MONCEAU-SUR-SAMBRE, Belgium (AP) — She was the typical girl-next-door — pretty daughter of a hospital secretary who grew up on a quiet street in this rust-belt town and finished high school before becoming a bakers' assistant.
A Brussels woman reads coverage of a Belgian woman who died in a suicide bombing in Iraq.
Geert Vanden Wijngaert, AP
Years later she was in Baghdad, carrying out a suicide bombing in the name of jihad — a disturbing sign of the reach of Islamic militancy.
Neighbors say Muriel Degauque, who blew herself up last month at age 38 trying to attack U.S. troops, had lived a conventional life but became heavily involved in Islam after marrying an Algerian.
"She was absolutely normal as a kid," said Jeannine Samain, who lives a few doors down from the Degauque family home in the shadows of a towering coal pile. "When it snowed, they would go to the hill together with the sled."
She recalled the last time she saw Degauque, eight months ago: "She was veiled. By that time she would just say 'bonjour' and that was it."
Authorities say Degauque carried out an attack Nov. 9 near an American military patrol in Iraq after entering the country from Syria a month ago, and was the only person killed.
"It is the first time that we see a Western woman, a Belgian, marrying a radical Muslim and is converted up to the point of becoming a jihad fighter," federal police director Glenn Audenaert said.
Authorities say Degauque had been a member of a terror group that embraced al-Qaeda's ideology. The group included her second husband, a Belgian of Moroccan origin who entered Iraq with Degauque and was killed in murky circumstances while trying to set up a separate suicide bombing.
Experts said converts to Islam like Degauque are often easy prey for extremists because their search for a new identity can make them impressionable.
"The phenomenon is not really new for the security services, but it is for the public. For them it is a real shock," said Edwin Bakker, a terrorism expert at the Clingendael Institute in the Hague, Netherlands. "They are looking for ... a new sense to their life."
Media reports said Degauque had problems with drugs and alcohol as an adolescent but later turned to a particularly strict form of Islam. Experts say that is a common pattern for Western-born recruits to Islamic radicalism.
When the woman's mother, Liliane Degauque, saw police coming to her doorstep on Wednesday, she said she knew immediately what it was about. She had heard reports the evening before that there was a terrorist attack on Nov. 9 by a Belgian woman and sensed it was her daughter.
"For three weeks already I tried to contact her by telephone, but I got the answering machine," she told the RTBF network on Thursday.
Monceau-sur-Sambret bristles with factory smokestacks and uneven cobblestone streets lead to cheap supermarkets in the town, located near the industrial city of Charleroi.
But the Degauques' brick home at 33 Rue de l'Europe is a touch more genteel than others. Liliane Degauque is a medical secretary and Degaugue's father, Jean, is a retired factory worker.
Authorities on Thursday formally arrested five of 14 suspects detained in dawn raids the day before and charged them with involvement in a terrorist network that sent volunteers to Iraq, including Muriel Degauque.
Nine were released. Those placed under arrest were a Tunisian and four Belgians, three with North African ancestry.
"This action shows how international terrorism tries to set up networks in western European nations, recruit for terror attacks in conflict areas and look for funds to finance terrorism," said Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
In France, police in the Paris region arrested a 15th suspect, a 27-year-old Tunisian thought to have contacts with the Belgian group.
Authorities said the Belgian network had been planning to send more volunteers to Iraq for attacks.
Belgium has been identified as a breeding ground for terrorists in the past and there are currently 13 Belgian and Moroccan nationals on trial for allegedly being members of an Islamic group suspected in recent bomb attacks in Spain and Morocco.
Islamic radical groups linked to the al-Qaeda terror network are suspected of setting up networks in Belgium and other European nations with large Muslim communities.
For many in Belgium, Wednesday's arrests were a chilling reminder that no one is immune.
"Belgium is directly involved in the terrorist threat," said Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx.
The girl who went from baker's assistant to Baghdad bomber By Anthony Browne and Rory Watson Family puzzles over life of West's first woman suicide bomber
SHE came from an ordinary family in an industrial Belgian town. She used to sell baguettes in a bakery, and worked as a waitress in a café. She showed the rebelliousness of a typical teenager, but even in their worst dreams her parents never imagined that Muriel Degauque would end her life by blowing herself up in a suicide bomb attack against American troops in Iraq.
The story of the 38-year-old Belgian's journey from baker's assistant to Baghdad bomber, making her the first Western woman suicide bomber, emerged in shocking detail yesterday as her parents tried to make sense of her life.
Jean and Liliane Degauque, a former crane operator and a medical secretary, said that they had watched their daughter's gradual transition from Christian to Islamic zealot, and feared the worst when they saw the TV news on Tuesday.
"For about a month we had been trying to call her and just kept getting her voice mail. When we heard on Tuesday evening on the television that a Belgian woman had blown herself up in Iraq, we thought it was Muriel," her mother said. A visit from the Belgian police the next morning confirmed those fears, and by yesterday morning Muriel's friendly, pretty, face was smiling from the front of a Belgian national paper. "Here is the Belgian kamikaze, killed in Iraq," proclaimed the headline.
Muriel was born in Charleroi, grew up in her brick home at 33 Rue de l'Europe — a quiet street in the shadow of a coal tip — and was educated at the local high school. "She was absolutely normal as a kid," Jeannine Samain, a neighbour, said. She was never easy. "When she broke a vase in the sitting room, she said that Jean-Paul (her older brother) had done it even though he had been upstairs doing his homework ," her mother told La Dernière Heure.
