A Son’s Story of Terror and Peace

Social activist Zak Ebrahim delivers a TED talk in New York
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The author of The Terrorist’s Son, Zak Ebrahim, will tell his story in Mumbai at the TEDxGateway

ON A COLD WINTER night in New Jersey, Zak Ebrahim, then only seven years old, was roused from his sleep by his startled mother. It was close to midnight. An uncle was on his way to take them to his apartment in Brooklyn, New York. It was November 5th, 1990, close to midnight. Ebrahim didn’t quite understand then. But his life, along with those of his mother and two siblings, was going to change forever.

Below in the living room, a TV show had been interrupted by a breaking news item. A rabbi had been shot dead in Manhattan. And so had his assailant. The video cut to the assailant, a man in a pool of blood being lifted into an ambulance. It was his father, El-Sayyid Nosair. “That basically was our introduction to the new ideology that my father was following,” Ebrahim says.

On December 4th, Ebrahim will tell his story in Mumbai at the TEDxGateway at the National Centre for Performing Arts. “If people knew my story better, perhaps it will help them get a better understanding about Islam, about radicalisation. Maybe there is value in sharing my experiences. That’s how the idea came about,” he says.

Ebrahim’s father Nosair had assassinated Meir Kahane, the founder of an ultra-orthodox and militant anti-Arab group called the Jewish Defense League. It is said to be one of the first instances of an Islamic terrorist killing someone on American soil. Later from prison, he helped plot the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which failed to bring down both towers as intended but led to the deaths of six people and several injuries. Osama bin Laden is said to have referred to Nosair in a video message.

These acts of terror sent the family into a downward spiral. They began to receive death threats and the FBI closely monitored them. They kept moving, for their safety and for employment opportunities, almost always tottering on the edge of poverty. They began to hide their identity from others. Ebrahim, who was named Abdulaziz El Sayyid Nosair at birth, now adopted a new name, Zak Ebrahim.

A few years ago, Ebrahim decided to go public with his story. He is now a peace activist and a speaker. He published a memoir, The Terrorist’s Son, and began to offer himself as an example of someone who was raised by a fanatic yet came to embrace non-violence. “I have spent my life trying to understand what drew my father to terrorism... I had these early memories of him, before his radicalisation, and these were happy positive memories. He was nice to me, he was humorous. Why did he do what he did?” he says. And then he gradually began to understand, he says, that perhaps he never knew his father well. “My goal is not to bring about world peace. I don’t think that’s a possibility. There will always be violence and war. What I want to do is to try and create an environment where it becomes difficult for extremist groups to find new recruits.”

His father, as Ebrahim now remembers, had found it difficult to integrate with American life. After having moved to the US from Egypt, Nosair was accused of sexually assaulting a woman. The family moved from Pittsburgh to New Jersey hoping to start afresh, but Nosair began to spend a lot of time at a Jersey City mosque where Omar Abdel-Rahman, popularly known as the ‘Blind Sheikh’ who headed a terrorist group, used to preach.

When he was first arrested, for the murder of Meir Kahane, Ebrahim remembers meeting his father in prison about a month later. Nosair convinced the family that he was being framed. And for a long time they believed him. When the trial for the World Trade Center bombing started taking place and the FBI began to present the evidence against Nosair, Ebrahim, then around 11 years old, first began to realise that perhaps his father wasn’t being honest. For many years thereafter, Ebrahim and his family kept in touch with Nosair, either speaking on the phone or occasionally visiting him. Until eventually, wanting to start afresh, they decided to end all communication.

During this period, Ebrahim had a deep urge to confide his identity to close friends. “It was very difficult hiding something like this. Not being able to tell anyone, even close friends,” he says. He first began to get the urge of speaking about his experiences when he got involved in anti-war protests after the Iraq war, but he found it hard to gather the courage.

Some years ago, after he had begun speaking publicly about his experiences, Ebrahim received an email from his father’s lawyer. Nosair wanted to rebuild communication. The two soon began exchanging emails. Nosair seemed positive about Ebrahim’s initiative. He told Ebrahim that he was himself trying to help bring a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestine. Ebrahim is unsure about the sincerity of his father’s claims since he was appealing his conviction during this period.

“I wanted to understand why he took the decisions he did. I didn’t want to have conversation about returning to religion. So I decided to end all communication.” Ebrahim still gets emails from his father once in a while, he says. But he doesn’t respond anymore.