Mary Fallot looks as unlike a terrorist suspect as one could
possibly imagine: a petite and demure white Frenchwoman chatting
with friends on a cell-phone, indistinguishable from any other young
woman in the cafe where she sits sipping coffee.
And that is exactly why European antiterrorist authorities have
their eyes on thousands like her across the continent.
Ms. Fallot is a recent convert to Islam. In the eyes of the
police, that makes her potentially dangerous.
The death of Muriel Degauque, a Belgian convert who blew herself
up in a suicide attack on US troops in Iraq last month, has drawn
fresh attention to the rising number of Islamic converts in Europe,
most of them women.
"The phenomenon is booming, and it worries us," the head of the
French domestic intelligence agency, Pascal Mailhos, told the Paris-
based newspaper Le Monde in a recent interview. "But we must
absolutely avoid lumping everyone together."
The difficulty, security experts explain, is that while the
police may be alert to possible threats from young men of Middle
Eastern origin, they are more relaxed about white European women.
Terrorists can use converts who "have added operational benefits in
very tight security situations" where they might not attract
attention, says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish
National Defense College in Stockholm.
Ms. Fallot, who converted to Islam three years ago after asking
herself spiritual questions to which she found no answers in her
childhood Catholicism, says she finds the suspicion her new religion
attracts "wounding." "For me," she adds, "Islam is a message of
love, of tolerance and peace."
It is a message that appeals to more and more Europeans as
curiosity about Islam has grown since 9/11, say both Muslim and non-
Muslim researchers. Although there are no precise figures, observers
who monitor Europe's Muslim population estimate that several
thousand men and women convert each year.
Only a fraction of converts are attracted to radical strands of
Islam, they point out, and even fewer are drawn into violence. A
handful have been convicted of terrorist offenses, such as Richard
Reid, the "shoe bomber" and American John Walker Lindh, who was
captured in Afghanistan.
Admittedly patchy research suggests that more women than men
convert, experts say, but that - contrary to popular perception -
only a minority do so in order to marry Muslim men.
"That used to be the most common way, but recently more [women]
are coming out of conviction," says Haifa Jawad, who teaches at
Birmingham University in Britain. Though non-Muslim men must convert
in order to marry a Muslim woman, she points out, the opposite is
Fallot laughs when she is asked whether her love life had
anything to do with her decision. "When I told my colleagues at work
that I had converted, their first reaction was to ask whether I had
a Muslim boyfriend," she recalls. "They couldn't believe I had done
it of my own free will."
In fact, she explains, she liked the way "Islam demands a
closeness to God. …