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Mother of Sept. 11 Suspect

June 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Now an interview with Aicha el-Wafi, she’s the Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker.

A French citizen of Moroccoan descent, Mrs. el-Wafi was in the court last week when a federal judge ruled Moussaoui was mentally competent to represent himself on four capital charges of conspiracy in the September 11 attacks.

Moussaoui fired his court-appointed lawyers and refused to meet with the Arab-American lawyer his mother had hired for him. Last week’s court hearing was the first time Mrs. el-Wafi had seen her son in five years. Since then, she has visited him in prison four times, each visit monitored by the FBI.

Moussaoui’s trial is expected to get under way in the fall.

I talked with Aicha el-Wafi earlier this afternoon shortly before she left Washington to return to her home in southern France. She was joined by her translator, Thomas Johnson.

MARGARET WARNER: Welcome, Mrs. el-Wafi. Are you surprised to find your son in in this situation, accused of plotting to murder Americans?

AICHA EL-WAFI: No. No. (Translated) My son, you can’t say that he killed anyone in America.

My son told me and he only says the truth to me, that he has nothing to do with the events of September and he has not killed anyone in the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: You told an interviewer in France – Agence France Presse — that you thought he was a scapegoat. What did you mean?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): To all Americans, the first thing I want to say is that I am very touched and my pain is enormous for all the people who have died in — during the 11th of September.

I feel this pain very deeply because my son is also in this story and now he is in prison so I know the pain they are all feeling.

So I’m very sorry to say that, but it seems to me that he has been turned into a scapegoat because it’s as if America needs someone who is responsible. And I can say that because it seems that they have very little facts in their hands, they have very little things against him and they probably accuse him. He was arrested. He is an Arab. He was taking flight lessons, and it seems to be enough for him to hold this role.

MARGARET WARNER: You’ve now had times to meet with him several times this week. Did he tell you for example, why he was taking flight lessons to learn how to fly the big jumbo jets?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): I didn’t go into that detail with him and he didn’t talk about why he was flying or learning supposedly to learn to fly jumbo jets. No, what is enough for me is when he, my son, says to me, I didn’t participate. I was nothing in that story. I believe him. He said please, I’m telling you the truth, mother. And now I’m asking the American justice and the American government to, if they want — if they say he is responsible for it, they have to prove it fact after fact, one by one. If they have to condemn him to death, it must be proof to all that.

MARGARET WARNER: What can you tell us about your conversations with him?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): He told me that he loved me and that when in these hard times he is thinking of God of course and he’s thinking God will help him to get through these very long and suffering days, days full of suffering, and that he continues to say that he has nothing in the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Now that you’ve had a chance to talk to him, do you think he is doing the right thing, insisting on representing himself in this trial?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): No, this is the great mistake. Even the judge that has accepted this has done a very big mistake — because even for the lawyers, it is very hard to work on this case. And my son, he is well educated, but he doesn’t know the American law, and he doesn’t have all the tools that are necessary to do this.

MARGARET WARNER: So why do you think he is insisting on doing this?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): I think it’s because he has been shut up and closed away from the world for the past nine months, that he doesn’t eat well. He is not sleeping well. He has light above his head 24 hours a day. He doesn’t see anyone.

And they give him the information that the other side wants to give him and not more. And so I think that even the declaration he gave in April that was very harmful to him, it’s because he was in a very bad situation. He couldn’t pull himself together. And he is like an animal, trapped like an animal.

Who wouldn’t break down when they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, they don’t see anyone and they are kept in such conditions?

MARGARET WARNER: The lawyers that the government had hired for him, who have now been fired, said they thought his conspiracy theory, his insisting on representing himself showed that he was disturbed; that he was mentally not capable of being able to represent himself.

Do you think your son is sane, is mentally competent?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): He has been closed in, and he doesn’t see reality as it is anymore. He doesn’t see reality as you and I.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he wants to, at the trial, really defend himself, or use it as a platform for his radical views as he did at the hearing in April?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): I don’t see how he is going to expose anything. If he continues like that, he is going straight into the wall.

I’m sorry to say this, but he is not going to be able to defend himself and I feel that the government will just make this trial happen as quickly as possible and it is going to happen very quickly, and it is all going to go like lightning and he won’t be able to defend himself at all, and the truth will not be said.

I want a real trial. And the lawyers that are working– who worked for him and are still working for him now did a very good job and are still doing a very good job.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think that the lawyers that in fact the government appointed, whom he didn’t trust, that they were good lawyers?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): I think they are very good lawyers and all of what I have seen of the work they have been doing is incredibly good. I don’t understand why my son is saying that they are so bad lawyers, that they’re not doing their job.

If he is saying that, it is because he is receiving very bad information about them and that people are giving him information, wrong information to make him think like that.

MARGARET WARNER: He has expressed a violent hatred of the United States. And at that hearing in April, as you mentioned, he prayed to Allah, he said for the destruction of the United States of America, for the destruction of the Jewish people and state. Where did that hatred come from?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): The suffering. I think the suffering is very important and the suffering has — and when you suffer as much as that, you say many things that are just completely wrong and out of your head.

And there’s anger, too. He has deep anger in him. And I know him. I know him well and I know where he has this anger, he is able to say things like this, but I don’t believe, of course, in this. I believe in one God and God has taught us love, whether we are Jew, Muslim or Christian.

MARGARET WARNER: He also described himself as a slave to Allah. Now was that the kind of religious upbringing he had in your family, that kind of intense Islamic view of himself?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): No, madam.

But in Islamic, when you talk among — between ourselves, we are all slaves of Allah — slaves of God. God made us. It’s not slave with blind eyes, of course. We are slaves in a good way, with good meaning of the word.

I brought him up without all these religious beliefs. I brought him up in a republican way. And I didn’t teach them the differences between races, and one race is better than the other, and one religion is better than the other, and one color is better than the other. That’s not what I taught at all. And all the people who work with me [unintelligible] for 35 years in France, they could even witness and tell you that I’ve brought up my sons and my children with love.

And I haven’t taught them these fascist and racist ideas.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think your son has now embraced a more radical form of Islam?

AICHA EL-WAFI (Translated): Maybe there are two factors that have paved the road: Racism in France. And because of racism he really wasn’t able to do the studies he wanted; he was rejected by the system. And the lack of father can be another reason, and maybe because of these two things he found people in Islam that knew how to use these feeble parts of him and drag him into things that he didn’t really want to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Madam el-Wafi, thank you.