Wisdom of the Terrorist's Son
Those who embrace violence, whether in the form of acts of terrorism or acts of war, are necrophiliacs. They worship death. They sacrifice life, including at times their own, for the heady intoxication that comes with becoming an angel of destruction. And in the wake of their fury and violence they not only leave grief, pain and suffering, but they perpetuate new cycles of revenge and murder like bad karma. These killers are presented to us in many forms. They come packaged as patriots and heroes, wearing rows of medals like David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal, or they stumble onto the stage as bearded villains wearing suicide belts. But they are all killers. They all drink the same, dark elixir of death. They all partake of the same drug. They all take life in the name of high national or religious ideals. And they are all the scourge of the human race.
Zak Ebrahim, with whom I spoke in Philadelphia, knows intimately the old, sad tale of retribution, violence and revenge. His father is El Sayid Nosair, who, on Nov. 5, 1990, in New York City, assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, the head of the Kach Party, labeled by the United States, Canada and the European Union as a terrorist organization. The party was outlawed by the Israeli government in 1988 for inciting racism. Kahane’s armed followers, whom I often encountered heavily armed at improvised roadblocks in the occupied Palestinian territories, were responsible for the murders and beatings of dozens of unarmed Palestinians. They held rallies in Jerusalem where they chanted “Death to Arabs!” And to many Palestinians, as well as many Muslims in the Arab world, Ebrahim’s father, currently in ADX Florence Supermax Prison in Florence, Colo., is celebrated as a hero. But to his son, who was then 7, he became something else. He became the father who disappeared because murder for a cause was more important than a life with his wife and three small children. And if anyone understands the line demarcating seductive ideologies of death and the fragility and sanctity of systems of life, it is Ebrahim.
His father, like many other immigrants arriving in the United States as young adults, struggled. When he first lived in Pittsburgh, a woman who was thinking of converting to Islam accused him of rape. The charges were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence. But it made him wary and distrustful of American culture. The family moved to Jersey City, N.J., where Nosair’s cousin offered him a job. A few months later he was severely electrocuted. He was unable to work for weeks. He fell into a deep depression.
“He spent a lot of his time sitting next to his radiator in the living room with his Koran and praying,” Ebrahim said. “Those two things, which were things he had not expected when he immigrated, led him towards a group he felt more comfortable with, which was Muslims. Unfortunately, that led him to Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman.”
Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric who was implicated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was the leader of a radical mosque in Jersey City. He is serving a life sentence at the Butner Medical Center, which is part of the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C. The 1993 attack killed six people, including a pregnant woman, and injured hundreds more.
“I remember him as being a very normal, Egyptian Muslim father,” said Ebrahim, 27, in fluent, unaccented English. “He was very funny, always trying to make us laugh. We lived in a happy home. My parents didn’t argue. He was never violent with us. But over the course of that last year, when he started going to the Masjid Al-Salaam mosque in Jersey City, he drifted away from us. He was spending more and more time with this group of Muslim men. My mother noticed that he was starting to become initially a little more fundamentalist and then he announced he wanted to go to Afghanistan to fight in the Afghan war. He brought my grandfather here from Egypt to try and convince him to take the family back to Egypt with him so that he could go fight there. My mother was very much against him leaving to fight in this war.”
Nosair’s father strictly forbade his son to go to Afghanistan and told him his duty was to remain at home and support his family.
“He was spending more and more time at the mosque,” said Ebrahim, who was born Abdulaziz El-Sayed Nosair but changed his name after the Kahane assassination. “The mosque had a small store on the second floor of the building that sold Islamic materials, Korans and posters, which they used to raise funds for the war in Afghanistan. I am not sure when the turning point was, but when his father told him your family is your responsibility, you need to stay here and take care of them, and he was left with this need to make a change, to help his fellow Muslims, or however he saw it, he decided to go a different route. He decided to target people in the United States.”
