Not My Father’s Boy: A Terrorist’s Son Speaks Out

His father was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, but Zak Ebrahim rejected hatred and violence and chose instead to be a force for peace.

father and son
Courtesy Zak Ebrahm

November 5, 1990
Cliffside Park, New Jersey

My mother shakes me awake in my bed: “There’s been an accident,” she says.

I am seven years old, a chubby kid in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajamas. I’m accustomed to being roused before dawn, but only by my father and only to pray on my little rug with the minarets. Never by my mother.

It’s 11 at night. My father is not home. Lately, he has been staying at the mosque in Jersey City deeper and deeper into the night. But he is still Baba to me—funny, loving, warm. Just this morning, he tried to teach me, yet again, how to tie my shoes. Has he been in an accident? Is he hurt? Is he dead? I can’t get the questions out, because I’m too scared.

My mother flings open a white sheet—it mushrooms briefly, like a cloud—then leans down to spread it on the floor. “Look into my eyes, Z,” she says, her face so knotted with worry that I hardly recognize her. “You need to get dressed as quick as you can. And then you need to put your things onto this sheet and wrap it up tight. OK? Your sister will help you.” She moves toward the door.

“Wait,” I say. It’s the first word I’ve managed to utter. “What should I put in the sheet?”

I’m a good kid. Shy. Obedient.

My mother stops to look at me. “Whatever will fit,” she says. “I don’t know if we’re coming back.”

She turns, and she’s gone.

Once we’ve packed, my sister, brother, and I pad down to the living room. My mother has called my father’s cousin in Brooklyn—we call him Uncle Ibrahim, or just Ammu—and she’s talking to him heatedly, clutching the phone with her left hand and, with her right, nervously adjusting her hijab. The TV plays in the background. Breaking news. My mother catches us watching and hurries to turn it off.

She talks to Ammu Ibrahim for a while longer, her back to us. When she hangs up, the phone begins ringing.

It is one of Baba’s friends from the mosque, desperate to reach him. “He’s not here,” my mother says.

The phone rings again.

This time, I can’t figure out who’s calling. My mother says, “Really? Asking about us? The police?”

A little later, I wake up on a blanket on the living room floor. Somehow, in the midst of the chaos, I’ve nodded off. Everything we could possibly carry is piled by the door. My mother paces around, checking and rechecking her purse. She has all our birth certificates: proof, if anyone demands it, that she is our mother. My father, El-Sayyid Nosair, was born in Egypt. But my mother was born in Pittsburgh. Before she became a Muslim—before she took the name Khadija Nosair—she went by Karen Mills.

“Your uncle Ibrahim is coming for us,” she tells me when she sees me sitting up and rubbing my eyes.

Here is what my mother is not saying: Meir Kahane, a militant rabbi and the founder of the Jewish Defense League, has been shot by an Arab gunman after a speech in a ballroom at a Marriott hotel in New York City. The gunman fled the scene, shooting an elderly man in the leg in the process. He rushed into a cab that was waiting in front of the hotel but then bolted out and began running down the street, gun in hand. A law enforcement officer from the U.S. Postal Service, who happened to be passing by, exchanged fire with him. The gunman collapsed on the street. The newscasters couldn’t help noting a gruesome detail: Both Rabbi Kahane and the assassin had been shot in the neck. Neither was expected to live.

Now the TV stations are updating the story constantly. An hour ago, while my sister, brother, and I slept away our last seconds of anything remotely resembling a childhood, my mother overheard the name Meir Kahane and looked up at the screen. The first thing she saw was footage of the Arab gunman, and her heart nearly stopped: It was my father.

Nosair survived his injuries, while Kahane did not. Awaiting trial in prison at Attica, Nosair insisted on his innocence, and his wife and children desperately wanted to believe him. During this time, federal agents raided the family’s home, but it would be years before they translated all his papers. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden, unknown to most Americans at that time, was among those contributing to Nosair’s legal fees. In 1991, a jury found Nosair not guilty of murder. He was sentenced instead to seven to 22 years for criminal possession of a weapon and other charges. The family endured years of death threats, nomadic living, and poverty. Tragically, Nosair’s career as a terrorist was not over yet.

