Officials say Muriel Degauque went to Iraq with her Moroccan husband. Experts expect more European females to follow her path.
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.
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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.