Murielle Degauque was, by all accounts, a normal child. A typical girl next door, you might say. True, as a teenager growing up in southern Belgium, she dabbled in drugs and preferred boys to books. But there was nothing to indicate that she would become the first Western woman to launch a suicide bomb attack in the name of jihad when she blew herself up in Iraq last month.
"She was absolutely normal as a kid," said Jeannine Samain, who lives a few doors down from the Degauque family home in Monceau-sur-Sambre.
Speaking to the Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure, Degauque's parents, Jean and Liliane, described the typical growing pains of an adolescent girl. She had a talent, they said "for sticking with the difficult kids" . On one occasion they had to travel 170km to the Ardennes to find her. Of her boyfriends, her mother said: "I don't know how many there were."
But Murielle Degauque's life began to take a more sinister turn when the former bakery assistant met a Belgian of Moroccan extraction, Issam Goris, who took her to Morocco and helped her convert to Islam. It was a liaison which led the 37-year-old daughter of a hospital secretary to travel to Baghdad, strap explosives around her belt and detonate them in an attempt to kill American troops in Iraq. In the event, only Degauque died. But her death has left her family, friends and former neighbours wondering about the past and a nation fearing for the future. Degauque's relationship with Goris was not her first serious one; she had already married and divorced a Turkish man and met and then left an Algerian.
But the later attraction to Goris was to prove fatal. By now Degauque was unemployed and at risk of losing her state benefits. Degauque's parents said Goris claimed to have a house in Morocco, horses and a Mercedes and three motorbikes. They never learnt whether it was true.
When she returned to Belgium, Liliane and Jean Degauque found that their daughter had changed. She changed her name to Myriam and wore a veil. When visiting the family home in Monceau-sur-Sambre, Issam Goris would eat with Jean; the women would stay in another room. Neighbours noticed the change too. Ms Samain recalled the last time she saw Murielle eight months ago: "She was veiled. By that time she would just say bonjour and that was it." Some reports suggest that the couple travelled to Iraq in the autumn by car via Turkey. In any event it appears that Issam was killed by American forces.
For a month Murielle's parents were unable to make contact with their daughter, getting only her answerphone and, when they heard on Tuesday evening's news about a suicide bomber in Iraq, they thought immediately of Murielle. When Liliane Degauque saw police arriving on her doorstep on Wednesday, she said she knew immediately what it was about. Belgian prosecutors say Murielle Degauque exploded her device on 9 November near an American military patrol in Iraq but she was the only person killed. Although they were aware of the problem of Islamic cells in Belgium, the police could not conceal their surprise.
Glenn Audenaert, director of the federal police, said: "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."
Experts said converts to Islam were often malleable because their search for a new identity could make them susceptible to strong personalities. " 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. "They are looking for... a new sense to their life."
Five of 14 suspects detained in dawn raids on Wednesday were formally arrested yesterday and charged with involvement in a terrorist network that sent volunteers to Iraq, including Murielle Degauque. Nine were released. Those charged 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 the Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
In France, police in the Paris region arrested a 15th suspect, a 27-year-old Tunisian thought to have had contacts with the Belgian group. Authorities said the Belgian network had been planning to send more volunteers to Iraq for attacks, a frightening reminder of how the war in Iraq can reach even into the suburban streets of Europe. Belgium has been mentioned 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.
The struggle to understand 'the enemy within'
Ever since the attack on New York on 11 September 2001, European governments have struggled to understand the phenomenon of the home-grown terrorist - the enemy within - in hopes of averting further attacks.
Some have middle-class backgrounds while others are drifters from broken homes. But most are known to have travelled to the countries known as the "centres of terror".
Western governments have been forced to recognise that the Iraq war and the televised brutal treatment of Muslims has radicalised an entire generation.
Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan origin who is accused of being the 20th hijacker, was a law-abiding student who became an extremist, taking flying lessons with the purported intention of committing mass murder.
Richard Reid, a Briton, has been sentenced for trying to blow up an airliner over the Atlantic in December 2001. Reid, from Bromley, south-east London, converted to Islam in prison, where he was serving a sentence for mugging. He and Moussaoui attended the radical Finsbury Park mosque.
In April 2003, two Britons walked into a Tel Aviv bar wired with explosives. Asif Hanif's bomb killed three people and wounded 65, in Mike's Place, while his companion, Omar Sharif, fled from the scene after his device failed to detonate. His body was found floating off the Mediterranean coast almost two weeks later.
Sharif's brother and sister, Zahid and Parveen Sharif, were cleared this week by a court of failing to tell police that their brother planned to carry out the attack.
However, the prosecutor told the court that Parveen, a primary school teacher, had asked her pupils shortly after the 11 September attacks: " Hands up who has relatives in New York? Well, they are all dead."
She was also said to have told children the attacks on America were "a good thing" and that she was "on [Osama] bin Laden's team".
The London bombings on 7 July, which killed more than 50 people, were carried out by four bombers of Pakistani origin, all from "ordinary" backgrounds in the Leeds area.Their families knew nothing of their plans.
The British government hope to find out how many Britons of Pakistani origin may have made their way to that country and become radicalised in the religious schools or madrassas.
According to the French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, at least seven people from France have been killed in Iraq and elsewhere fighting for al-Qa'ida. Another 10 are known to be working for al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan.
Now a Belgian has become the latest European, and the first woman, to join the lengthening list of bombers.
Anne PenkethReuse content