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More 'white Muslim' female suicide bomber converts expected - Belgian woman bomber 'was anchored in Islam'

December 3, 2005

December 6, 2005

Raised as Catholic in Belgium, She Died as a Muslim Bomber


MONCEAU-SUR-SAMBRE, Belgium, Dec. 5 - Muriel Degauque, believed to be the first European Muslim woman to stage a suicide attack, started out life as a good Roman Catholic girl in this coal mining corner of Belgium known as the black country. She ended it in a grisly blast deep inside Iraq last month.

Ms. Degauque, 38, detonated her explosive vest amid an American military patrol in the town of Baquba on Nov. 9, wounding one American soldier, according to an account received from the State Department and given to the Federal Police in Belgium.

Her unlikely journey into militant Islam stunned Europe and for many people was an incomprehensible aberration, a lost soul led astray. But her story supports fears among many law enforcement officials and academics that converts to Europe's fastest-growing religion could bring with them a disturbing new aspect in the war on terror: Caucasian women committed to one of the world's deadliest causes.

European women who marry Muslim men are now the largest source of religious conversions in Europe, the experts say. While a vast majority of those conversions are pro forma gestures for moderately religious in-laws, a small but growing number are women who willingly adopt the conservative comportment of their fundamentalist husbands.

Most of those in the conservative ranks are motivated by spiritual quests or are attracted to what they regard as an exotic culture.

But for some, conversion is a political act, not unlike the women who joined the ranks of South American Marxist rebels in the 1960's and 1970's.

"They are people rebelling against a society in which they feel they don't belong," said Alain Grignard, a senior official in the antiterrorism division of the Belgian Police. "They are people searching through a religion like Islam for a sense of solidarity."

He said there were many such women married to the first wave of Europe's militant Islamists a decade ago, and some of them followed their husbands to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. But while they supported their husbands' militancy, he said, they never acted themselves. "This was the first," said Mr. Grignard, "and it's clear there could be others."

French antiterrorism officials have been warning for several years that female converts represent a small but increasingly important part of the terrorist threat in Europe.

As early as May 2003, France's famed antiterrorist investigating judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, warned that European terrorist networks were trying to recruit Caucasian women to handle terrorist logistics because they would be less likely to raise suspicion.

He said then that it was only a matter of time before the women moved on to more violent acts.

Ms. Degauque was born in the small suburb of Charleroi, a gritty coal and steel town where her father operated a crane at the sprawling smelter, according to neighbors and friends.

She grew up doted on by her mother, Liliane, who worked as a cleaner and monitor at the local elementary school.

"Her mother spoiled her," said Jeannine Beghin, who has known Ms. Degauque's mother since childhood. The women had sons born a year apart, and they were in the same hospital when their daughters were born within 10 days of each other.

The families were close neighbors in a quiet, neat neighborhood of two-story row houses on the far side of town from the sooty heaps of coal that give the region its nickname.

Ms. Beghin recalled that Ms. Degauque's mother rented out a hall and gave a catered party with music and dancing to celebrate the daughter's first communion.

"Muriel had the prettiest dress of all the girls," Ms. Beghin said.

Ms. Degauque's parents sent her to the best local high school in the area at the time, the Athénée Royal in the nearby town of Fontaine l'Évêque.

Her teachers remember her as a well-dressed, well-behaved young woman, even if she was a middling student. "Muriel was more literary than scientific," said Rita Detraux, a retired history teacher at the school.

She had some trouble at home, but no more than many teenage girls, Ms. Beghin said. Still, Ms. Degauque seemed adrift by the time she took an apprenticeship as a sales clerk at a bakery in Charleroi after her third year of high school. The local press has quoted her former boss as saying that Ms. Degauque would disappear at lunchtime, and that he soon learned she was using drugs.

Talk that Ms. Degauque had fallen into the wrong crowd soon circulated in the neighborhood. The Belgian Police say she became known as a drug user, though she was never arrested. In her late teens, she followed her older brother in joining a local motorcycle club, the Apaches, and neighbors saw her come and go in a black leather jacket on the back of a boyfriend's motorcycle.

By most accounts, Ms. Degauque's wayward streak took a decisive turn when her brother was killed in a motorcycle accident when she was 20. He had always been the more popular of the two, people who know the family say. One neighbor, Andrea Dorange, has told local newspapers that Ms. Degauque said she should have died instead of her brother.

