The police came before dawn, pounding on the front door of Maureen's home in the sleepy, picturesque market town of Maaseik in northeastern Belgium. Confused, she jumped out of bed and hurried to open the door. Suddenly the officers were upon her, guns drawn, shouting, "Where is your husband?"
Dressed in just her nightshirt, she stammered, "He's not here ... he's in Syria." The men pushed her into the kitchen and searched her home, riffling through closets and drawers. "I didn't understand what was happening," says Maureen. "I was in shock." Once the police were satisfied that she was alone, they started grilling her about her husband — and about his ties to terrorists.
Maureen was well aware that just a week earlier, on March 11, 2004, bombers had blown up four commuter trains in Madrid, killing almost 200 people. The atrocity was one of Europe's deadliest attacks. And it hadn't taken long for investigators to establish that the perpetrators — members of a terrorist group affiliated with al Qaeda — had a wide array of international connections, including colleagues who had provided them with safe houses and support in Belgium. Rachid Iba, Maureen's 24-year-old husband, was suspected of being among them.
Maureen didn't want to believe that her husband could be involved with such an attack, but deep down, she knew he had been running with an increasingly radical crowd. Thus marked the beginning of a terrifying journey that would leave the young wife, just 20 at the time, questioning her faith and her future — and eventually fighting for her freedom.
Maureen, now 24, is hardly the kind of person you'd expect to be married to a terrorist. A Spanish-Belgian woman with fair skin, a soft, almost cherubic face, and dark-brown hair, she looks a little like the soulful young woman in Vermeer's famous painting Girl With a Pearl Earring. When I meet her on a recent afternoon at her home in Belgium, she greets me with a polite but tentative "Bonjour." Soon we're sitting across from each other at a dining table in her living room, and she's recalling how she first met her husband back in 2002 — in the most unexpected of places.
It was the night of her 18th birthday, and she was partying at a bar in Maastricht, a clubbing mecca just across the Dutch border from her home. Suddenly, there he was, the handsome young Arab man she'd spotted on previous visits to the bar. The way he stared at her left her feeling a bit unsettled. That night, he approached and asked for her phone number, and she handed it over. "Because it's my birthday," she told him with a smile.
There was nothing remotely radical about the guy. Rachid, who worked in an auto shop, was very much a local boy; his Muslim parents, like hundreds of other Maaseik inhabitants, had emigrated from Morocco. Rachid rarely went to the mosque, preferring to spend his time playing soccer or clubbing, even if he never drank — his one concession to his religious upbringing.
At the time, Maureen was feeling directionless, unsure what to do now that she'd finished high school. She'd moved to Maaseik two years earlier to live with her mother, following an argument with her Spanish-born father, a strict disciplinarian who had raised her in the Belgian town of Liège after divorcing her mom. "All of a sudden, I could do whatever I wanted," Maureen says, describing her new life with her mother, in a soft, matter-of-fact tone. "There was nothing to limit me, because my father was not there, and my mother was very hands-off."
Within weeks, Maureen was spending a lot of time with Rachid, and the pair hit the clubs with a vengeance. She loved the companionship. "All my friends were in Liège," she says, glancing out the window at the fields surrounding her house. "I had nothing in Maaseik."
But after a few months, the party scene started to take a toll. "I told myself, 'If I continue like this, things won't turn out well,'" Maureen says. Looking to learn more about her boyfriend, she began to quiz Rachid about his religion. "I asked him, 'Why are you not allowed to eat pork?' and that sort of thing," she recalls. "But he didn't know, so I went to the local mosque, and they gave me some books."
Like many young women with few career prospects, Maureen was in search of a sense of purpose, something to believe in. She had grown up in Catholicism but says she wanted a clearer code by which to live. "I started looking more and more into Islam, buying books on how to practice Islam, how to pray," she says. "There are rules in Islam, and I needed that. You're not allowed to do everything — you're not allowed to date two guys at the same time," she adds, hinting at her freewheeling life before Rachid.
