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.
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"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.
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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"
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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.
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In August 2001, Abdessattar headed for northern Afghanistan, telling Malika that he was taking a trip to film a report on the exploits of jihadists on the northern front. It was a lie. Bin Laden had personally selected Abdessattar to carry out one of his most vital missions. Al Qaeda's catastrophic strike against the U.S. — five years in the making — was now only weeks away. Bin Laden knew the 9/11 attack would make him the world's most wanted man and that there would be enormous pressure on the Taliban to give him up. How better to ingratiate himself with the Taliban than by killing their greatest foe, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance? The plan was for Abdessattar and a colleague to pose as TV journalists to gain access to Massoud, then assassinate him.
When Abdessattar set off on his trip, he knew it would likely be the last time he saw the woman he loved, but his passion for jihad was greater. When I asked Malika why she was kept in the dark, she snapped, "Since when does a secret agent, entrusted with a mission, tell his wife?"
On September 9, the al Qaeda hit men went to meet Massoud at his field headquarters. According to survivors of the attack, Abdessattar's first question to Massoud was: "If you capture Osama bin Laden, what will you do with him?" There was no second question. His colleague, the fake cameraman, who had been filming Massoud at close range, triggered his suicide vest, fatally wounding the Northern Alliance leader. Abdessattar, who had been standing a few feet away, survived the bomb blast and was captured by Massoud's guards and locked in a nearby room. But after they left, Abdessattar escaped through a window, then sprinted. Just as he started to gain ground, he came to a river blocking his path. He tried to wade across, but the guards caught up with him and shot him dead.
By September 12, the suicide mission was an open secret in Jalalabad, where people in the streets were celebrating the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and the death of Massoud. Malika learned of her husband's death when she stepped outside and a woman warmly congratulated her on being the wife of a martyr. Malika recalled in her memoir, "My heart jumped."
A succession of visitors came to congratulate her over the next few days, seemingly unaware of how stricken she was with grief. Eventually a courier, sent by bin Laden, dropped off a videotape that her husband had made in the hope that she would hear the news from him first. "Abdessattar gently prepared me for the fact he was no longer there," Malika said, as if speaking of the most tender kind of love token. "He told me he loved me, but he was already on the other side." The courier also gave her $500 in cash from bin Laden to settle her husband's debts. "It's the pinnacle in Islam to be the widow of a martyr," Malika told me proudly. "For a woman, it's extraordinary."
Weeks later, still gripped by sorrow, Malika watched with detachment as the night sky above Jalalabad lit up with explosions from American bombs. In mid-November, she heard on the radio that the Taliban had abandoned their positions around the city. Worse, word came to her that Massoud's men knew where she was — and planned to hunt her down in order to avenge the death of their commander.
Before she could escape, Massoud's men stormed her compound. Trapped inside and terrified, Malika heard only the deafening sound of explosions, gunfire, and shattering glass. The al Qaeda fighters told the women and children to run for their lives, while the men provided cover, launching grenades and bazooka rounds on their assailants. Assisted by one of the al Qaeda men, Malika ran to the back of the compound and climbed a ladder to the top of a 7-foot wall. Then she jumped — burka and all — down onto the muddy bank of the river below. She waded across the icy waters with other fleeing women and children, to what they hoped would be safety.
However, after bedding down with an Afghan family overnight, the fugitives ran into a group of Northern Alliance fighters on a road leading out of the city, and the women were taken prisoner. Malika remembered the words of her husband: "Don't let them take you alive." But lucky for her, Malika's captors didn't know the prize they'd caught, given that she was wrapped in her burka. She and the others were held in several locations in the mountains above Jalalabad before being taken back into the city.
After a couple of weeks, a band of al Qaeda fighters discovered where the women were being held and launched a daring raid at dawn to set them free. Shouting "Don't be afraid, sisters! We are your brothers in Islam!" they loaded Malika and the others into vans and sped off into the Jalalabad morning.
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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."
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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 (opens in new tab). His reporting on al Qaeda has appeared in The New Republic, The Washington Post, and on CNN (opens in new tab). His documentary on Malika airs on CNN International, (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab) 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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