Hundreds of motorcyclists attended his funeral, forming a parade that stretched from the Degauque's house almost to the cemetery in another part of town.

Ms. Degauque soon moved out of the house and began a troubled life in Charleroi. She married a much older Turkish man in what neighbors presumed was an arrangement to help him legalize his status in Belgium. They divorced about two years later.

Ms. Degauque had several boyfriends after that and worked at the restaurant of one for a while. She eventually met an Algerian man who introduced her to Islam. She began appearing at her parents' home wearing a head scarf.

Her mother told neighbors that she was pleased because Islam had helped her daughter stop drinking and doing drugs. But her devotion became disturbing several years later after she met and married Issam Goris, the son of a Belgian man and Moroccan woman. Mr. Goris with his long beard was already known to Belgian Police as a radical Islamist. Ms. Degauque moved with him to Brussels and then to Morocco, where she learned Arabic and studied the Koran.

When she returned, she wore not only a head scarf but the full length robe worn by Muslim women of North Africa. She and Mr. Goris moved to a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from his mother in the largely immigrant neighborhood near Brussels' Midi train station. The building's owner, who gave his name only as Mahmed, said she collected unemployment checks. It is not clear what her husband did.

Periodically, the couple would visit her parents' quiet neighborhood in Monceau-sur-Sambre, arriving, according to some accounts, in a white Mercedes. Ms. Degauque's appearance in full Islamic attire shocked the neighbors, but she seemed happy, even if her parents were not.

Her mother complained to friends that she was losing her daughter to her son-in-law's strict interpretation of Islam. As Ms. Degauque became increasingly rigid, she demanded that her parents follow Islamic customs when she and her husband visited, forbidding her father to drink alcohol or the men and women to eat together. Ms. Beghin was at the home when the couple arrived for their last visit about six months ago.

"Muriel came in with nothing but her eyes showing, even wearing gloves," Ms. Beghin said. "When her husband saw me he went immediately through the house and into the backyard." She said Ms. Degauque's mother later explained that he could not bear to be in the presence of a strange non-Muslim woman.

But Ms. Beghin said Ms. Degauque acted perfectly normal as she stripped off her Muslim attire and asked about Ms. Beghin's young grandchildren.

Ms. Degauque's parents did not know that she had left the country until she called them from Syria in August, according to Ms. Beghin. Ms. Degauque told her mother that she would be gone more than a year but the line went dead before her parents could learn more. The Degauques tried repeatedly to reach their daughter on her mobile phone but got only her voice mail.

The Belgian Police now say that Mr. Goris had fallen in with a group of Islamists focused on recruiting European Muslims to fight with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terrorist network in Iraq. The police had been monitoring the group for months when they intercepted phone calls from Mr. Goris in Iraq indicating that he and his wife were already there. The police say the couple left Belgium by car and eventually entered Iraq from Syria.

The Belgians didn't yet know Mr. Goris and Ms. Degauque's identities, but they notified the United States and the Iraqi government that a Belgian couple was in the country intent on carrying out attacks. They turned over information on the telephone calls that would allow the Americans to find Mr. Goris, but Ms. Degauque struck before they did.

Little of Ms. Degauque remained after the explosion in which she died, according to the Belgian Police, though the American soldiers recovered her passport and other papers. That same day, the Americans found Mr. Goris, who was also wrapped in explosives, apparently about to carry out an attack. They shot him before he could detonate his charges.

The police continued to monitor the Belgian recruiting network after the deaths, hoping to gather enough information to make conclusive arrests. Those plans were interrupted last week when French radio reported Ms. Degauque's death. Belgium quickly arrested 14 people, fearing the report would send them into hiding. The Belgian authorities have released all but five of them, including the 18-year-old girlfriend of a suspect who was also being pressured to leave for Iraq. A local newspaper quoted her on Saturday as saying that believed that Ms. Degauque was now in "paradise."

The Belgian government has asked the United States to send DNA traces that will allow it to confirm that Ms. Degauque is dead, but the Belgian Police say that neither Ms. Degauque's remains nor Mr. Goris's body will be returned.

Ms. Degauque's mother answered the door at her home in Monceau-sur-Sambre on Monday, her blond hair neatly coiffed but wearing a weary frown.

