Gang accused of recruiting Europe's first female suicide bomber go on trial
Muriel Degauque lived a largely unremarkable life. Until, that is, she converted to Islam and blew herself up , aged 38, on an Iraqi roadside, going down in the history books as Europe's first female suicide bomber.
Yesterday, the network accused of recruiting the so-called "Belgian kamikaze" went on trial in Brussels. Prosecutors say the six men, mainly Belgians of north African descent, were responsible for sending Ms Degauque to Iraq in 2005 to carry out a suicide attack against US troops.
The group's alleged ringleader and the only one currently behind bars, Bilal Soughir, could face a 10-year sentence if convicted at the end of the trial, which is expected to last four weeks.
"The principal charge they face is being a member, and for one of the men, a leader of a terrorist group," said the public prosecutor Lieve Pellens. "They were recruitingpeople in Belgium and one of them was this Belgian woman."
Ms Degauque died on a roadside in Baquba, north of Baghdad, when the explosives in her suicide belt went off prematurely near a US patrol on 9 November 2005. No one else was killed in the attack. The Belgian did not die on detonation, but passed away slowly next to the crater left by the blast.
For the early part of her life she was a typically rebellious teenager before getting her first job in a local bakery. Her family recounted how their daughter had become increasingly radical after marrying her second husband – Issam Goris, a Belgian man of Moroccan descent.
"Muriel became more Muslim than a Muslim," her mother Liliane told the Belgian media shortly after her daughter's death. "When she first converted, she wore a simple veil but, with her last husband, she wore a [head-to-toe] chador. When we saw them they imposed their own rules," she said.
Ms Degauque would insist on eating separately from her own father and there was no question of switching on the television or opening a bottle of beer. "The last time we saw them we told them we had had enough of them trying to indoctrinate us," her mother said.
Ms Degauque is thought to have entered Iraq with her husband, who was killed in sketchy circumstances, while allegedly trying to set up another suicide attack. The pair are believed to have been members of a terror group that embraced al-Qaida's ideology.
Police were investigating the group at the time of Ms Degauque's attack, and had identified Soughir, 33, as the main suspect for keeping lines open with terrorists in Iraq.
The trial of his alleged recruiting network takes place amid fears that Islamic militants are using Belgium as a logistics base for attacks in other countries. Belgium's caretaker prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, has said the Degauque case provides further evidence of how well-rooted international terrorism networks are in western Europe.
Last year, a Belgian court sentenced 11 people for belonging to an organisation that had been linked to the 2003 attacks in Casablanca, which killed 45 people, and the Madrid train bombings in 2004, which killed almost 200.