Zak Ebrahim’s life changed forever when he was seven years old. It was early November 1990 and his mother woke him up in the middle of the night because his father, El Sayyid Nosair, had just been arrested for assassinating the radical anti-Arab Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League.
Ebrahim’s dad, it turned out, was part of a Brooklyn-based jihadist cell that was essentially the first major al Qaeda cell in the United States. He was later convicted as a co-conspirator in the plot to bomb landmarks all over New York City, including bridges, tunnels and the Statue of Liberty.
Ebrahim has spent the rest of his life grappling with that legacy, choosing a different path and dedicating himself to speaking out against extremism. Author of “The Terrorist’s Son,” an autobiographical account of an American boy raised by a jihadist father, he is also Program Director at Master Peace International, where he is helping to launch a new program called Standing Together Against Radicalization.
He talked to HISTORY recently about his path away from extremism.
HISTORY: Before your father was arrested when you were seven years old, tell me what he was like. And when and how did he change?
ZE: I had a lot of really great memories of my father. Before he went to prison, he was very kind, he was very humorous, he was always trying to make us laugh. I have a lot of memories of him trying to joke around with the whole family and really it wasn’t until I’d say about a year before he went to prison, that even as a six and seven year old, I started to noticed a change in him.
He started spending less time at home and more time with the men that would ultimately be responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. He spent a lot of time at the mosque listening to the blind sheik, who I think was fundamental to his radicalization. He also seemed to become more impatient and quicker to anger. There was one time when we were leaving the mosque after a Friday prayer, and listening to the blind sheik speak that I noticed the frustration on my father’s face and his new intensification in his beliefs. I asked him, “When did you become such a good Muslim?” And he said, “When I came to America and saw everything that was wrong with it.” That was really the first instance that I say, “I think this is when my father started to take a turn.”
He took you to the mosque where the blind sheik was preaching and you met the men who would later become the terrorists behind the first World Trade Center bombing. Your dad called them your ‘uncles.’ What were your impressions of the sheik and of these other men?
They generally would speak in Arabic, and my Arabic was pretty weak as a young child. But I recall very clearly seeing the anger and the passion when he spoke. And he often used much of the angst in the men around him in his speeches, to try to foster that emotion inside of them.
What do you remember for the night of the Rabbi Meir Kahane assassination?
I was asleep and my mother came rushing into the room. She was trying to wake me up and at the same time she was going through my dressers and grabbing things, anything she could carry. Initially she told me that my father had been in an accident and that we needed to leave the house. So I grabbed whatever I could carry in my arms, and I went downstairs and fell back asleep, waiting for my uncle to come to pick us up. I never got to see the inside of my house again.
It was a few weeks before I would see my father. He was in the hospital recuperating from his wounds. He was shot trying to escape from the hotel where the rabbi was shot. My mother tried her best to shield me from a lot of the media coverage. Any time the news came on we would get shushed out of the room. It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized that, not only had he not been in an accident, but he was also potentially going to prison.
How was your day-to-day life affected?
It really changed my life in every conceivable way. It went from, for the most part, a relatively normal family. We were Muslim being raised in the United States. We always knew that there was a little bit of a difference between our family and the average American family. But after he left, [there was] instability. I’ve moved 30 times since I was born. I was bullied very, very badly. I’ve been to many, many schools where I was bullied very badly being the new kid in school.
Do you think your mother knew he was guilty, and did she share any of his beliefs?
I’m certain that she was unaware of what he’d been planning to do. In fact, they stayed married for several years because he maintained his innocence from his prison cell. During the initial trial, he was found not guilty of the murder, but he was sentenced on weapons and assault charges. He would be out of prison today, had he not become involved with these men and their plot to bomb several landmarks around New York City. So she very much believed that he was innocent and believed what he said. I remember the first time we went to visit him in prison. She was just waiting to have a face-to-face conversation with him. When he declared his innocence she basically said, “I knew it.” She very strongly defended him. It really wasn’t until after the bombing of the World Trade Center, [when] much of the evidence that came out in the landmark bombing trial, that she began to realize he wasn’t being honest with her.
He was helping to plan it while he was imprisoned at Attica?
Often some of the men would go visit him, and he would extol them to commit further acts. I think in some ways he was upset that he had made this huge sacrifice, leaving his family and committing this act of violence in the name of their ideology, and these men were not acting fast enough in their roles. He didn’t want to be the only one to make that sacrifice.
What kind of attention did your family get from law enforcement? Were there always cars parked outside your house?