"I have nothing to say," she said, "I'm mourning my daughter."


Before 'Martyrdom' Plan, Belgian Woman's Faith Turned Radical

  • Officials say Muriel Degauque went to Iraq with her Moroccan husband. Experts expect more European females to follow her path.
    By Sebastian Rotella, Times Staff Writer

    PARIS — The first female European Muslim convert to commit a suicide bombing in Iraq was a former bakery worker from a middle-class Belgian family who joined her husband in an extremist network that sent them to fight and die, authorities said Thursday.

    As details emerged about a case involving at least one other suspected female jihadist, Belgian authorities decided to hold for prosecution five associates of the slain couple who had been arrested Tuesday and Wednesday, including the alleged leader of the network. The Belgian woman died Nov. 9 during a car bomb attack on a U.S. troop convoy. Authorities identified her Thursday as Muriel Degauque, 36, a native of a town near the industrial city of Charleroi in southern Belgium.

    Degauque's father is a retired factory worker and her mother is a secretary, officials said. Degauque had drug problems in her youth, married a Muslim and converted to Islam in her early 20s, they added. She plunged into fundamentalism several years ago with her second husband, a Moroccan-born extremist identified as Issam Goris.

    "This was not a very young woman, but she was fragile psychologically," said a top Belgian law enforcement official involved in the investigation. The official requested anonymity for security reasons.

    Degauque's mother, Lilliane, learned of her daughter's death Wednesday as police announced the arrests of 14 suspects in four Belgian cities and one near Paris. The mother told journalists she had not been able to reach her daughter by telephone for weeks. She said Goris and her daughter had been obsessively religious, pressuring relatives to shun television, cigarettes and alcohol and withdrawing into a secretive world.

    "She was totally anchored in that religion," the mother told the newspaper Le Parisien. "She lived only for that. She learned Arabic…. She was very secretive, with a very independent character. I am furious at those who manipulated her."

    Determined to become "martyrs" together, the couple made an odyssey by car from their home in Brussels through Turkey and into Iraq, U.S. and Belgian investigators said.

    After the car bombing north of Baghdad, which slightly injured one soldier, U.S. troops found Degauque's passport, investigators said. Her husband died in a subsequent gunfight after Belgian police wiretaps helped lead U.S. troops to a hide-out near Fallouja.

    The Belgian network allegedly was commanded by Bilal Soujhier, a Tunisian militant who was arrested this week in Brussels, the official said. Soujhier had ties to "several networks" including the forces of Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq, the official said.

    Belgian police arrested Soujhier's father on suspicion of extremist activity about 15 years ago, the official said. Two of Soujhier's brothers are also suspects in this week's case, one jailed and another missing in Iraq, the official added. Police believe another jailed suspect lost a leg in combat in Iraq before returning to Belgium.

    Nine suspects in Belgium released Thursday included a married couple in Antwerp. Police identified them in recent days through wiretaps indicating the husband and wife were eager to leave for Iraq and carry out suicide attacks, the official said. The two remain under investigation.

    Experts said the suicide attack by a European woman convert was a first, and they predicted it would not be the last.

    "You will see pressure coming from the women themselves," said Marc Sageman, a forensic psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and former CIA officer. "They are just as dedicated to the cause as the guys are. I argue that not only will it happen again, it's almost a certainty."

    Degauque's case represents a logical step in the rise of women, especially converts, on the front lines of extremism. Women usually play support roles as wives or relatives of male militants, who enforce the strict separation of the sexes. But active female extremists have turned up in recent cases in Europe. Several female suspects, including a former Dutch police officer, were arrested last year in an alleged plot to assassinate Dutch political leaders.

    European police also have kept watch on a charismatic figure named Malika Aroud, 46, the widow of a Brussels-based Al Qaeda suicide bomber who killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban guerrilla leader, in Afghanistan in 2001. A Belgian court acquitted Aroud in 2003 on terrorism charges related to a cell involved in that plot. But she now faces charges in Switzerland of inciting terrorism through a militant website operated with her second husband.

    Female converts represent an explosive convergence of Western and fundamentalist culture, Sageman said. Militants who abide by fundamentalist guidelines have found religious justification for giving women combat roles, he said.

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