'I love my son more than ever' 9/11 terrorist's mother who won't give up

Zacarias Moussaoui, the '20th hijacker', will spend the rest of his life in a US jail. His mother wants to make amends. John Lichfield meets her

In the photograph on his mother's sitting-room wall, Zacarias Moussaoui is a cheerful 20-year-old boy with an open, trusting face. In the photographs on Aicha el-Wafi's side-board, he is a sweet seven-year-old shouting with joy as he tumbles with other children down an earthy bank in Alsace.

Other photographs – Zacarias as a toddler; Zacarias as a grinning, bearded student in London – decorate Ms Wafi's bungalow on the edge of the medieval wine town of Narbonne. From 1982, Zacarias Moussaoui and his brother and sisters were brought up in this house, with a fig tree in the garden and a panorama over one of the lagoons which line the Languedoc coast.

"I often think about Zacarias when we first came to this house and he was 13," said Ms Wafi. "He was always a very affectionate, friendly boy. Every morning, he would be the first to wake and come to me, still in his underpants, grinning and stretching, and saying: 'Come on mum, how about some coffee?' Now, you know, I can't drink coffee without thinking of Zacarias buried alive in his cell in America."

To the world, Zacarias Moussaoui, 43, is the "20th hijacker", a sinister-looking man with a round, sullen, bearded face. He is the man who cursed America and Jews during his often bizarre trial in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2006.

He is the only person ever to be tried specifically for playing a part in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Considerable doubts have since been raised about the role that he played in the conspiracy – if any.

In May 2006, Zacarias Moussaoui was sentenced to life imprisonment, without possibility of parole, in solitary confinement at the "Alcatraz of the Rockies" – the US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, in Florence, Colorado. His mother has not spoken to him, or received a reply to one of her letters, for nearly six years. The American authorities say he refuses to speak to her. She believes that total isolation has been imposed as part of his punishment.

Ms Wafi is convinced that Moussaoui had nothing to do with the attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. She says that he is being "punished for what he said (at his trial)... not for what he did. He was an ideal scapegoat."

She admits that her son, while studying for a master's degree in London between 1993 and 1995, became an Islamist and an extremist without her realising it. She blames, among other things, the break-up of her marriage with his abusive father when he was four years old. She also blames two "wounding" incidents in his French adolescence.

The first was the day that his school careers adviser pushed him, although he was always an excellent student, towards minor, technical studies. "The clear implication was that he was only an Arab and would need nothing more," she said. The second "psychological wound" was the day that the father of his teenage sweetheart warned him off, again because he was an Arab. "Don't think that you will ever get your feet under my table", the man said. In the last 10 years, Ms Wafi, 65, has publicly defending her son while campaigning against extremist forms of Islam.

She has befriended five families of 9/11 victims in the United States.

She has joined the French feminist group "Ni Putes, Ni Soumises" ("neither whores, nor submissive"), which tries to persuade French women of Arab and African origin to resist male oppression. She visits schools to lecture girls of North African origin on the evils of arranged marriages. At the age of 14, Aicha Wafi was married in Morocco to a man that she did not know.

"I love my son more than ever," she said, kissing one of his photographs. "Some people find that strange, but to me it is not strange. It was easy to love the little boy that ran around here, full of life. Who is going to love Zacarias now, in his cell underground in America, unless it is his mother?"

Ms Wafi says she was – and remains – sickened by the slaughter of 9/11. "I lost my own first daughter when she was four months old. I know what it means for a parent to lose a child. That is why I reached out to the families of the people who died."

She angrily dismisses radical and extremist forms of Islam as a "perversion", an "obsession with power", and "nothing to do with the real Islam, which is about love and respect and tolerance".

She is convinced, however, that radical Islam was only partly responsible for what happened on 11 September 2001. "It was also Bush," she said. "I believe that the Bush administration willed it to happen, even if they were not directly involved. I believe that Osama bin Laden always worked closely with the Americans – I mean the American government, not the American people. It was all about power and money. Bush wanted the excuse to attack Iraq."