As a young kid, I was scared of the police. We would come out of our house sometimes, the first year or two after my father went to prison, and we would see an unmarked car with two people sitting inside of it. We used to joke that you could tell the difference between a regular person sitting in the car and the FBI, because their rearview mirrors were twice as big as the normal rearview mirror.
We didn’t really have a ton of interactions. It’s funny to me that as a kid I would be so afraid of the men investigating these acts—and as an adult I would have the opportunity to speak to the Anti-Terrorism task force.
Did members of the cell stay in touch with your family?
Some of them we were very close to before my father went to prison. My uncle Ibrahim and his family and my family, we’re all very close. We spent a lot of time together before and after my father went to prison. But some of the men would come by the house. I think they took it as a responsibility to check on the family and to make sure that we were okay. That didn’t last very long, but there were a few instances where they would come over to the house. After they were all arrested, many of them are in the same prison, so a lot of the families would travel together to go visit our fathers.
At what point did you start questioning your father?
It was a very confusing time for a young kid. I had an image of him in my mind. I think even as an adult, I kept the image of my father in my mind that I remember as a kid—as a loving and kind man. When he was initially arrested and accused of the Kahane assassination, I found a way to justify that by saying, “Well, Meir Kahane was an extremist. He advocated for violence against Muslims, against Arabs, for simply being a member of the religion.” Members of the Jewish Defense League had committed horrible acts of violence against men, women, and children. So, in my mind I could say, “Well, he was a bad man. So he deserved it.” After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, that excuse was no longer possible. Innocent people were being targeted and so I knew. I was 9 or 10 at the time, that that was no longer a viable excuse.
But as I got older, I asked myself, “What was the goal and what did it accomplish?” Meir Kahane was killed, and unfortunately his son and his son’s wife and several of their children were killed years later by extremists. His grandson was arrested for committing hate crimes against Arabs. The cycle continued on both sides. I realized there was no justification for any of it.
You’ve said that when you went to a youth convention on preventing violence, that you made friends with a boy who you later found out was Jewish, and that this friendship changed things for you.
I was raised to believe we were natural enemies. That we did not get along, and that was the way it was. I was surprised when I found out this young kid was Jewish. I thought we would just naturally have animosity toward each other. And it was really the first time that I questioned what I had been taught, and whether it was true or not. It’d been several days of us interacting at this youth convention and we were getting along great. And then I found out. In hindsight it seems silly, but I felt a sense of pride because I thought I had accomplished something that no one had ever done before. Which is ridiculous, but this is what happens when you’re indoctrinated into any sort of extremist ideology. You are separated from those that you are taught to hate and you are taught stereotypes, and how you are better than them and they are worse than you. It requires a strict separation.
Ultimately, it was my interaction—the first time I made a Jewish friend, the first time I made a gay friend—when I realized that much of what I had been taught was a lie.
Were there any other experiences that helped you choose a different path from your dad?
I got a summer job at Busch Gardens when I was 18 years old, and that was the first time I made a gay friend. I’d been moving around so much as a kid, always being the new kid in school, and being bullied so much. There was no feeling that I was more familiar with than what it was like to be judged or persecuted for things that I had no control of. Whether it was because of who my father was, and people knowing my relationship to him, or just simply the fact that I was the quiet, chubby new kid in class. I realized when I was treating this young man—who was nothing but kind to me—in a bad way, that I was doing exactly the same thing to him that had been done to me for a very, very, long time.
I gave a TED talk a few years ago [and told] the story of a conversation I had with my mother, where I told her how my worldview was changing. She said to me, “I’m tired of hating people.” It was like a light bulb went off in my head. I’d been surrounded by so much hate and so much turmoil for so many years. I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was the first time I realized I really was doing this to myself. When she said that to me, it was like she gave me permission to go out into the world and experience it, unencumbered by the prejudices I’d been taught. I’m very fortunate that I had such a strong person in my life. When I look back and think about what my mother had to go through, keeping her children together in the face of all that difficulty, I just am grateful to her every day.
How did you explain to people throughout your life that you’re his son, but it doesn’t mean that you believe the same things?
There are a lot of difficulties that come into it. When my father assassinated the rabbi, I was going to a public school in New Jersey. The community and the school made it pretty clear they didn’t want us to come back. We were fortunate that a private Islamic school in New Jersey offered scholarships to my family. We had nowhere else to go. There were some members of the Muslim community who weren’t happy with that decision. As one can imagine, a community doesn’t necessarily want to be associated with extremism. Especially with the focus on the Muslim community and how hard Muslims have to try every day to prove to people that they’re not extremists, which I think is extremely unfair, and certainly not their responsibility. We were in the community and I was extremely grateful for it.
