BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) – Belgians were trying to come to terms Thursday with the news that a working class woman from an industrial southern city had turned from a "nice" shop assistant into a suicide bomber who blew herself up in Iraq.
"This is our Belgian kamikaze killed in Iraq," headlined the newspaper La Derniere Heure on Thursday over a picture of a thoroughly normal-looking, smiling girl looking into the camera.
When her mother, Liliane Degauque, saw police coming to her doorstep on Wednesday, she immediately knew what it was about. The evening before, she had heard the reports there had been a terrorist attack on Nov. 9 by a Belgian woman.
"When I saw the first pictures, I said to myself, ”it is my girl.” For three weeks already I tried to contact her by telephone but I got the answering machine," she told the RTBF network on Thursday.
Authorities on Thursday formally arrested 5 of the 14 suspects they detained in dawn raids the day before and charged them with involvement in a terrorist network that sent volunteers to Iraq, including Degauque”s daughter Muriel, who died at 38.
Nine were released. Those placed under arrest were a Tunisian and four Belgians, three of whom had foreign roots.
"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 Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
In her younger years, Muriel lived a conventional life in the Charleroi area. Media reports said she finished high school before taking on several jobs, including selling bread in a bakery. "She was so nice," said her mother.
The picture in the paper dated from that time. She told media, however, that her daughter could easily be influenced.
Muriel changed first when she married an Algerian man and later one with Moroccan roots. She was increasingly drawn into fundamentalist religion.
"It is the first time that we see that a Western woman, a Belgian, marries a radical Muslim, and is converted up to the point of becoming a jihad fighter," said federal police director Glenn Audenaert.
Eventually, she traveled to Iraq through Syria and, with bombs strapped to her body, was killed in a failed suicide attack against U.S. troops. Her husband died in a separate incident in Iraq.
Audenaert said the members of the organization "embraced the ideology of al-Qaeda." He was not surprised a woman was among them.
"It is a new generation and, perversely, emancipation allows women to aspire to martyrdom," he told VRT network.
In France on Wednesday, police in the Paris region arrested a 15th suspect, a 27-year-old Tunisian man thought to have had contacts with the Belgian group.
Authorities said the Belgian network was planning to send more volunteers to Iraq for attacks.
The raids in Brussels and three other cities across the country involving more than 200 police officers followed media reports of the Belgian woman”s suicide.
Nine of the 14 suspects were Belgian, of which only two had foreign roots. Three were Moroccan and two were Tunisian.
Police carried out raids and detained 11 people in the capital Brussels, and one each in southern Charleroi, northern Antwerp and eastern Riemst.
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.
Islamic radical groups linked to al-Qaeda terror network are suspected of setting up networks in Belgium and other European nations with large Muslim communities.
For many in Belgium though, 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.