She was the typical girl-next-door — pretty daughter of a hospital secretary who grew up on a quiet street in this rust-belt town and finished high school before becoming a baker’s assistant.
Years later she was in Baghdad, carrying out a suicide bombing in the name of jihad — a disturbing sign of the reach of Islamic militancy.
Neighbors say Muriel Degauque, who blew herself up last month at age 38 trying to attack U.S. troops, had lived a conventional life but became heavily involved in Islam after marrying an Algerian.
“She was absolutely normal as a kid,” said Jeannine Samain, who lives a few doors down from the Degauque family home in the shadows of a towering coal pile. “When it snowed, they would go to the hill together with the sled.”
She recalled the last time she saw Degauque, eight months ago: “She was veiled. By that time she would just say ‘bonjour’ and that was it.”
Belgian prosecutors say Degauque carried out an attack Nov. 9 near an American military patrol in Iraq after entering the country from Syria a month ago, and was the only person killed.
“It is the first time that we see a Western woman, a Belgian, marrying a radical Muslim and is converted up to the point of becoming a jihad fighter,” federal police director Glenn Audenaert said.
Authorities say Degauque had been a member of a terror group that embraced al-Qaida’s ideology. The group included her second husband, a Belgian of Moroccan origin who entered Iraq with Degauque and was killed in murky circumstances while trying to set up a separate suicide bombing.
An easy target
Experts said converts to Islam like Degauque are often easy prey for extremists because their search for a new identity can make them impressionable.
“The phenomenon is not really new for the security services, but it is for the public. For them it is a real shock,” said Edwin Bakker, a terrorism expert at the Clingendael Institute in the Hague, Netherlands. “They are looking for ... a new sense to their life.”
Media reports said Degauque had problems with drugs and alcohol as an adolescent but later turned to a particularly strict form of Islam. Experts say that is a common pattern for Western-born recruits to Islamic radicalism.
When the woman’s mother, Liliane Degauque, saw police coming to her doorstep on Wednesday, she said she knew immediately what it was about. She had heard reports the evening before that there was a terrorist attack on Nov. 9 by a Belgian woman and sensed it was her daughter.
“For three weeks already I tried to contact her by telephone, but I got the answering machine,” she told the RTBF network on Thursday.
Monceau-sur-Sambret bristles with factory smokestacks and uneven cobblestone streets lead to cheap supermarkets in the town, located near the industrial city of Charleroi.
But the Degauques’ brick home at 33, Rue de l’Europe is a touch more genteel than others. Liliane Degauque is a medical secretary and Degaugue’s father, Jean, is a retired factory worker.
Authorities on Thursday formally arrested five of 14 suspects detained in dawn raids the day before and charged them with involvement in a terrorist network that sent volunteers to Iraq, including Muriel Degauque.
Nine were released. Those placed under arrest were a Tunisian and four Belgians, three with North African ancestry.
“This action shows how international terrorism tries to set up networks in western European nations, recruit for terror attacks in conflict areas and look for funds to finance terrorism,” said Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
In France, police in the Paris region arrested a 15th suspect, a 27-year-old Tunisian thought to have contacts with the Belgian group.
Terrorists recruiting in Belgium
Authorities said the Belgian network had been planning to send more volunteers to Iraq for attacks.
Belgium has been identified as a breeding ground for terrorists in the past and there are currently 13 Belgian and Moroccan nationals on trial for allegedly being members of an Islamic group suspected in recent bomb attacks in Spain and Morocco.
Islamic radical groups linked to the al-Qaida terror network are suspected of setting up networks in Belgium and other European nations with large Muslim communities.
For many in Belgium, Wednesday’s arrests were a chilling reminder that no one is immune.
“Belgium is directly involved in the terrorist threat,” said Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx.