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July 12, 2008

I Married a Terrorist

spain train bombings terrorism

The fallout from the Spain train bombings.

Photo Credit: P.P. Marcou/Getty Images

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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.

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