[But] there were some segments of the community that were actually supportive of what my father had done. As I said, rabbi Meir Kahane was a terrorist in every sense of the word, and there were people that supported his demise. The first Game Boy I ever bought was with a $100 bill that someone gave me in support of what my father had done. It’s a lot of mixed messages and it’s hard for a young child to wrap their head around these very complicated ideas. It was very confusing; it took me a long time to rid myself of a lot of what I’d been taught.
Even once we’d moved around enough that no one knew who my father was, I couldn’t be honest with anyone about myself, about my life story. For many years, I told people my father had died of a heart attack. That just made it easier for me not to have to explain it to people. I changed my name so the people wouldn’t know who I was, and that, in itself, became a burden for me—feeling like I could never fully be myself around my friends or people that I cared about.
I had an experience once where I decided I was going to share with someone I thought was a friend my story. I was 21 and we’d been drinking, which is probably why I had the idea to maybe share my story. I was a little loose-lipped. I told him about my father and his eyes turned cold. He grabbed a knife and he said, “If I killed you, I’d be doing this country a service.” It was very clear to me that not a lot of people could handle just the simple fact that I was the son of someone who’d committed an act of violence. So I was very wary of sharing my story. It became more of a burden; it was hard for me to feel like I could be myself. But I’ll tell you what: There’s no better litmus test for who your real friends are than when you share a story like mine and they still care about you.
You’re an atheist. Tell me about that journey.
I like to explain to people that I didn’t leave Islam because of my father’s actions. When I left Islam, as an adult, I knew that what he’d done was outside of mainstream interpretation of the religion. I simply, like many people, lost my faith. I had a hard time believing in an infinitely wise being that would create us the way that we are and then judge us for an eternity for being that way. Nevertheless, I never saw people who believed as the enemy—in fact, quite the opposite. I knew that in order to have any success promoting peace and trying to end violent conflict, that people of all stripes and beliefs had to come together in order to solve the issue. So although I’m no longer religious, I’ve had the great privilege of interacting and working with people all over the world who are very devout in their faith.
Do you think there could have been be any kind of intervention that would’ve saved your dad, or anything that we can do to stop radicalization going on right now?
It’s a very complicated question, and one I’m not entirely certain that I could answer. My father, I think, committed himself to this ideology for a lot of different reasons. Certainly I think had he had better experiences when he came to the United States. Unfortunately, he had some very negative experiences early on that soured him.
He was an engineer. He was actually designing jewelry when my mother met him. We ended up leaving Pittsburgh, my hometown, because he was accused of sexual assault by a woman. No evidence was brought to bear and it seemed that he was innocent of all the charges. But it ruined his reputation in the community, which is why we eventually left for New Jersey, where he began to interact with all these men. I think that, had he’d been able to maintain a relationship with the Muslim community, he probably would have been in a much better position. I was just reading a study the other day, [from the] U.S. and U.K. governments, that said that of Muslims who commit acts of terrorism, only 1 to 2 percent of them actually had a relationship with the Muslim community where they’re from. If he’d been able to maintain that relationship with the Muslim community and the community at large, it probably would’ve kept him connected more with society and less suceptible to indoctrination.
I also think it didn’t just lie in his experience. There’s a great deal of anger and resentment toward the U.S. government. There are endless examples, unfortunately, of support by the United States for undemocratic governments. That leads to enormous strife, when a person in Egypt cannot receive justice, and they’re out protesting, and they’re being attacked with American-made weapons, when all they want to do is to have the same freedom as our politicians talk about. I think it creates enormous resentment. And when you deny a person’s ability to find justice, I think that violence is an inevitability. I think the thing that could have the most effect on de-radicalization would be actually promoting a lot of the ideals that we have here in the U.S. abroad, as opposed to propping up dictatorships and, frankly, extremist governments all over the world. This isn’t necessarily a super popular opinion with some people, but sometimes we have to confront what makes us uncomfortable in order to find a solution.
What are you doing now with your program, Master Peace?
We are developing a program called Standing Together Against Radicalization, with the intention of taking it into schools and communities that could potentially experience radicalization, or even attacks, violent attacks. Trying to create communication between people who would often separate themselves from the community at large. Unfortunately, when people are afraid of a person, because of their race or because of their religion, we tend not to interact with those people, and I think I that that is probably one of the greatest contributors to the isolation that occurs. The goal is to develop this program and hopefully create a communication between members of the same community.