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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.

malika el aroud

Photo Credit: Herman Ricour/AP Images

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In the early months of his marriage to Malika, Abdessattar talked incessantly about how an alliance of non-Muslim powers led by the United States was oppressing Muslims around the world. He spoke of "global jihad," which had been recently declared by bin Laden from the mountains of Afghanistan. "He made me understand certain things," Malika told me. "I felt the same pain he felt, seeing our brothers and sisters massacred and killed. I felt such anger that I wanted to take up arms myself." Russian military actions against Chechen Muslims particularly agitated the couple.

One evening in late 1999, Abdessattar caught sight of bin Laden on the evening news: The self-styled prophet, dressed in flowing white robes, was calling for volunteers for his global jihad. "My husband was transfixed," Malika told me, dreamily. "There was a fascination, a love. It was very clear, and I felt the same. Osama had a beauty in his face." At that very moment, Malika said, her husband resolved to leave Belgium for Afghanistan to volunteer for jihad. She agreed that she would eventually join him.

Abdessattar left in the spring of 2000 for Afghanistan, where he enrolled in a training camp near the city of Jalalabad. His initial hope was to eventually fight with jihadists in Chechnya, but at some point he was recruited into bin Laden's terrorist network. In January 2001, after eight months of separation, Malika boarded a flight to Pakistan. She felt a pang of guilt about saying good-bye to her daughter, who was getting ready to start college, but the feeling quickly vanished as she thought about seeing the man she loved. For the first time in her life, she felt she was doing something meaningful: Her plan, she told me, was to set up an orphanage in Afghanistan.

When Malika landed, two men drove her through the stunning mountain passes across the border into Afghanistan. Despite the natural beauty of her surroundings, Malika could hardly believe the poverty of the Afghan people. As she described it in her memoir: "What I saw then was wretchedness with a capital W. It's something that we in the West just can't imagine." She felt ashamed of the simple luxuries she'd enjoyed in Belgium.

When they reached Jalalabad, an eastern Afghan city in a valley beneath the soaring, snowcapped mountains of the Hindu Kush, her drivers dropped her off in front of a small, dilapidated shack. Her husband emerged, noticeably bulked up from his training. He greeted her with a smile, and she was burning to embrace him. They did not leave the dwelling for the next three days.

ONE WOMAN'S WAR, PART 2: "Soon she was to be catapulted to Jihadi stardom"

Malika took to the mundane rhythm of life in Jalalabad, accepting the lack of running water, limited access to electricity, and other inconveniences, such as living in only one room. "It was like being in the Middle Ages," she told me. "I had to pump water from the wells and burn wood to heat the place up. There were holes all over the walls." When Abdessattar left the home, Malika would spend time cooking vegetable dishes with the wives of her husband's al Qaeda comrades. Meat was expensive and difficult to come by. Occasionally she would go to the market to pick up some pieces of chicken — although it took a little time to get used to seeing her dinner slaughtered right in front of her because of a lack of refrigeration. But she adjusted. Malika's only complaint: She did not like having to wear the mesh grill of the burka over her eyes when she went out; it made her lose her balance.

Once or twice she saw the wives of bin Laden, when they came to visit with him from Kandahar, al Qaeda's headquarters in the south. Despite well-worn tales of scant freedoms — of virtual house arrest for the wives of Islamic fundamentalists — "they seemed happy, from what I could tell," she said. "They were radiant, even. Otherwise they wouldn't be married to him. I don't think he was forceful with them." Malika never met bin Laden, because of strict segregation between the sexes, but called his appeal magnetic. "It's easy for me to describe the love that Abdessattar felt for him because I felt it myself," she told me, her voice brimming with passion. "It was he who helped the oppressed. It was he who stood up against the biggest enemy in the world: the United States."

A few months after her arrival, she and Abdessattar moved into a more comfortable residence in an enclave of homes reserved for bin Laden's most trusted operatives near Jalalabad's main river. But Abdessattar was determined to school Malika and show her more of the real Afghanistan, taking her on tours of run-down hospitals and villages ravaged by war and hunger. Her husband told her, "Look, look at this closely, because this is the work of the Americans, the result of the U.N. sanctions."

One day, Abdessattar took Malika on a tour of his training camp, where, to her delight, he showed her how to fire a Kalashnikov assault rifle, even allowing her to squeeze the trigger, making the mountain valley echo with the thunderous sound of high-intensity rounds. But Abdessattar had not taken her there just for her amusement; he was teaching her how to protect herself from the nearby Northern Alliance, which was fighting against bin Laden and the Taliban. He told her, "If they come when I am away, fire on them till they kill you. Don't let yourself be taken alive." From that day on, Malika would never sleep without the weapon at the foot of her bed.

NEXT PAGE: Bin Laden had personally selected Abdessattar to carry out one of his most vital missions.

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