On February 12, 2018, Naamen Meziche appeared in a French court to face charges of helping to plan terrorist attacks in Europe. He pleaded not guilty but was found guilty and sentenced to 18 years in prison. The verdict completed a 180-degree turn in the personal fortune of the French Algerian and his ex-wife. Sixteen years earlier, before the September 11 attacks turned the couple’s world upside down, it was Mariam el Fazazi who had lived as a virtual prisoner, unable to leave her apartment or socialize without her husband’s permission. Now Meziche was in prison and Fazazi, for the first time in his life, felt truly free. She had an apartment and a job that paid the bills for her and her children.
Fazazi took no pleasure in her ex-husband’s difficulties, but she enthusiastically embraced the new life she had created for herself. “I always wanted to get out of this extremist world, even when I was a little girl in Morocco,” she said. “But I couldn’t. I was not able to stand on my own.
The change, as she remembered, had happened slowly at first, then suddenly.
Meziche’s failed attempt to enter Iraq in 2003 caught the attention of German police. Shortly after returning to Hamburg, half a dozen plainclothes officers showed up at the couple’s apartment to conduct a search. They seized computers, files and videotapes and took Meziche away for questioning.
Fazazi’s family, meanwhile, faced similar pressures in Morocco. After a wave of coordinated suicide bombings killed 33 people in the coastal city of Casablanca, the country’s police arrested suspected Al Qaeda sympathizers, including Fazazi’s brother and his preacher father. The fiery Imam Mohammed el Fazazi was known in Europe and North Africa for his sermons urging Muslims to embrace violent jihad. Accused of contributing to the radicalization of suicide bombers in Casablanca, he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison – in reality a life sentence for the 54-year-old man.
Back in Germany, Meziche was starting to tire of the constant surveillance. He was also increasingly drawn to a perceived obligation to help other Islamist militants he had met during his travels, Fazazi said.
“How can we sit here eating while our brothers are dying?” He would ask his wife.
Eventually, Meziche decided to leave Germany for good. He left the apartment in 2009, claiming first that he was going on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca. But from his phone calls to his wife, it appeared he was on the move: first in Iran, then in Pakistan, then in the tribal region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He never explained what he was doing, but made it clear that he had no plans to return anytime soon.
“There is no way to go back,” he told his wife on a call.
Fazazi had heard enough. She issued an ultimatum: go home in a month or agree to a divorce.
The imam’s daughter
After the attacks in New York and Washington, Mariam el Fazazi discovered a horrific personal connection with the hijackers: several were former neighbors who attended a local mosque where her father sometimes preached. The discovery forced her to face her own beliefs.
(Marzena Skubatz for the Washington Post)
“He said, ‘Go ahead and ask for a divorce,’” she said. “That’s what I did.”
Meziche never came home after that. Fazazi later learned that he had been arrested in Pakistan and that a police raid discovered explosives and guns in his house. Meziche was extradited to France.
For Fazazi, life as a single mother was a struggle at first. She had no professional experience and a limited social network. However, she was finally able to find work, helping with the Arabic translation in a German non-profit association that cared for refugees. “It was the first job I had in my life,” she said.
Other changes followed. The days when she skipped wearing her headgear came more frequently. One day, she put it away, for good. She couldn’t see anything wrong with the headgear, but to her it never seemed like a choice.
“I was about to start a new job and just decided not to take it back,” she said.
Fazazi was initially worried about the reaction of his family, especially back to Morocco, with its conservative culture. His father was back home now, having been granted early release from prison, and he seemed to have undergone a transformation on his part. After receiving an official pardon from the King of Morocco, Mohammed el Fazazi publicly renounced violent jihad. Yet despite the changes she saw, Fazazi feared her father would be offended by his rejection of conservative Muslim attire and view his decision as a betrayal of his family.
She decides to approach the subject from a distance, by text message.
“I have decided to remove the veil,” she wrote. “I am starting a new job. I have to support my children. I don’t think I can do this job with the veil and I don’t want to wear it.
The message was greeted with silence. Several days passed. Then, one day, the texting app on her phone beeped. It was a word from his father.
“You are an adult,” he said. “You have to do what’s best for you.”
The short text was liberating, a last psychological break with the past. A few months after the exchange, she decides to go into business. The immigrant who left Morocco barely knowing a word of German has started a new business that has helped German businesses comply with government restrictions on Covid-19. If things went well, Fazazi thought, she could thrive in the nonprofit world, perhaps with a support group for Muslims who find it difficult to come to terms with their sexual orientation. In the meantime, the work was enough to support a son and two daughters, both of whom were preparing for a professional career. Girls, like their mother, no longer wear headgear, although Fazazi said she wouldn’t mind if they chose differently.
His transformation had not been painless. Her relationship with her siblings and other close relatives had grown very strained, and some of her old friends no longer associated with her. Yet to her delight, she got closer to her father, who had truly come out of prison into a changed man.
As Mohammed el Fazazi later explained, his extremist views began to subside after a chance encounter in prison with a human rights activist who was fighting to improve conditions for detainees. The woman, a Moroccan woman named Assia el Ouadie, did not practice the same type of Islam as him. Yet she exuded a personal decency and compassion that impressed her. Although she was about the same age as Fazazi, he and other prisoners called her “Mama Assia” in admiration. It is the beginning of a period of introspection which intensifies as he meets other men confined with him. He met prisoners who supported the Islamic State and quickly condemned anyone who disagreed with them. Others were quietly pious, rejecting violence in all its forms. Still others just wanted to return to their families and lead normal lives.
After his pardon and release, the imam gave interviews in which he denied his extremist past. The reaction within militant circles has been harsh. ISIS has issued a death threat. He was denounced as a traitor by radical clerics, including several newcomers who broadcast hateful sermons from European cities, as he had done years earlier. Elder Fazazi listened to their messages with concern, worried about the resumption of the same cycle of radicalization he helped foster 20 years ago.
But with the prison behind him, he was mostly concerned with trying to right the wrongs of the past. After fixing his relationship with his daughter, he decided he wanted to go to New York. In the unlikely event that he got a visa, he said, he would like to visit the memorial where the World Trade Center was located.
“I will go without hesitation. I will definitely be visiting Ground Zero, ”he said. “It’s a very… emotional place.”
The men who flew planes into buildings believed they were acting righteously, like martyrs, Fazazi said – partly inspired by words he once said, but now rejects.
“It’s not Islam,” he said. “Heaven is not for terrorists. Heaven is for good people, people who respect life, people who do good.