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Zacarias, My Brother by Abd Samad Moussaoui with Florence Bouquillat (Seven Stories Press, 143 pages, $14.95) Paying close attention to the case of alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is a bit like watching a car crash in excruciatingly slow motion. As with a car crash, we can’t help wondering who the people involved are or how their families will react. In Zacarias, My Brother: The Making of a Terrorist, estranged big brother Abd Samad Moussaoui gives us a glimpse, albeit a heavily slanted one, into the world that produced Zacarias. He also provides some insight into what it’s like to be the brother of a man accused of horrifying thoughts and deeds. Zacarias Moussaoui, 35, is a self-described al Qaeda terrorist who says he prays for the destruction of the United States and who faces the death penalty if convicted of charges that he participated in the Sept. 11 conspiracy. Just 10 years ago, though, Zacarias or “Zac,” as he was known, was a dedicated student in southern France with a steady girlfriend and dreams of business world success. Abd Samad’s account of their family history is brief and artless, but its subject matter is by nature pretty interesting, and that’s almost enough to carry the 143 pages of text. More central to the book, however, is Abd Samad’s desire to excoriate the xenophobic side of French national culture, castigate his mother for her callous approach to child rearing, and, most of all, issue an apologia for the moderate form of Sunni Islam he has adopted in his own life. By the close of this slim volume, it’s clear that Zacarias may have been the catalyst for writing the book and he’s certainly the marketing hook for selling it, but Zacarias is definitely not the protagonist. Abd Samad is looking for someone to blame. He has found plenty of targets for his grief, his anger, and his personal embarrassment over the fate of his brother. They are, in descending order of importance: France and the dominant culture’s insistence on secularism and integration as well as the systemic racism and xenophobia he says that culture conceals. Their mother, Aïcha. Great Britain’s permissive free speech laws. And last, but not least, predatory Islamic fundamentalist preachers. The brothers haven’t seen each other in almost a decade, so details of Zacarias Moussoaui’s indoctrination into fundamentalism are scant and mostly based on conjecture, but what information there is about the brothers’ home life reveals a Moussaoui none of us have known. Abd Samad introduces us to a French boy who excelled at handball and school, who had an easy charm that won him friends in difficult situations, and a Moussaoui who dated the same girl from his early teens until he left for London in 1993 and discovered the charismatic clerics that would encourage his steps to al Qaeda. That you can see hints of the hard-eyed zealot with the shaggy beard in the sensitive boy Abd Samad describes makes their story seem all the more tragic. The Moussaoui brothers’ story starts in southern Morocco, where their mother was born and, at age 14, married Omar Moussaoui. In 1965, Aïcha, Omar, and their two daughters, Jamila and Nadia, emigrated to France. Two years later, Abd Samad was born. Zacarias entered the world 17 months later, on May 30, 1968. Aïcha left Omar in 1971, taking the kids with her to the Dordogne region where she found a job at a resort as a laundress. It was then that Abd Samad, Zacarias, Jamila, and Nadia embarked on the tortuous journey that was Life With Mother. According to Abd Samad, Aïcha is mercurial at best and usually cruel. He doesn’t condemn her for dumping him and his siblings at an Alsatian orphanage for a year while she got her bearings. Rather, he condemns her for the absence of maternal love in all the years that followed when the children lived under her roof. It made life as French-born ethnic Arabs all the more difficult when there was no emotional warmth at home where the young boys might seek succor from the hostilities thrown at them by shopkeepers, school teachers, and openly racist neighbors. Aïcha, it is worth noting, has attended several hearings in Moussaoui’s case. After the orphanage came a series of apartments in public housing projects in southern France and a final stop in Narbonne, where their mother’s boyfriend built a small house in a middle class neighborhood. Between brawls to defend themselves against thuggish children and adults, stealing bicycles and winning the hearts of neighborhood girls, the Moussaoui boys decided their best course of action was to study hard. But with all their hard work, they still faced the stone wall of racism. “As young French men of North African origin, we had a sense of deep-seated injustice,” Abd Samad writes. His brother’s interpretation was