A Visit with a Terror Suspect

Mona S. is one of Austria’s most famous Muslims; she lives between two worlds

Viennese Mona S. is on trial for involvement with a terrorist organization | Photo: Heribert Corn

The delicate, veiled woman opens her apartment door, sees my outstretched hand and takes it. Perhaps she hadn’t stopped to think that strict Muslims forbid physical contact with strangers. Perhaps Mona S. isn’t quite the model Muslim, she has tried since her teenage years to be.

Those who toss her name around in conversation these days usually attach two expressions: “terror bride” and “veil.” Ednan Aslan, researcher of Islamic studies at the University of Vienna, refers to the 21-year-old Austrian as a “victim of theological violence.” Thomas Schmidinger, a connoisseur of Islamic politics, attests to her “Jihad mindset.” The charges in the Vienna trial, in which her husband Mohamed M. is the central figure, accuses her of supporting terrorist organizations.

It is silent in the living room of Mona S.’ apartment on Landstrasse Hauptstrasse, in Vienna’s 3rd district. An exercise bike stands in the corner, next to the TV, “Wii” interactive video games are piled high, and dozens of Arabic books stand on the bookshelves. Could I have a glimpse of her room? Too indiscreet, she says, declining, as there are pictures of her without a veil. Would it ever be possible to see more than her hands and eyes? “Only if we were married.”

After spending 13 months behind bars, Mona returned home six weeks ago. The OGH, the Austrian Supreme Court, overturned a lower court decision on a technicality, which would have put her in jail for 22 months as a member of a terrorist group. Because of their veils, the judge didn’t allow a word in edgewise from either Mona or her co-defendant during the coiled trial, calling it “conduct unworthy of a court.” Since then, lawyers and theologians have been holding heated debates over the question of what counts more, the right to self-defense or a society’s right to defend democracy.

At the decision, Mona S. screamed “idiots,” and ran from the courtroom, a faux pas that has since become awkward. The handshake when we met as well.

Since she first googled the word “Islam” for the first time at age 14, Mona S. has saturated herself in Islamist propaganda, the Koran, and conspiracy theories to create a perceived truth that guides her daily life.

So who is she really? Is she more than just an unsure twenty-something who likes to play with her cell phone and twirl her hair when she’s nervous? Someone who denounces injustice in the world and thinks she knows everything, what is right or wrong and can – sometimes – hold to her convictions?

The view from her living room looks out on the flagpole in Arenbergpark, where she used to play as a girl in a rose-patterned dress and two braided pigtails. Her neighborhood is a microcosm of a larger world, a parallel society. There are beautiful clothing stores and restaurants for the sated middle-class, but also Arabic names on the doorbells, next to names like Haider and Rosenkranz. Her father immigrated to Vienna from Egypt in 1971 to study. Here he met his Viennese-born wife who later converted to Islam. Now 60, he has already retired from his job at the embassy of Qatar. He has been active in several Islamic organizations and is prominent on the Viennese Muslim scene – conservative, but not radical.

Mona was born in 1986, the fourth of six children. Her oldest sister studied business and now lives in New York; a brother is studying pharmacy and another medicine. They had a nice childhood, says Mona, and were raised as moderate Muslims; Allah was present in her life, but not dominant. There were certain moments when she could feel “that there was something there,” especially when her father was hospitalized for a liver transplant. The doctors gave him a 1% chance of survival, so the eleven-year-old started to pray. “The next day he was all better,” she says. She changed schools several times: “I just didn’t like it.”

“She has always been a stubborn girl,” says Esra Akbaba, a 30-year-old journalist who grew up in the same building – someone who, once decided on something, follows through. At the age of 13, Mona became fascinated with the city’s nightlife assimilating with her friends. But she was torn between her parents’ conservative views of virtue, and the hedonistic party world of the late nineties. Going out was taboo. But Mona argued for her freedom until she got what she wanted. It wasn’t until then that she began to feel uncomfortable.

So did she go out partying in Vienna’s Bermuda Triangle? Not for her, she says. Did she smoke and drink during this time? She hesitates. (“Mona at that time was very naïve and only thought of herself,” Akbaba says.) Did she have fun? “It was all a waste of time!”

There is a certain day when any idea comes into its own, that leaves a veiled woman running out of her own trial for terrorism, railing against her critics. For Mona, it was Sept. 11, 2001; Mona was 14 years old. Today she talks about a tape that runs through her mind again and again, of the planes that fly into the World Trade Center, again and again.

“I really wanted to understand why this happened,” said Mona.

Has she come to understand this since? “Yes,” she insists. “What Al-Qaeda wants is what we also want.” It’s about freedom and the end of hunger and oppression, she claims. “Only, they use different methods.”

The death of innocent people, the bombing of civilians, to end the “resistance” from Iraq and Afghanistan, however, “is not what we are about.” Who is ‘we,’ I ask? “Righteous Muslims of course.”

As we talk, she describes the developments over the following years in an audio-dictated manner. There are no references to people or teachers; there is no specific current, no specific theory or doctrine with which she is affiliated.