Feeling inspired by her new studies, Maureen went to the mosque one day - without telling Rachid — and ended up saying her shahadah, the simple profession of faith that results in immediate conversion to Islam. When she saw Rachid later that week, she surprised him with the news. Her enthusiasm spurred him to learn more about his faith as well, and practicing the religion became a bonding experience, just as Maureen had imagined. "For us, it was a case of discovering Islam together," she says.
For guidance, Rachid turned to a pal, Khalid Bouloudo, a man of Moroccan descent who worked as a pastry baker. It was a fateful decision. Khalid espoused a radical and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam; he had trained in a terrorist camp in Afghanistan, and worse, he was secretly part of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group.
Over the months, Rachid increasingly hung out with Khalid and his circle, presumably impressed by their religious zeal. And he decided to marry Maureen, who happily accepted his proposal. The two had created their own world, and for perhaps the first time, she felt a sense of belonging. So, without telling her parents, Maureen, wearing the hijab — the headscarf that covers the head, neck, and shoulders — married Rachid at the local mosque.
As the sun sets, bathing the Flemish landscape in the golden light magically captured by Maaseik's famous son, painter Jan Van Eyck, Maureen tells me about the life she chose to lead.
Living with Rachid in a small house near the mosque, she says, she became determined, like so many converts, to immerse herself in her new religion. After seeing images on TV of Afghan women dressed in the burka — the all-encompassing outfit with a mesh grill covering the eyes, making a woman "invisible" from head to toe — she asked Rachid whether the Koran said women should wear such dress. "Yes," he replied, incorrectly. "But you can't wear that sort of thing in Belgium."
Her interest piqued, Maureen raised the subject with the wife of Rachid's new best friend, the budding jihadist. She told Maureen that wearing the burka would be the ultimate show of faith, and handed over one of her own. Maureen tried it on, then stepped outside to meet her husband, feeling a little rebellious. "I was afraid of his reaction," she says, watching me closely as she speaks. "He asked why I was wearing it, and I said, 'Because I want to.'"
She tells me all this very matter-of-factly, her hands calmly resting on the table, as if it's not unusual for a young Western woman to swap her miniskirts for the burka. But she felt the garb gave her a certain power, and a sense of mystery. "People look at you, but they don't see you; men don't know if you're pretty or not — they don't see anything at all," she explains. "But some people think you're dangerous or crazy."
That included her own parents, who stopped speaking to her immediately after she married. Eventually, however, they grudgingly agreed to attend their daughter's civil ceremony (necessary under Belgian law to legalize a marriage). "My own mother was scared of me when I arrived at the town hall in my burka," says Maureen. "She started to cry and was telling me, 'Take it off! Take it off!' My father was like, 'Why have you done this? Why? Why?' It was very hard for me and for Rachid."
Maureen's social universe very quickly became restricted to the wives of Rachid's new circle — and only the wives, because the group believed in segregation of the sexes. But she didn't miss the company of men much. "It's strange at first, but you have to adapt," she says. "Then it's beautiful: a quiet life, a nice life. We spoke about children, food, meals; we laughed a lot. We were all the same age, in our 20s." She particularly appreciated the tight-knit group's support structure.
After prayers at the town's mosque, the wives would stream into the adjoining medieval market square. "We'd say hello to people in the street, but everybody was scared of us," she recalls. One day, while shopping, Maureen bumped into a passerby. "Go back to your country!" he snarled. "But this is my country! I'm Belgian!" she shouted back. Complaints flowed in to the local mayor, Jan Creemers. Eventually, to assuage the concerns of residents, the town started a controversial fine of 120 euros (about $180) for women caught wearing the burka — a symptom of fear of Islamic extremism after 9/11. The feeling of being under siege only deepened Maureen's sense of separation from society.
Rachid, meanwhile, influenced by his new radical friends, became more zealous in his views, reaching a point where he couldn't tolerate the idea of other men seeing his wife at all — even in the burka. Over the months, the marriage grew strained, and sometimes even violent, if Maureen did something to displease him. Soon she was a virtual prisoner in her own home. "He forced me to close all the curtains," she says, "so nobody could see me inside."
In late 2003, Maureen gave birth to a baby girl. Olive-skinned like her father, with dark, curly hair, she now sits across the room from us while we speak, quietly scribbling away with crayons.
