Friday, December 2, 2005 Page A19
MONCEAU-SUR-SAMBRE, BELGIUM -- She was the typical girl-next-door, the 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 baker's assistant.
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.
Neighbours say Muriel Degauque, who blew herself up last month at the age of 38 trying to attack U.S. troops, had lived a conventional life before becoming heavily involved in Islam after she married her first husband, 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 Ms. Degauque, eight months ago: "She was veiled. By that time, she would just say 'bonjour' and that was it."
Authorities say Ms. Degauque carried out an attack on Nov. 9 near a U.S. military patrol in Iraq, after entering the country from Syria, 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 Ms. Degauque had been a member of a terrorist group that embraced al-Qaeda's ideology. The group included her second husband, a Belgian of Moroccan origin who entered Iraq with Ms. Degauque and was killed in murky circumstances while trying to set up a separate suicide bombing.
Experts said converts to Islam such as Ms. 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.
"They are looking for . . . a new sense to their life," he said.
Media reports said Ms. 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 yesterday.
Monceau-sur-Sambre bristles with factory smokestacks; 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 Ms. Degaugue's father, Jean, is a retired factory worker.
Yesterday, Belgian authorities 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 Ms. Degauque.
Nine were released. Those placed under arrest were a Tunisian and four Belgians, three with North African ancestry.
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