As an adolescent, she dabbled in drugs, smoked, drank heavily and sometimes ran away from home. "One time I had to go 170km to get her back from the Ardennes," M Degauque said. She was more interested in boyfriends than studies. "I don't know how many of them she had." She found jobs as a waitress and a baker's assistant, but was accused of stealing from the till. Tragedy then struck the family when Jean-Paul was killed in a road accident.
Muriel moved from Charleroi to Brussels, which has a large Islamic community. She married and divorced a Turkish man, and had a long relationship with an Algerian, who converted her to Islam in 2001. Three years ago she married Issam Goris, who was born in Belgium to Moroccan parents, and followed him to Morocco.
"They told us that they had a house in Morocco and some horses, and a Mercedes and three motorbikes. We never found out whether it was true," said her mother, who blames Goris for brainwashing her daughter. When Muriel returned to Belgium, her mother no longer recognised her. She had become "more Muslim than Muslim", she said. "The religion was totally ingrained in her. She only lived for that."
Initially, she wore a hijab, or Islamic veil, but soon started wearing the head-to-toe chador that leaves the face visible. Finally she wore a burka. She became ever more estranged from her parents. "When we saw them, they imposed their rules. We were at home, but my husband had to eat in the kitchen with Issam while the women ate together in the sitting room. There was no question of putting on the TV or opening a beer," M Degauque said.
"My husband got so fed up that he said the next time they came round we should leave them by themselves."
Muriel and her husband lived in a small two-room flat in Saint Gilles, one of the poorest and most racially mixed areas of Brussels, paying €375 (£255) a month rent.
In mid-September they left, telling their landlord they were going to Kenya to try to find Goris's father. "They had stayed in the flat for two years. I never had any problem with them. They did not leave any forwarding address, saying they might come back in six months to a year," her landlord told The Times. "She wore a burka all the time. I never saw her face, only her eyes," he added.
But Kenya was not their real destination. The two radical Muslims instead drove by car across Turkey and Syria into Iraq, determined to kill themselves and as many Americans as possible.
According to conflicting reports, Muriel killed either only herself, or six people. On the same day, in a separate incident, Goris was shot dead by American troops before he could detonate his belt-bomb.
A LIFE LESS ORDINARY
Born July 19, 1967 in Charleroi, Belgium
Attended Athene Royal de Fontaine-l'Eveque school Jobs
Worked in a cafe and baker
Moved to Brussels. Married and divorced Belgian-Turkish man
2001 converted to Islam
2002 Married Belgian-Moroccan Issam Goris and lived briefly in Morocco September
2005 Left Brussels and drove to Iraq with Issam Goris
November 9, 2005 blew herself up in suicide attack near Baghdad
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- Belgians were trying to come to terms Thursday with the news that a working class woman from an industrial southern city had turned from a "nice" shop assistant into a suicide bomber who blew herself up in Iraq.
"This is our Belgian kamikaze killed in Iraq," headlined the newspaper La Derniere Heure on Thursday over a picture of a thoroughly normal-looking, smiling girl looking into the camera.
When her mother, Liliane Degauque, saw police coming to her doorstep on Wednesday, she immediately knew what it was about. The evening before, she had heard the reports there had been a terrorist attack on Nov. 9 by a Belgian woman.
"When I saw the first pictures, I said to myself, 'it is my girl.' For three weeks already I tried to contact her by telephone but I got the answering machine," she told the RTBF network on Thursday.
Authorities on Thursday formally arrested 5 of the 14 suspects they detained in dawn raids the day before and charged them with involvement in a terrorist network that sent volunteers to Iraq, including Degauque's daughter Muriel, who died at 38.
Nine were released. Those placed under arrest were a Tunisian and four Belgians, three of whom had foreign roots.
"This action shows how international terrorism tries to set up networks in western European nations, recruit for terror attacks in conflict areas and look for funds to finance terrorism," said Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
In her younger years, Muriel lived a conventional life in the Charleroi area. Media reports said she finished high school before taking on several jobs, including selling bread in a bakery. "She was so nice," said her mother. The picture in the paper dated from that time.
She told media, however, that her daughter could easily be influenced.
Muriel changed first when she married an Algerian man and later one with Moroccan roots. She was increasingly drawn into fundamentalist religion.
"It is the first time that we see that a Western woman, a Belgian, marries a radical Muslim, and is converted up to the point of becoming a jihad fighter," said federal police director Glenn Audenaert.
Eventually, she traveled to Iraq through Syria and, with bombs strapped to her body, was killed in a failed suicide attack against U.S. troops. Her husband died in a separate incident in Iraq.
Audenaert said the members of the organization "embraced the ideology of al-Qaeda." He was not surprised a woman was among them.
"It is a new generation and, perversely, emancipation allows women to aspire to martyrdom," he told VRT network.
In France on Wednesday, police in the Paris region arrested a 15th suspect, a 27-year-old Tunisian man thought to have had contacts with the Belgian group.
Authorities said the Belgian network was planning to send more volunteers to Iraq for attacks.
The raids in Brussels and three other cities across the country involving more than 200 police officers followed media reports of the Belgian woman's suicide.
Nine of the 14 suspects were Belgian, of which only two had foreign roots. Three were Moroccan and two were Tunisian.
Police carried out raids and detained 11 people in the capital Brussels, and one each in southern Charleroi, northern Antwerp and eastern Riemst.
Belgium has been mentioned as a breeding ground for terrorists in the past and there are currently 13 Belgian and Moroccan nationals on trial for allegedly being members of an Islamic group suspected in recent bomb attacks in Spain and Morocco.
Islamic radical groups linked to al-Qaeda terror network are suspected of setting up networks in Belgium and other European nations with large Muslim communities.
For many in Belgium though, Wednesday's arrests were a chilling reminder that no one is immune.
"Belgium is directly involved in the terrorist threat," said Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx.