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May 15, 2009

Love in the Time of Terror

She was a single mom; he was divorced and searching. Together they kindled an epic passion for each other — and jihad.

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malika el aroud

Malika el Aroud, shown here in 2003, was arrested three months ago in a massive counterterrorism operation in Europe.

Photo Credit: Herman Ricour/AP Images

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THIS STORY WAS UPDATED ON MAY 18, 2009

This is a story about love — love that lives and grows in the least likely places. It's a story about soul mates joined in the soulless business of terror.

Malika met Abdessattar at a tram stop in Brussels. She was fully veiled; he bore the deep marks of prostration before Allah, of ritually pounding his forehead into the ground. They grew passionate — about each other, and about jihad. Two years later, Abdessattar would become a martyr. This past December, Malika would be arrested in a vast counterterrorism operation in Belgium, with authorities calling her "an al Qaeda living legend." Utter devotion led them there.

I first came into contact with Malika el Aroud four years ago when I obtained a rare copy of her self-published memoir, Soldiers of Light, while I was helping to research a book and CNN documentary on Osama bin Laden. I found her e-mail address, but it would take six months of phone calls before she would agree to meet with me for an interview.

"One Woman’s War" is based on Paul Cruickshank's reporting for Marie Claire. It was produced by Paul Cruickshank and presented by Nic Robertson, CNN's Senior International Correspondent.

On an icy winter day, I knocked on the door of her second-floor chalet apartment in a sleepy Swiss hamlet near the city of Fribourg. A vision in black greeted me politely in perfect French — but refused to shake my hand, explaining that her religion forbids it. Malika, 46 at the time, was covered from head to toe in dark robes; only her round face showed. Her features were unremarkable, except for a burning intensity in her expressive deep-brown eyes.

She offered me a cup of Moroccan tea and an array of Swiss cakes, and served them up in her small kitchen, which, like the rest of her home, was immaculate and paneled in ski-lodge pinewood.

I sat down across from her to start our interview, and it was then that she dropped her motherly tone. "If you're polite with me, I'll stay polite and there'll be no problem," she said, fixing me with her piercing eyes.

"For many years, I lived without religion," she began. "Islam for me was really a gift from God." A Moroccan immigrant living in Belgium, Malika had grown up feeling stifled and frustrated; her observant parents had required her to don a veil at home, yet she wore miniskirts and tight jeans to school. At 18, she found freedom of a sort by marrying a Moroccan seeking identity papers. But instead of moving in with him, she started hanging out in seedy nightclubs, sleeping at the apartments of random acquaintances, and showering in public restrooms. "I did everything that is bad," she told me. Jobless and too proud to ask for money, she hardly ate and at one point tried to kill herself by swallowing a handful of pills. Eventually she got engaged to a cousin, who left her when she became pregnant.

At 32, an unmoored and vulnerable single mom, Malika began a journey back to Islam. It started simply, when she was listening to a Moroccan radio station one afternoon: "I heard the Arabic call of prayer, and I felt something very strong in my heart telling me to wake up and return," she told me, her voice thick with emotion. She found a Koran and read it for the first time. As she described in her memoir: "It penetrated my heart like a ray of light. I discovered that God's forgiveness is immense."

A few years later, Malika signed up for classes at the Centre Islamique Belge, an organization that adheres to a rigid, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam known as Salafism, which shuns Western modernity. When she walked into her first class, all of the women turned and stared, irked by her Western clothes. It would not be long before Malika started viewing the world through a 2-inch-by-6-inch slit in her veil.

Two more short-lived marriages followed. Then one day, Abdessattar Dahmane, wearing glasses and a fezlike Tunisian cap, gingerly approached Malika while she was waiting for a tram. He explained, as she stood there fully veiled, that he had heard about her through the center and wanted to meet her. Apologizing for being so forward, he gave her his phone number and asked if they could continue the conversation by phone. Attracted by his courtesy and warm smile, Malika agreed.

In early 1999, the two had long talks and walks in the city's public parks, and a chaste romance developed. "He was very gallant and gentle toward me," Malika told me, her eyes shining. What she did not know was that Abdessattar, who had also been married and had pursued media studies at Tunis University, had caught the attention of Belgian security services because of his connection to a group of pro-al Qaeda extremists. When she met him, he had just returned from trying to get into Kosovo, where he wanted to fight jihad against Serb forces targeting Kosovo Muslims.

On an early spring day in 1999, Abdessattar proposed to Malika. She'd just learned that she had contracted tuberculosis, and she was dreading what Abdessattar's reaction might be when she told him. But what he said made her swoon: "You're going to need me, and I want to take care of you." After their wedding at the Islamic center in April, he was true to his word, even insisting on taking care of all the household chores.

Malika’s younger sister, Saida, remembered just how smitten Malika was during this time. "She'd had many bad experiences with men, but Abdessattar treated her well, and that made all the difference," she told me. Unlike Malika, Saida, who runs her own housecleaning business in Brussels, is comfortably integrated into Belgian society and has made it clear that she shares none of her sister's radical views.

But Abdessattar's behavior struck Saida as bizarre at the time. "He would say a minimum to me, and he would avert his gaze when he did speak to me," Saida said. One day, Saida and her husband invited the newlyweds to dinner at their home. The evening was a disaster: Abdessattar stormed out when he discovered that Saida's husband belonged to the Shia branch of Islam instead of the Sunni branch that Abdessattar adhered to. (The root of the divide between these factions is a disagreement about the true successor of the Prophet Muhammad. The most extreme Sunni radicals believe that Shia Muslims are heretics who deserve to die.) Abdessattar's abrupt exit from the dinner party caused a deep rift between the two sisters.

NEXT PAGE: He spoke of "global jihad"


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