Suspected Bomber in Iraq Said to Be Belgian Woman

Authorities have identified a woman who carried out a suicide attack against a U.S. patrol in Iraq as a 38-year-old Belgian who had two marriages to radical Muslim men.

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Police in Europe identified an unfortunate first for that continent. An attack north of Baghdad November 9th marked the first suicide bombing in Iraq by a woman of European descent. The woman, a 36-year-old Belgian, was an Islamic convert. She traveled to Iraq with her Moroccan-born husband to join a network of militants linked to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. To tell us more, we're joined now by Anthony Brown, the Brussels correspondent for The Times of London. He joins us by phone from his home in Brussels.

Thanks very much for staying up to talk with us.

Mr. ANTHONY BROWNE (Brussels Correspondent, The Times of London): That's no problem.

CONAN: Now who was this woman?

Mr. BROWNE: She comes from a really ordinary background. Her father was a crane operator, her mother was a medical secretary, and she grew up in a small industrial town in the south of Belgium. And there's nothing extraordinary about her childhood at all. She was slightly rebellious, but the neighbors say she was nice. She had a job as a--she works in a bakery. She works in a cafe. She then moved to Brussels, where there's quite a bit Muslim community. And she got married to a Turkish guy and converted to Islam. She then had a long relationship with an Alger--she divorced him and then had a long relationship with an Algerian guy.

But she then became quite radicalized in her religion when she met a Moroccan guy, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, Gul Issam Goris(ph). And it's then that she became really quite extremist in her views, according to her parents; when she started wearing the burqa, which is the sort of head-to-toe covering that only leaves the eyes free. The religion totally consumed her life; actually became estranged from her parents. A couple of times, her and her husband went round there to her parents' house and had dinner, and the men and the women had to eat in separate rooms. No alcohol was allowed. You couldn't turn on the TV, etc.

And she lived in Brussels--in fact, only a couple hundred meters from where I'm talking to you--and in an area that has sort of quite a large North African community in Brussels. And she then--in mid-September she drove with her husband through Turkey to Syria to Iraq with the aim of killing herself and as many American troops as possible. And she blew herself up on November the 9th with a car bomb outside Baghdad. There's conflicting reports saying how many she killed. There's one saying that she killed no one; there's another report saying she killed six people. And her husband was shot dead on the same day by American troops before she had the chance--before he had a chance to let off his suicide bomb.

CONAN: Now since this woman was identified--her Belgian passport was nearby when police investigated the bombing there, near Baghdad, and so Belgian authorities have now been rounding up some of her associates there in Belgium, and their backgrounds, too, suggest that a lot of them are white European converts to Islam.

Mr. BROWNE: In fact, they arrested 14 people, and seven of them are what you might call native Belgians, white Belgians. A couple of them were Belgians of North African descent, and the others were immigrants from northern Africa. And the message from the siege from the security forces' point of view--they've been warning for a time that the threats, the terrorist threats, don't just come from immigrant communities, which is what people have assumed in Europe, but actually, increasingly, also from white converts to Islam that are getting quite radicalized. And we had recently news that al-Qaeda had been actually trying to recruit white converts to Islam because they can operate far more easily in the sense that they're less likely to come under suspicion; they're less likely to be investigated by counterterrorist forces, and so on.

And--but this is actually the first example. I mean, she's the first in Europe, as far as, you know, she's the first white suicide bomber in Europe and also the first woman suicide bomber that Europe's produced. And, as you say, from the arrests, there's actually quite a lot more people. It's certainly not the first white person to have been converted to radical Islam in this way. A lot of the people who worked in the terrorist network were also white Belgians.

CONAN: Of course, there was the earlier example of Mr. Reid, the attempted shoe bomber, also a convert to Islam.

Mr. BROWNE: He was. I mean, we've known for a while that converts to Islam have been attracted to radical Islam. As you say, there's John Reid. There's also one of the suicide bombers in London, who...

CONAN: Richard Reid, I believe. Yes.

Mr. BROWNE: Sorry, Richard Reid. Yes. One of the four suicide bombers in London was a Jamaican convert to Islam. The other three were Pakistani Britons who were--who grew up in Islamic families. And also, of course, we've seen people like John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, who went to Afghanistan. I mean, he wasn't a suicide bomber, but there have been, clearly people--quite a lot of converts who've become quite radicalized.

CONAN: We just have a very few seconds left, but what are Belgians making of this?

Mr. BROWNE: They're shocked. There really is a sense of shock in Belgium that somebody from such an ordinary background--it's really incomprehensible to so many people how someone who just seemed so normal could actually travel--how a baker from a small town in southern Belgium could travel to Iraq to try and blow herself up and blow as many Americans up as possible. People don't know how to make sense of it.

CONAN: Anthony Browne, thanks very much.

Mr. BROWNE: OK.

CONAN: Anthony Browne, Brussels correspondent for The Times of London, and he spoke with us by phone from his home in Belgium.

Well, thanks very much for being with us. And also, tomorrow, it's "Science Friday." Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you on Monday.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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