The mother of French-born Zacarias Moussaoui -- the alleged "20th hijacker" and only terrorist convicted of conspiring to kill U.S. citizens in the September 11 attacks -- is blaming the racism her son allegedly endured while growing up in France's southern town of Narbonne, for pushing him to embrace radical Islam.
Moussaoui, who is serving a life sentence without parole at the Federal ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, conspired, but did not end up taking part in the 9/11 attacks after al Qaeda leadership allegedly developed doubts about his reliability.
Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, said her son, who is of Moroccan descent, was repeatedly harassed as a child for his ethnicity, and that those seeds of discontent were later played upon and cultivated by Islamic extremists. "My son suffered a lot from daily racism," she told CNN. el-Wafi alleges her son was called a "dirty Arab and dirty negro" and told to go home. "These are words that kill a child when he is 16, 18, 19 years of age."
"He loved a girl he was forbidden from seeing... well the Islamists and the extremists found a grievance in the heart of my son. My son was born in France, my son loves France ... but he was not accepted. He was rejected by French society."
el-Wafi, who berates herself for not having seen the signs that her son had turned to extremism sooner, said that "If I had known he would end up with this group of wrongdoers, I would have attracted his attention ... but I did not see it coming."
"I think that when a child comes home, shrugs his shoulders and does not listen to the parents ... and says ... you are not good Muslims, there is a danger."
The signs of Moussaoui's transformation started to manifest in the early 1990's. According to CNN, he studied business in Montpellier before moving to London to study at South Bank University. The first turning point for Moussaoui might have come there, when he found himself attending the same Brixton mosque as shoe bomber Richard Reid.
During his seven years in London, Moussaoui's family and French investigators claim he traveled to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Chechnya. In this time, Moussaoui grew a beard, started dressing in traditional Pakistani garb and began espousing the virtues of militant Islam to those around him. CNN reports that Moussaoui was soon asked to leave the more moderate Brixton mosque he had been a member of due to his talk of jihad against the West.
CNN reports that in February 2001 Moussaoui went to Oklahoma for flying lessons and later, German investigators say, he was wired thousands of dollars from Germany to Minnesota, where he began a flight-training course in August.
Government sources told CNN that at the time, three top al Qaeda detainees told their interrogators that Moussaoui was not meant to be a part of the 9/11 attack, and was instead intended to serve in a subsequent terror plot. Moussaoui corroborated the claim in court, pledging his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, but denying he was to be a part of the 9/11 hijacking of planes.
While on trial, the unrepentant Moussaoui told a shocked courtroom he rejoiced at seeing the burning rubble of the World Trade Center and pleaded guilty to six criminal conspiracy charges.
While el-Wafi claims to accept that her son became an Islamic extremist, she maintains his innocence in the 9/11 attacks and believes her son was wrongly convicted.
"He was convicted of what he said in the trial -- 'death to the Jews, death to the Americans' -- but there was nothing else to hold him to. He was convicted unfairly but if he had money he'd have been able to defend himself better" el-Wafi told CNN.
She said that while she has reached out to her son repeatedly since the trial, she has not received a response.
After Moussaoui was convicted of conspiracy charges, he faced the death penalty but his defense lawyer, Edward MacMahon, said he believed his client yearned for martyrdom.
Urging jurors not to deliver a death penalty sentence MacMahon said, "The only way he can achieve that dream and then live on as some smiling face on a recruiting poster for Osama bin Laden is by your verdict. Please don't make him a hero, ladies and gentlemen. He just doesn't deserve it."
To assuage her grief, el-Wafi works as an activist with French feminist group Ni Putes Ni Soumise (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) that purportedly works with Muslim families on issues such as extremism and even arranged marriage.
"I visit schools, I talk to young girls with regards to arranged marriages at 14 or 15 years of age. I see the parents and tell them you must talk about your problems you have at home, you must talk about it," she told CNN.
"When their parents do not have a worthwhile career, education, or qualifications, the children look upon their parents as having less than nothing."
Many of us in life have endured some level of scrutiny, criticism, or even discrimination. However, the vast majority do not use those experiences as reason to turn to militant Islam and plot the death of thousands of innocents.