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July 12, 2008

I Married a Terrorist

When Maureen’s husband told her he was traveling abroad to help a friend, she believed him. Until the police came knocking. They wanted him in connection with the 2004 Madrid bombings. In a Marie Claire exclusive, the 24-year-old tells how she fell for the wrong man.

spain train bombings terrorism

The Madrid bombings, which cost nearly 200 lives, became front-page news worldwide.

Photo Credit: U. Sinai/Getty Images

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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.”

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