Just before the baby was born, Rachid had told Maureen that he needed to go abroad to help a friend. In reality, he was undertaking his first assignment for the Maaseik terrorist cell.
His mission: to travel to Istanbul to smuggle a member of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group into Belgium. The man he'd been called upon to help was Lahoussine el Haski, one of the group's most senior operatives. He was on the run from the Saudi Arabian government, because he was suspected of helping to organize recent bomb attacks that had shaken Casablanca and Riyadh.
Rachid met the man in Istanbul and handed over his Moroccan passport with a doctored photo, allowing him to pass into Belgium. Rachid then went to the Moroccan consulate, claiming he'd lost his passport. But he was denied a replacement, so he slipped across the border into Syria, where he was housed by contacts. Back home, Maureen was deeply anxious. "I thought he had left me," she says. "He didn't call for two months."
With her husband away, Maureen confined herself to her house, paranoid about what the townspeople thought of her. She looked after her baby, providing for her with unemployment checks from the government. Her relationship with Rachid dwindled to phone calls.
About four months after Rachid had left, the trains exploded in Madrid, sending shock waves across the world. Suddenly, Rachid was a wanted man. Maureen insists she was unaware of any terrorist activity on the part of her husband or of his friends. "Killing is forbidden in Islam," she says, with what seems to be genuine conviction.
Holding onto the belief that Rachid was innocent, Maureen felt an urgent need to get to Syria to see if she could help him. She made clandestine arrangements to be picked up at a Damascus airport, and amazingly, the plan worked. Rachid's contacts met her and whisked her away to his hideout; Belgian authorities didn't appear to be watching. But when she was reunited with Rachid, Maureen found him much changed. Gone was the hopeful young man she'd met at the bar back home. Now he was too frightened to go outside without a disguise. "He was very nervous. He told me that all he'd done was give his papers to someone," she says. Feeling desperate, she went to the Belgian consulate in Damascus and said Rachid would give himself up in return for safe passage to Belgium. But officials didn't believe her.
Unable to find a way to get him home, Maureen returned to Maaseik.
Eventually, fearful of what the Syrian authorities might do if they caught him, Rachid managed to sneak back into Belgium himself, preferring to take his chances in his own country. He was arrested in September 2004, shortly after returning to the family home.
More than a year after his arrest, in November 2005, Rachid and 12 others charged with membership in the terrorist cell went on trial in the Palais de Justice in Brussels; it was one of Belgium's biggest terrorism trials. Maureen, who had since taken a factory job to make ends meet, was in the courtroom every day — wearing Western clothes. She'd shed the burka when she started her new job, because it simply wasn't practical on the assembly line. The first time she ventured out without it, she was struck by the cool air on her face; it gave her a sense of "shame."
When the trial opened, news emerged that a young Belgian woman named Muriel Degauque had become the first-ever Western female suicide bomber. She'd driven an explosives-laden car into an American convoy north of Baghdad. For Maureen, it meant an entire new wave of worries: Soon news reports began saying that she was considering a suicide attack in Europe, in retaliation for her husband's imprisonment.
The accusations came from a member of her husband's radical circle, a Belgian-Moroccan man named Mohammed Reha, who had recently been arrested in Morocco. "He said that Muriel was the first and that I would be the second — and that I had phoned him to ask for explosives because I wanted to blow myself up," Maureen says dispassionately across the dining table. It was her mother who alerted her to the news. "She was crying, asking me, 'What did you do?'" she says. The next morning, Maureen met with a lawyer in a waiting room of the Palais de Justice, near her husband's courtroom. But as soon as they sat down to talk, they were interrupted. "It was a bomb alert," she explains. "They'd found an abandoned suitcase. And because I wasn't in the courtroom like usual, they thought it was a bomb left by me."
Frightened and alone at the center of the media storm, she phoned her father but got little sympathy. "What did you do?" he demanded, just like her mother. "I told him I didn't do anything, but he didn't believe me," Maureen says. "He told me I was not his daughter anymore." The conversation left her in tears.
Over the course of the next week, police repeatedly interrogated her. Time and again, she denied any intentions of becoming a suicide bomber. "How could I do such a thing when I have a young girl?" she asks, glancing at her daughter across the room.