February 26, 1993
Jersey City, New Jersey

I’m about to turn ten, and I’ve been bullied at school for years. I can’t pretend it’s just because of who my father is. For reasons I will probably spend my whole life trying to unravel, I seem to be a magnet for abuse. The bullies’ latest trick is to wait until I’ve turned to open my locker and then slam my head against it and run. Whenever this happens, the principal says he wants to be “fair to all parties,” so I usually get sent to detention along with the bullies. The anger and dread have made a permanent nest in my stomach. Today’s a Friday, and my mother has let me stay home from school to recover from what we agree to call “a stomach bug.”

I’m camped out on the couch, watching Harry and the Hendersons, a movie about a family who’s hiding a Bigfoot-type creature from the police because the police won’t understand how kind and gentle he is. In the middle of the movie, there’s breaking news: an explosion beneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The NYPD, FBI, and ATF are on the scene, the early theory being that a transformer has exploded. The wreckage is horrific.

Later, hundreds of FBI agents comb through the rubble. They abandon the theory about the transformer when they discover remnants of the Ryder van that carried the explosives. The FBI traces the van back to Mohammed Salameh—the deliveryman who’d promised to marry my sister when she came of age—and arrests him on March 4, when he returns to the rental company to report the van stolen and demand that he get his $400 deposit back. In the months that follow, America shivers at the previously incomprehensible thought of terrorism at home, as well as at the fact that its government agencies had been caught unawares.

A startling fact emerges: My father helped strategize the attack from his cell at Attica, using visitors as go-betweens to associates back home. One of those associates was his old mentor, the Blind Sheikh, who not only encouraged the WTC plot, according to the government, but also signed off on a plan that would have been far more deadly, had it come to pass: five more bombs detonated within ten minutes at the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and a federal building housing the FBI in New York City.

For practical purposes, though, the WTC operation was run by the Kuwaiti-born Ramzi Yousef. He had studied electrical engineering in Wales and bomb making at a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. He entered the United States using a fake Iraqi passport and, upon being detained, played a get-out-of-jail-free card by requesting asylum. A court date was set.

And because holding cells were full, Yousef was released on his own recognizance in New Jersey, whereupon he and his team began collecting the ingredients for the bomb. Just hours after the attack, Yousef left the country.

I wish I could do more to honor the six victims than just repeat their names, but I’d be ashamed if I didn’t do at least that much. Robert Kirkpatrick, William Macko, and Stephen Knapp were all maintenance supervisors at the WTC. They were eating lunch together when the bomb went off. Monica Rodriguez Smith was a secretary. She was seven months pregnant and doing clerical work when she was killed. Wilfredo Mercado worked for the restaurant Windows on the World. He was checking in deliveries. And John DiGiovanni was a salesman who specialized in dental products—he was just parking his car.

By the fall of 1995, the government, having finally translated the contents of the 47 boxes taken from our home after Kahane’s assassination, determines that the killing was part of a conspiracy and retries my father for the murder as well as for his part in the World Trade Center bombing.

My father still insists that he is innocent of everything. I believe him because—well, because I am 12 years old. My mother has doubts. My father rants to her about the conspiracy against him, and he barks orders: Write to the judge! Call Pakistan! Go to the Egyptian embassy! Are you writing all of this down?! My mother yesses him quietly.

On October 1, my father, along with the Blind Sheikh and eight others, is convicted of 48 out of 50 charges, and later he is sentenced to life plus 15 years without parole. The murder of Monica Rodriguez Smith’s unborn child is considered in the sentencing.

After the new round of convictions, we see my father once—at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. My mother is terrified about what will become of her and her children. Even now, my father will not admit guilt. When he goes to hug my mother, she pulls away for the first time, so repulsed that she thinks she’s going to vomit. For many years, she will try to console us by saying that we have a father who loves us. But she will always remember the visit to the MCC as the day that her own heart finally gave up.

