliberately to prevent him knowing when to pray five times a day.)
Abu Hamza is somewhere else in the same complex, after Britain extradited him to the US on unrelated terrorism charges.
I had met Abu Hamza at the Finsbury Park mosque several times. Once he told me how easy it was to convince young people that killing was right. “They just need to hear what Muslims have suffered in Kashmir (northern India) and other places, and they know they need to fight,” he said. Abu Hamza, saying he was trained as an architect, also insisted that the 9-11 attacks were literally an inside job – explosives planted inside the building by the CIA – oh yes, and the Jews.
That was even though Osama Bin Laden released a video on the first anniversary of the killings, showing him and his Al Qaeda coterie watching the events live on a television set, with him proclaiming: “There’s another one coming” – before the second plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
I also had a chilling conversation with the other notorious Islamist extremist sheikh, Omar Bakri Mohamed (incorrectly dubbed the Tottenham Ayatollah). As we drove through the streets of north London, he told me the other young men in the vehicle were ready to take action. “I’m trying to restrain them,” the sheikh said. The young men said nothing. Weeks later 52 people were killed in the 7-7 attacks on three trains and a bus in London.
Sheikh Omar had already by then arranged a celebration to honour “The Magnificent Nineteen”, a deliberately provocative reference to the dead 9-11 hijackers.
“I love my son more than ever,” Moussaoui’s mother told me as we looked through old framed photos of him at her home in Narbonne, France. “That’s even though he refused to meet me when I tried to visit him in his jail before he was convicted. He’s still my flesh and blood, and I must somehow be partly responsible for how he’s turned out.”
Aisha El Wafi (she kept her maiden name after splitting from her wife-beating abusive husband) was a broken woman, seeing herself as another victim of 9-11. She went to meet mothers of some of the 9-11 victims, and made friends with Phyllis Rodriquez, whose son died in the collapsed North Tower of the World Trade Centre.
Phyllis said she had forgiven the hijackers and their backers, including Moussaoui, as the two women spoke at rallies organised by the London-based Forgiveness Project.
Moussaoui’s older brother Abd Salam says he and his two sisters Nadia and Jamila are “all traumatised” by what their brother had become. He believes Zacarias had been deeply affected by not having a father figure, and had been left rudderless by having no religious input from his parents.
His mother says she tried to bring up her four children as secular and French. Abd Salam says Islamist movements often snare and net young people who have little or no religion in their homes, yet feel lost or outsiders in the wider society.
He blames Western politicians for not clamping down firmly enough on known Islamic extremists and their organisations in Europe.
“How could someone so open, so communicative and warm, how could someone ambitious, so involved in his studies, so keen to better himself — how could someone like him let himself be swallowed up by such scum?,” he asked in a long memoir.
“I am convinced of one thing: if it worked with my brother, it can work with plenty of other young people.
Listing a number of organisations that operate in Europe and the UK, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Abd Salam says: “People of goodwill must be united in denouncing and ostracising from society those who espouse the destructive ideology of these terrorist movements. Politicians must make sure that we do not ourselves — out of ignorance or mere laxity — become the executioners’ accomplices.”