Ms Wafi is warm and articulate but remains, after 10 years, an angry woman. She is angry with France, which, she says, taught her son to be French, and then told him that he was not good enough to be French. She is angry with Britain for giving free rein to radical preachers in London who, she says, converted her son to a "poisonous, perverted" form of Islam. She is angry with her other son, Abd Samad Moussaoui who, she claims, helped the French security services in their post 9/11 investigations of Zacarias.

Bizarrely, perhaps, she cannot bring herself to be angry with Zacarias himself. He was arrested in the US the month before 9/11 on relatively minor immigration charges. He was in custody in Minnesota at the time of the attacks. He had taken part in flight training and flight simulation programmes in the US (and failed). According to one version of events, he was a "reserve" member of the 9/l1 team. According to one of his own conflicting accounts, which he has since withdrawn, he was due to take part in a follow-up attack with the shoe-bomber, Richard Reid. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy and conspiracy to destroy aircraft. At his sentencing, he said the US would "never get Osama bin Laden". As he was taken from the court, he said: "America, you lost and I won."

"I am convinced he was nothing to do with 9/11," Ms Wafi said. "Some of the things that he said at the trial – against Americans, against Jews – were abominable, unacceptable. But can you be given life imprisonment for that? OK he went in for pilot training. But many people do that. It proves nothing. At the very most, you can say that he may have wanted to be a terrorist, but there is no shred of evidence that he helped to plan 9/l1.

"As far as I am concerned, the people who have put him in a two-metre-by-two-metre cell, underground, for life, just for saying things, are monsters. And you can write monsters in capital letters".

Ms Wafi is a fighter. When she left her abusive husband, she was a woman in her 20s with four children. She worked as a seamstress and cleaner before re-training as a junior official with France Telecom. She made and saved enough money to buy a plot of land and build the bungalow on the edge of Narbonne in 1982.

But isn't her own success and the comfortable life that she gave her sons and daughters the answer to her claim that Zacarias was betrayed by France? Despite his school's advice, he went on to a business degree in France and a doctorate at South Bank University in London. He was a talented handball player. He was far from being a dead-end kid. Like many other young Muslims, French and British, who turn to extreme forms of Islam, he was an intelligent young man with prospects.

"Do you know I put that question to Zacarias myself, before his trial, when I could still phone him every Tuesday," Ms Wafi said. "I told him that he had had a good life and a good education in France. Even as an Arab single woman, I had managed to give him a good childhood."

"He replied: 'Maman, the difference was that you were young and pretty and a woman. I was an Arab man. I was not accepted and never would be accepted. I knew that.'"

As we left, Ms Wafi proudly showed her garden and her view of the Mediterranean lagoon. She insisted that I eat a couple of her delicious figs. "I have only just started looking after all this again," she said.

"The last 10 years have been 10 years of misery. It is as if my life has been frozen at that moment that they showed the face of Zacarias on the television and said that he had been arrested in America. Why has my life been like this? What if I had not been forced to marry at 14? Why did Zacarias listen to those preachers in London? What if he had married and had children? Every time I see his school friends with their wives and kids, I say: 'Why not him too?' 'Why not me?'"

Silent families: The hijackers' relatives who keep a low profile

Almost nothing has been heard from family members of the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were identified as nationals of Saudi Arabia, who died along with so many innocents 10 years ago. Advertising their connections to the crimes of 11 September 2001 has not been a priority for the families.

The father of Mohamed Atta surfaced quickly to deny that his son piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower. A retired doctor in Egypt, he said Atta was alive and in hiding. In 2005, he conceded in an interview that his son had been killed but at the hands of Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

The medical examiner in New York separated the remains of the hijackers from those of the victims at the Twin Towers, something that was insisted upon by the victims' relatives. Similar efforts were undertaken at the sites of the other crashes at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

Family members of the hijackers were free to seek the repatriation of the remains but the authorities in New York never received one such request. "We have had no inquiries for the hijackers' remains in the 10 years. Not one," a spokeswoman for the medical examiner told the Pittsburgh Press-Gazette last month. The FBI has custody of the remains of hijackers from the other two sites. Only the authorities in Pennsylvania have any record of any inquiries about the hijackers, which were never followed up.

David Usborne

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