February 10, 2009
One Woman's War
Watch the program: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

LONDON, England -- When I got off the Eurostar train I’d taken from London to Brussels there was nothing to suggest I was in a city that has ties to radical Islamic terrorism.

Quite the reverse, the very nature of Euro train terminus at the Gare du Midi is, dare I say it, quintessential busy modern Europe. Neat Euro bistros bustle with a cosmopolitan collection of travelers from as close as the suburbs to people like me who’ve taken the short two-hour ride from Britain.

So I suppose it felt a little strange to be here in a city that on the surface doesn’t have a terrorism problem.

Indeed, compared to many places I travel like the Middle East or Afghanistan, it felt positively tame.

I’d come to tell the story of Malika el Aroud, a 49-year-old Belgian-Moroccan woman who had one husband killed in a high profile al Qaeda suicide attack and has herself been convicted in Switzerland of running a Web site promoting terrorism.

Somehow I felt in the wrong place. Not so, when barely an hour later we are being accosted by a bunch of angry young men while filming in a neighborhood barely five minutes' drive from the station. I was coming face to face with an undercurrent that passes most people by. It was to be an undercurrent I would come across again and again during my stay.

The Belgian police chief told us that because of high levels of immigration, seven out of 10 children at schools in Brussels cannot speak either of Belgium's mother tongues -- French or Flemish. He explained that Brussels' immigrant population has become segregated, in some places physically, from the rest of society.

That segregation has heightened resentment over poor housing, poor education and poor job prospects for many immigrants and their children.

When I met Malika el Aroud’s family they gave me a more nuanced understanding of what makes young Muslim men and women angry and why their sister’s angry postings on her jihadi Web site resonate with so many.

At first, Malika’s sister Saida and brother Mohammed were reticent about opening up to us.

Slowly they understood we’d come to hear their story, understand more about Malika, who she is and what motivates her. They don’t buy the police account that their sister is tied to al Qaeda. What they see is a woman who is angry enough and strong enough to express here feelings. They concede she has never been very diplomatic.

But as I listened to Saida and Mohammed I realized the anger we’d seen and felt on streets had its roots in something much bigger than social marginalization in Belgium.

Saida is not like her sister -- she is secular, doesn’t cover her hair. She runs a business employing more than 40 people. She says she hasn’t read Malika’s Web site diatribes calling for death to U.S. soldiers but she, her brother, and her young nephew and niece whom she brought to meet us, all agreed that they still feel frustrated when Muslims are killed.

I’d just come back from covering the situation in Gaza and we talked at length about it. They were very sympathetic to the hundreds of Palestinian families who’d lost children and loved ones during Israel’s three-week offensive. They admit they don’t agree with everything Malika has written, but they do think she is right to speak out.

As they explained how they felt, I realized how Malika’s family, apart from their ties to her, are like so many other Muslim families living not just in Brussels but in Europe.

By the time we ready to board the Eurostar train back to London I’d learned a lot. Not least, according to the police, the most radical mosque in the city, the Tawhid Mosque, was in fact barely a stones throw from the cobbled taxi rank at the Gare du Midi.

Sinking in to my seat as the train pulled out of the station I was struck by the scale of the task Europe’s police forces face.

-- By CNN Senior International Correspondent, Nic Robertson
World’s Untold Stories showcases courageous correspondents telling intimate stories of society's most vulnerable people. Often gritty, always powerful tales that open our eyes to a world that is at times disturbing and captivating. Storytelling that is raw and unyielding in its impact. World’s Untold Stories will bring the viewer tales from all corners of the world, and shine light on activities almost never exposed.

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