that no matter how hard he tried, the West would never allow him to succeed. And when Zacarias began to struggle at university, he found comfort in the camaraderie of other Arab and Middle Eastern students who talked of revolution and “the network.” By 1993, when Zacarias took off for London with his life savings to learn English and get an advanced degree in international business, he was ripe for the picking by mosque leaders who provided food and sympathy while teaching extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. But as Abd Samad sees it, Aïcha is as culpable as any zealous imam for Zacarias’ decent into the pit of fundamentalism. Their mother refused to teach them Arabic or the tenets of Islam. Instead, she wanted them to speak French, to celebrate Christmas, to integrate. And that, Abd Samad says, left a void which dangerous sectarian leaders could too easily fill. “Looking back over my life, to date, and my brother’s, I can identify with those hundreds of thousands of young people. The lack of parental authority, a difficult childhood, poor education without any goals and without religious references, awash in ignorance about the cultural heritage of their countries of origin, and exclusion everywhere you look. Nowadays I wonder if I’m not a survivor. Could I too have been ensnared, the way my brother was, by extremist groups?” Although uninformed by the experiences of his brother, Abd Samad knows more about terrorist training than the average reader. His account of what happens in training camps are in line with much of the information coming through official channels. The recruiters find young men like Zacarias who are frustrated with their lot in life. They indoctrinate them to an ideology of holy war and glorify the fighters in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Eventually, sect leaders deem some of the young men “eligible” to go abroad and to attend training camp. There they are worked to the point of collapse and kept just a little bit hungry as their leaders exhort them to give all they can for the cause. “After several weeks or months, he gets the feeling that he’s not capable of doing what is expected of him,” Abd Samad writes. “At this stage, there are two scenarios. The recruit might quit, disillusioned. . . . Or, he carries on. . . . He is now ripe for suicide.” Left unstated is that the latter was the presumed fate of his brother, Zacarias. Zacarias is representing himself and since firing his court-appointed attorneys in April 2002, he has smothered the clerk’s office of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia with pleadings that range from the desperate to the shockingly cold and hate-filled. Abd Samad and Zacarias seem vastly different from each other, but they share a tendency for pedantry that can drag down even the most riveting of domestic dramas. Less annoying than the pedantry but more pervasive in Abd Samad’s book is his turgid prose. Zacarias has a way with words that his brother, the commercially published author, lacks. Take, for example, an excerpt from one of Zacarias’ court pleadings: “MUELLER III KING OF FBI MUST TALK. NO MORE LIE. NO MORE TRICK. YOU HAVE TO BE A MAN. (Can you?)” And compare it to a passage from Abd Samad’s book describing their childhood in Alsace: “Zac and I liked to have bike races, but because our bikes were too big (they were salvaged) we had to lean left and then right to reach the pedals. It really hurt when you missed a pedal! We were reckless. Our favorite game was to climb along the drain pipes up to the roof as quickly as we could. We reached the other boys to prove our bravery and agility.” Abd Samad wrote the book with the help of French television news personality Florence Bouquillat. Perhaps she was not the most elegant of ghostwriters. Zacarias Moussaoui is not a sympathetic character. And Abd Samad does not try to make him one. But Zacarias, My Brother is a quick, interesting-enough read. Amidst the long passages expounding what “real” Islam teaches are nuggets of detail that give flesh to a man the government says conspired in the Sept. 11 attacks, a man who has the U.S. criminal justice system in one of the toughest situations it has ever faced. Currently, the trial judge in Moussaoui’s case is considering how to sanction the government for refusing to produce a key witness in U.S. custody for a pretrial deposition. She could very well dismiss the case. And at any moment, the president could decide to declare Moussaoui an enemy combatant, remove him from the civilian criminal justice system and remand him to the custody of the Department of Defense. Such a move likely would silence Zacarias’ public voice, though not his brother’s. Reporter Siobhan Roth is covering the Moussaoui trial for Legal Times.

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