My father is shipped off to a series of maximum-security prisons around the country. We can no longer afford to visit, even if we wanted to. My mother barely has the money to pay for my father’s collect calls. I don’t want to talk to him anyway. All he ever says is, “Are you making your prayers? Are you being good to your mother?” And all I want to say is, Are you being good to my mother, Baba? Do you know that she’s crying all the time? But, of course, I’m too scared to say any of this. So my father and I keep having the same pointless conversations, and I twist the phone cord tighter and tighter around my hand because I just want it to stop.

My mother wants it to stop too. She demands a divorce, and we all change our last name.

We’ve seen my father for the last time.

After years of moving around the country and even living briefly in Egypt, the family moved to Tampa. Zak got a job at Busch Gardens when he was 18. There he made friends and came to appreciate people from all different backgrounds.

I’ve spent my life trying to understand what drew my father to terrorism and struggled with the knowledge that I have his blood in my veins. It was many years before I internalized the full horror of what he did. I carried fear, anger, and self-loathing in my gut but couldn’t even begin to process them.

I now understand that there’s a reason that murderous hatred has to be taught—and not just taught but forcibly implanted. It’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is a lie. It is a lie told over and over again—often to people who have no resources and who are denied alternative views of the world. It’s a lie my father believed, and one he hoped to pass on to me. But he could not fill me with hate from jail. And he could not stop me from coming into contact with the sorts of people he demonized and discovering that they were human beings—people I could care about and who could care about me. Bigotry cannot survive experience. My body rejected it.

My mother’s faith in Islam never wavered, but she, like the vast majority of Muslims, is anything but a zealot. When I was 18, I told her I could no longer judge people based on what they were—Muslim, Jewish, Christian, gay, straight—and that starting right then and there, I was going to judge them based only on who they were. She listened, she nodded, and she had the wisdom to speak the six most empowering words I have ever heard: “I’m so tired of hating people.”

Everyone has a choice. Even if you’re trained to hate, you can choose tolerance. You can choose empathy.

To be honest, I still feel something for my father, something that I haven’t been able to eradicate—some strand of pity and guilt, I guess, though it’s as thin as spider’s silk. It’s hard to think of the man I once called Baba living in a cell, knowing that we have all changed our names out of terror and shame.

Every so often, I’ll get an e-mail from the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, saying that my father would like to initiate correspondence. But I’ve learned that leads nowhere good.

Rabbi Kahane’s assassination was not just hateful but a failure as anything other than simple murder. My father intended to shut the rabbi up and to bring glory unto Allah. What he actually did was to bring shame and suspicion unto all Muslims and to inspire more pointless and cowardly acts of violence.

One of the many upsides to not speaking to my father anymore is that I’ve never had to listen to him pontificate about the vile events that took place on September 11. He must have regarded the destruction of the Twin Towers as a great victory for Islam—maybe even as the culmination of the work he and the Blind Sheikh and Ramzi Yousef had begun years earlier.

In April 2012, I had the surreal experience of giving a speech to a couple of hundred federal agents. The Bureau wanted to build a better rapport with the Muslim community, and the agent in charge of the campaign had heard me advocate for peace at his son’s school, so there I was—feeling honored but nervous. I proceeded to tell my story and to offer myself up as proof that it is possible to shut one’s ears to hatred and violence and simply choose peace.

After my talk, a handful of agents formed a line to shake my hand. The first few agents offered polite words and firm grips. The third one, a woman, had been crying.

“You probably don’t remember me,” she said. “But I was one of the agents who worked on your father’s case.” She paused awkwardly, which made my heart go out to her. “I always wondered what happened to the children of El-Sayyid Nosair,” she continued. “I was afraid that you’d followed in his path.”

I’m proud of the path that I’ve chosen. And I think I speak for my brother and sister when I say that rejecting our father’s extremism both saved our lives and made our lives worth living.

To answer the agent’s question, here is what happened to the children of El-Sayyid Nosair:

We are not his children anymore.

The Terrorist’s Son, by Zak Ebrahim with Jeff Giles, copyright © 2014 by Zak Ebrahim, is published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. simonandschuster.com.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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