She's making headlines across France with her warnings of terrorist threats on French soil. But in an interview with FRANCE 24, Fatiha Mejjati said her dire prognosis is merely logical.
With her black-rimmed glasses peeping out of a tiny slot in her severe black abaya, or all-enveloping Islamic garb, her hands encased in black gloves despite the Casablanca heat, Fatiha Mejjati cuts a distinctive, if unsettling, figure.
But if her sartorial style is mercilessly hardline, her rhetoric is even more so.
In a telephone interview with FRANCE 24 from her Casablanca home, Mejjati railed against French policies in the Muslim world, warning that France was no longer safe from terrorism.
“The logic is very simple. French troops are in Afghanistan, France is at war with al Qaeda and the Taliban,” she said. “France is engaged with (US President George W.) Bush. The official policies of France are putting the people in danger.”
On Monday, the French daily, Le Parisien, published an interview with the “black widow of al Qaeda” – as she is known in the Moroccan French-language press - in which Mejjati warned of violent attacks against France in the upcoming days. “France will be punished,” she railed in a front-page interview with the paper, “for its allegiance to America.”
The story, which featured a photograph of Mejjati in her distinctive garb, was promptly taken up by the French press, setting the 47-year-old Moroccan mother’s phone ringing with calls from the press.
But hours after the story hit the newsstands, Mejjati was adamant that she had not issued a specific statement on terrorist threats, nor, she said, did she have any precise information on upcoming attacks.
“I am constantly under surveillance here (in Casablanca) – the authorities are watching me 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I do not have any precise information, I have no links with al Qaeda,” she said. “All I’m talking about is really very simple, it’s very logical. There is a war against Muslims in Iraq, there are foreign troops in Afghanistan fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban. Europe should expect a riposte. It’s logical.”
Security warnings as Musharraf tours Europe
Mejjati’s warning came as Spanish authorities warned France, Portugal and Britain of the possibility of attacks during Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's visit to Europe this week, according to Spanish media reports.
Musharraf’s eight-day European tour will take him to Belgium, the UK and France as well as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
In a weekend crackdown that has been linked to Musharraf’s visit, Spanish police arrested 14 South Asians – including 12 Pakistanis – in Barcelona on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks. The arrests followed the discovery of explosives and other equipment during raids across the city, according to Spanish news reports.
Extensive links in global jihadist circles
While Mejjati is careful to explain she has no links with al Qaeda, the 47-year-old Moroccan widow is no stranger to the Islamist threats in Europe and is believed to have had extensive contacts in hardline Islamist circles.
Her late husband, Karim Mejjati, was the suspected mastermind of the 2004 Madrid attacks in which 191 people were killed in coordinated attacks on rush-hour trains.
The son of a French mother and Moroccan father, Karim is also suspected of masterminding the May 2003 attacks in his native Casablanca – the deadliest attacks in Moroccan history – in which 45 people were killed.
Bright, articulate and fluent in several languages, Karim was suspected of having extensive contacts in jihadist circles across Europe, South Asia and the Middle East.
Saudi authorities, for instance, believe he was responsible for the deadly May 2003 bombing of three foreign residential compounds in the capital of Riyadh.
A double blow in Saudi Arabia
A massive, global hunt for the medical school dropout-turned-Islamist finally ended when Saudi authorities stumbled on his hideout in the tiny Saudi town of Ar-Rass in April 2005. He was killed in the ensuing gun battle with Saudi security forces.
For Mejjati, the April 2005 crackdown in Ar-Rass was a double blow: the Casablanca-born woman lost her husband and one of her two sons in the attack. She was arrested in Saudi Arabia for six months, according to Moroccan media reports, before being sent back to Morocco, where she spent nine months in jail before she was finally released.
“Fatiha Mejjati has had a very difficult life, she’s suffered a lot,” says Taib Chadi, a reporter at Le Journal Hebdomadaire, Morocco’s leading French weekly, who is working on a book on Morocco’s arguably most notorious widow. “She has lost her husband and young son and is currently living alone with her 14-year-old son in Casablanca, where she is trying to earn a living – it’s not easy.”
Wearing short skirts and smoking with the girls
Born and brought up in Casablanca - the sprawling Moroccan city that has seen a rise in Islamic radicalism especially in impoverished neighborhoods in recent years - Mejjati had an average middle class upbringing. She has spoken almost nostalgically to the press of her teenage years when she wore “short skirts and smoked” like most young women of her background.
It was shortly after the 1990 Gulf War that Mejjati was radicalized and adopted the veil, according to Chadi. She is believed to have converted her husband to the cause, and traveled with him – along with their two sons – to Afghanistan before the 2001 fall of the Taliban.
While in Afghanistan - a period she fondly remembers – Mejjati and her husband are believed to have established contacts in al Qaeda training camps that would serve Karim in the post-9/11 world.
Since her husband’s death and arrests, Mejjati says she has no links with al Qaeda – indeed, given the level of scrutiny she is under, it’s a plausible claim. But her fiery rhetoric has not toned down.
“If we want to live under Islamic law, who are they to impose democracy on us,” she says, referring to European governments. “Governments do not listen to the wishes of the people. The France of (former French President Jacques) Chirac was against the war in Iraq – for its own reasons. But with (current French President Nicolas) Sarkozy, the situation is very different. Sarkozy is very close to America, to (US President George) Bush. It is logical now that France is not safe from terrorism any more.”