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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 husband moez garsallaoui

Moez Garsallaoui sent Malika this photo from the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2008.

Photo Credit: Photo Obtained by Paul Cruickshank

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The convoy drove high up into the mountains, but the last long, steep climb had to be made by foot. Finally they came upon an elaborate cave complex. Although Malika was never told the name of the place, she was likely taken to Tora Bora, al Qaeda's infamous mountain redoubt.

When she entered the caves, she saw dozens of fighters milling about. She was offered fresh food, fruit, and hot coffee, and was relieved to find a bucket of clean water so that she could bathe. "It was like a scene out of Ali Baba," she recalled in her memoir. "There were mattresses, blankets, gas lamps ... it was all incredibly well organized." As the sun set, she noticed the gorgeous view and wished she could take some photos.

The next morning, an al Qaeda escort brought her across the border into Pakistan. She was lucky to have left when she did. Soon after, the U.S. initiated an intensive bombing campaign after receiving intelligence that bin Laden was hiding at Tora Bora.

On December 18, 2001, Malika's escort dropped her off at the gates of the Belgian embassy in Islamabad, where she turned herself in, in the interest of safe passage back to Brussels. "We will never stop our fight," the al Qaeda fighter told her before he left. The chivalry of her husband's comrades — who had risked their own lives to protect hers — sealed her devotion to the cause.

On her return to Belgium, Malika was interrogated by authorities, who eventually charged her with complicity in the assassination of Massoud. But she was cleared in a 2003 trial and went on to meet another Tunisian-born man, Moez Garsallaoui, who shared her incendiary views. They married, and she moved in with him in Switzerland, away from the media attention in Brussels. There, Malika devoted herself to promoting bin Laden's cause online. The computer-savvy Moez set up an Arabic Website for himself and helped his wife administer a French-language counterpart called Minbar-SoS, a reference to the pulpits in mosques, called minbars. Under the pseudonym Oum Oubeyda, a variation on Abdessattar's al Qaeda code name, Malika regularly voiced her support for al Qaeda, while others posted videos of bloody attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. The site eventually attracted a following of more than 1400 full-time members.

As I talked with Malika in her Swiss home, Moez wandered in and out of the room. Meek rather than menacing, with a neatly cropped beard and glasses, he clearly played second fiddle to his wife, who gently bossed him around throughout the afternoon. Although she tried to make a public display of being deferential to him, it was obvious who was in awe of whom.

ONE WOMAN'S WAR, PART 3: "He bragged that he killed 5 Americans, Malika congratulated him."

To test the depths of her ferocious resolve, I asked Malika what she thought of Muriel Degauque, a Catholic convert from Belgium who had recently blown herself up in Iraq, becoming al Qaeda's first-ever Western female suicide bomber. "She had a lot of courage," Malika replied. "This is necessary, and I take my hat off to her. Going there, blowing yourself up, killing the Americans."

Then she took me to the computer in her bedroom and showed me how she administered her Website, where she openly encouraged people to join bin Laden's jihad. As one posting said, "I intensely hope and pray every day that our fighters massacre those American pigs and their allies."

At the time I met Malika and Moez, they were under investigation by Swiss authorities. They were eventually convicted of terrorism offenses, in June 2007. Moez spent a few weeks behind bars then, but Malika again avoided a jail sentence. Soon after, the couple moved back to Brussels, where Belgian authorities placed them under surveillance for their continued online activities.

As for her family, they had no idea how to bring Malika back into the fold. Although she had reconciled with them and had mourned her father's death, she had also been honest about her radical views over the years. As her sister Saida told me, "Malika is totally convinced of her beliefs. She's not going to change now. The family can't broach the subject with her because she goes mad."

In December 2007, Malika was arrested again when Belgian authorities received information that a plot might be in the works to free an al Qaeda prisoner from jail. But she was let go, due to insufficient evidence. In the meantime, Moez had slipped away from Belgium, traveling to the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as evidenced by a photo that U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted in early 2008 when he sent it to Malika. According to a lawyer familiar with the case against Malika, the photo, which the FBI sent along to Belgian authorities, featured Moez in combat fatigues, posing with a rocket-propelled grenade. "I saw the picture," Malika had replied to him. "You are so beautiful." Moez later e-mailed to tell her that he'd killed five Americans in Afghanistan, and she congratulated him. Consciously or not, he appeared to be trying to prove to her that he was as committed to the cause as the husband Malika had so loved and idolized.

For the past year, Moez has connected European recruits with training camps in the Pakistani tribal areas — an al Qaeda safe haven — according to Belgian counterterrorism sources. It was when several of these trainees returned to Belgium that police moved in to make arrests this past December, in the biggest counterterrorism operation in the country's history; intercepted e-mails had suggested that one of the young men might be planning to launch a suicide-bomb attack.

But Malika is the star here. She's the one who inspired the men who were arrested — along with countless others — Belgian counterterrorism sources say. Now in prison after her latest arrest, she awaits her trial in an isolated cell, while every counterterrorism agency in the world watches. One can only imagine the sense of satisfaction she feels, having advanced the work of her beloved Abdessattar. Helping each other realize their dreams — that's just what true lovers do.

As Malika put it in her memoir, "Ours was the most beautiful love story that any woman could dream of."

Paul Cruickshank is a research fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security and the author of Al Qaeda: the Current Threat. His reporting on al Qaeda has appeared in The New Republic, The Washington Post, and on CNN. His documentary on Malika airs on CNN International, February 14 at 10:30 p.m. ET, and February 15 at 6:30 p.m. ET.

UPDATE, MAY 18, 2009:

Men close to Malika el Aroud have apparently been inspired to continue her jihad.

On May 12, 2009, the founder of the Centre Islamique Belge, the organization in Brussels that converted Malika to radical Islam, was arrested in Italy and charged with serious terrorist offences.

Sheikh Bassam Ayachi, 62, was charged with being a "leader of a logistical support team for al Qaeda” in Europe. Police wiretaps had found him discussing what sounded like a scheme to attack Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris.

Ayachi was not only a mentor to Malika in the 1990s, but also officiated at her wedding to her former husband, Abdessattar Dahmane, in 1999, two years before Dahmane launched his martyrdom operation in Afghanistan. Also charged in Italy was another member of the Centre Islamique Belge, Raphael Gendron, 33, who knew Malika in Brussels, and had posted messages on her radical website, Minbar SOS. It was his conversation with Ayachi that Italian police intercepted.

Meanwhile, Malika’s new husband, Moez Garsallaoui, continues to try to live up to his wife’s expectations, from the mountains of Afghanistan. On May 11, 2009 -- after a long silence -- he posted a new message on Minbar SOS claiming he was fighting with members of the Taliban, making cross-border raids into Afghanistan from the tribal areas of Pakistan to target American troops. He also had this sobering message for European counterterrorism agencies:

"If you thought that you could pressure me to slow down through the arrest of my wife, you were wrong. It won’t stop me fulfilling my objectives...the place of my wife in my heart and the heart of all the mujahideen is greater than ever. … Surprises are sure to be in store for you in the days ahead. Those who laugh last, laugh more."

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