Shortly before the assassination, Nosair, who repaired air conditioners in New York City’s courts, took his young son to a shooting range in Long Island. The range, it turned out, was under surveillance by the FBI. The father and son practiced firing automatic rifles. “I was forced to understand at a very young age, after my father went to prison, that using violence to solve a situation only makes it worse,” Ebrahim said. “This was made clear to me because so many people were killed in retribution after Kahane’s murder, including Kahane’s son, who was killed with his wife and some of his children. The assassination solved nothing. It was only used as a tool to further fanaticize extremist groups.”
As a boy Ebrahim traveled with his mother, sister and brother to spend three days and two nights in a small residence at Attica State prison with his father.
“You could rent movies,” he said. “There was a little playground. It was three days of feeling like a normal family out of 362 other days. We would pretend to be a family for a couple of days. We would be happy. Then we could go back home to Jersey City, poor and without a father.”
“I think he was coerced into doing this by cunning people who were skilled at turning disaffected Muslims into extremists, although he is finally responsible for what he did,” Ebrahim said of his father’s descent into terrorism. “Most of the men involved in the assassination and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center were taken advantage of. They were tools. They were used. These men had very little understanding of what they were doing, even though many of the men were highly educated. I knew Mohammed Salameh, who was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He wanted to marry my sister. The years after my father went to prison Salameh only made it clearer that he wanted to marry my sister. He said it would be a great honor. But I saw that he was very young and very naive. A lot of people who come to this country are looking for ways to feel they belong and things that remind them of back home. It is amazing what you can get people to do when they feel part of a group.”
Life in the wake of the Kahane assassination became very difficult for the family. Donations and money from Osama bin Laden to pay for his father’s defense, led by the radical lawyer William Kunstler, eventually ran out. Ebrahim, his mother, sister and brother fell into abject poverty. The principal at the Cliffside Elementary School told the family that Ebrahim and his young brother would no longer be allowed to attend school. The children, for a time, received scholarships to a private Islamic school in Jersey City. The family, having difficulty supporting itself, would move 22 times over Ebrahim’s childhood; for a while they lived in Egypt. The appearance of a physically abusive stepfather, once his mother divorced Nosair, added to the trauma. Ebrahim kept his father’s identity hidden until this year, telling friends and acquaintances his father had died of a heart attack.
“My mother wore not only the hegab but the nekab, which covers the face,” he said. “And she was constantly being attacked on the street [in the U.S.] although people did not know who she was. It was amazing how many times immigrants with thick accents were telling my mother to go back to her country and she was born in Pittsburgh. People would call her ‘ninja’ or ‘ghost.’ After the World Trade Center bombing, when we went outside she was often targeted.”
Ebrahim has not seen his father for 15 years. They have not communicated for more than a decade. He said he is dedicating his life to speaking out as an advocate for nonviolence. He has a website at www.zakebrahim.com.
“We talked on the phone regularly after he went to prison, at least once a week or once every two weeks,” he said. “It became very tedious. I was having a hard time at school and home. I was being bullied very badly at school and abused by my stepfather. The conversations with my dad about making all my prayers and being good to my mother got old. It was the same conversation over and over again. If he cared about what was going on in my life he should have stuck around for it.”
“We dropped off the radar,” he said of his mother and two siblings. “We changed our names when we moved to Egypt. We did not want anyone to know we were over there. My father is a household name in Egypt. We ended all contact with him. For years he has been trying to get back in touch with us.”
“If we sat down together I am not sure what we would talk about,” he said. “I have spent so much time trying to protect myself from being hurt by him that I have reduced the importance of one day having a grown-up conversation with him. Perhaps this is my defense mechanism. It is easier for me not to put too much importance on the answers to questions I might put to him. He has spent 20 years in prison and well over 10 years not having contact with his children. I wonder if this makes him regret his decision, but who knows. A lot of people who commit those acts in the name of religion consider themselves martyrs.”
“I came from an extremist background,” he said. “I was exposed to the things Americans fear most about Islam. But I promote peace. I am not a fanatic. We must embrace tolerance and nonviolence. Who knows this better than the son of a terrorist?”