It was a terrifying time. "My name was black. I thought I'd never get out of this," she says. "I thought that I'd go to jail for the rest of my life. It was incredibly frightening." Very much alone and in fear for her safety, she moved to the outskirts of Maaseik with her daughter and cut ties with the other wives in her circle.
In February 2006, Rachid was sentenced to three years in prison for aiding the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (which would mean less than a year behind bars because of time served and other factors); the ringleaders were sentenced to longer terms. Court records showed that the group had provided safe houses and support to the Madrid bombers in Belgium.
Long before the verdict came down, Maureen had been distancing herself from Rachid. The forced separation had taken its toll. "I still loved him, but I wasn't prepared to live that life anymore. I was independent, doing everything by myself for my little girl," she says. The defining moment had come in Syria: "I knew that if I could handle that, I could do anything," she says.
She visited Rachid in prison, but conversations were tense. "I said I didn't want to wear the burka anymore," she says. "That was a big problem for him."
Around the time of the verdict, Maureen befriended a young man named Ayoub. Moroccan-born, like her husband, he was clean-shaven, easygoing, and hardworking — and he was moderate in his Muslim views. Their friendship quickly developed into a relationship, which had an unexpected benefit: It gave police a hint that Maureen didn't have a motive to blow herself up; she had hope in her life. "It took us several weeks before we realized she wasn't a danger," says Alain Grignard, Belgium's top counterterrorism police officer.
Maureen's growing feelings for Ayoub gave her the resolve to escape her marriage. But she had no illusions about how easy it would be to split from a convicted terrorist. With extreme trepidation, she visited Rachid in prison and told him she'd fallen in love with someone else. "He was shouting at me, 'I want to kill you! How can you do this?'" she says. Then he started crying, begging her to stay. "I was very afraid," Maureen says. "I didn't think he'd actually kill me, but I was afraid he would do something crazy."
When Rachid's prison sentence was up, in September 2006, the inevitable confrontation came. Arriving at the house that Maureen now shared with Ayoub, not far from Maaseik, Rachid hurled furious accusations at his wife and hit Ayoub. There were several more violent visits, as Rachid tried to get his wife back. Only when police warned him that he could be sent back to jail did he stop.
In the months that followed, Rachid managed to calm down in an effort to maintain ties with his daughter, whom he now sees about once a week, without drama. He and Maureen have not yet legally divorced.
Early on a gray Thursday morning, several months after first meeting Maureen, I go to see her again. I knock on the door, but there's no answer. Suddenly, a kid racing down the street on a scooter loses control and thumps into the back of a car that's pulling into a parking space along the curb. It's Maureen's car. She has just arrived with Ayoub. She gets out, startled, but the kid is fine. We stand around, waiting for the insurance people to come, while Maureen chats with neighbors.
Clearly some form of normality has returned to her life. Maureen has removed herself from her previous circle and has reconciled with her parents. She and Ayoub have a new baby. Inside the house, Maureen, wearing Dutch clogs, her hair tied up in a ponytail, says she is much less rigid now. "All I want is a normal life. I'm happy because I have two children, and Ayoub is good to me," she says. "I hope my life will stay like this." She's enjoying eating out and going to parties.
But despite Ayoub's positive influence, traces of Maureen's old views linger. She still finds it difficult to accept that her husband and his circle were really part of a terrorist group that helped support the Madrid bombers. "It was never proved," she says. "But if my husband did that, he'll pay for his mistakes." She also refuses to describe her years wearing the burka as a mistake. "No one forced me," she says. "It was my decision, but now I know there is another way to practice Islam."
We walk out in the backyard, dew glistening on the grass fields, and Ayoub joins us. "There are still people with radical ideas around here," he says. "They're angry about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they're being influenced by the wrong sort of people." Maureen, at least, seems to have found a way out of that extremist world. "Little by little, you come back into society," she says. "I started going shopping, doing things like that. It was like starting a new life."
Paul Cruickshank is a Research Fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security. His reporting on al Qaeda has appeared in the Washington Post and the New Republic, and on CNN.