“I went to the Internet, and googled Islam,” she says: Madrid, London, Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo. Her interest grew – along with her displeasure: The freeing of the Afghans from the Taliban, the Iraqis from Saddam. Mona speaks today of “an invasion,” an “occupation” and “a legitimate opposition according to international law.” Her information comes from the Arabic media, often from statements from people she refers to as “resistance fighters.” So, she doesn’t just speak of information, but rather of “the truth.” Mona’s truth looks like this: women under the Taliban regime are not oppressed. No Muslim has killed another Muslim in Iraq, and women living under Sharia law are not underprivileged or discriminated against. All of this is just Western propaganda, she says. Evolutionary theories? Big Bang? Nonsense. Man? Evil. For all the allegations, Islam offers “proof.” Proof is something Mona speaks about a lot, almost as if Islam isn’t a belief, but rather a science that can be verified. “Only Islam is perfect. It makes no mistakes. It knows no counterarguments,” Mona says during the discussion.

At the age of 17 she began to wear a veil. It wasn’t a big adjustment because she had already adapted to her daily life. She prays at least five times a day, there are no parties, no alcohol and no smoking. First comes perception and cognition, followed by action, she says. Why was she doing this, classmates had asked her? According to the Koran a woman should cover her most beautiful features. “Open temptation only leads to negative things,” Mona says. For example? “Rape.”

Her family was shocked, but supported her decision. Two sisters-in-law had worn veils long before Mona chose to do so.


Everyday life under the veil

In her new life, Mona no longer rides her bike; she no longer eats ice cream on the street and doesn’t smile for cameras. Only in the seclusion of Lower Austria, where the family has a garden, does she allow herself to feel the wind blowing through her hair, the summer rain dripping onto her face, and the sun shining on her skin. In a world where half-naked women advertise vacuum cleaners, she no longer wants to be a “sexual being.” Where individuality, loneliness and disorientation spread, Mona wants to belong to a movement; to believe in something and follow commandments.

Mona was 19 when she decided to become active in her beliefs. From the Internet she downloaded videos and texts from “resistance fighters,” like Osama bin Laden. She would sit in her living room and, with the help of the online dictionary Leo, translate her “truth” into German.

It is because of this that she has been accused of translating “propaganda messages, knowingly supporting terrorist groups.” Mona does not deny it. On the contrary, she wants to get back to it as soon as possible: This is journalism – not propaganda.

At around the same time that she began with the translations, she met, the now 23-year-old Mohamed M. in an Internet chat room. They discussed America and the resistance, and eventually she became active in Mohamed’s Islamischen Jugend Österreichs (IJÖ), Austria’s Islamic Youth group.

“We have the same goals, opinions and beliefs,” says Mona. One of Mona’s brothers told a journalist that it was Mohamed who had told Mona what she had to do. In fact it was the other way around.

“At that time we wanted to get married as quickly as possible, so we could be closer to each other,” she said. Her parents were initially against it. Her father stated that Mohamed should first finish his studies, and that Mona was still too young. But both are stubborn, and they got their way.

After about a year, Mohamed came to Mona’s house and asked for her hand. The custom requires that a veiled woman then boils tea and serves it unveiled. If, at this point, the man likes what he sees, they can become engaged. Mohamed looked at her – and remained silent. On Sept. 1, 2007, they were married under Islamic law. While their families flew to Vienna-Hietzing for the ceremony, an Austrian special task force broke into Mohamed’s apartment in the 6th District to install surveillance software. He had been observed for months already via an electronic eavesdropping operation.

According to the accusations, he has been active since at least March 2007 in the “Jihadistic online scene” and, according to the German branch of the Global Muslim Media Front (GIMF), working his way up to a leadership position. The GIMF is a kind of YouTube for Muslims showing videos of Bin Laden’s speeches and bestial murders of hostages and enemies of Al-Qaeda. Whether this amounts to aiding terrorist organizations is the vital question in the terror trial. Mona claims she was ignorant of Mohamed’s online activities.

On Sept. 12, 2007 at 10:50pm, a loud bang jarred Mona out of a deep sleep. Special task force police blasted the entrance door and stormed into her apartment. She and Mohammed were both arrested. The investigator interpreted their planned honeymoon to Egypt as an attempt to go underground. At the time Mona was working for €200 a month at a computer store and Mohamed was unemployed. Minister of the Interior Günter Platter (ÖVP) spoke of an “Austrian franchise for Al-Qaeda.”


13 months in jail

The first inquisition took six hours. “They wanted a confession,” Mona said, “namely that I should accuse Mohamed of being a terrorist and psychopath.” She did not give in. “The confinement was the worst at the beginning,” Mona tells. For weeks on end she was alone in an empty jail cell. No books, no windows, no clock. At some point it became dark, then light and then dark again.

Held as a terrorist suspect, her activities were limited. While other inmates played table soccer, she flipped through the Koran. She spoke of sleep deprivation and being pushed around. During her stay, she also lost a child, but the administration denies these claims, stating that there were no medical findings. “Praying, reading, and hoping that it would soon be over,” is how Mona describes her time in the Josefstadt prison. As the door to Cell 8 opened on Oct. 8, 2008, Mona at first refused to follow, fearing she would be exchanged for two Salzburg hostages who were in the hands of Algerian Al-Qaeda sympathizers.

Since then, she has spent most of her time in her living room. She had only touched Mohamed once since his arrest. Sometimes he calls. The time she spent in prison, though, has opened her eyes; she has learned things about herself and a “legal system hostile to Islam.” Now, she hopes to open people’s eyes.

Shortly after the World Trade Center collapsed and the rulers of Afghanistan and Iraq were toppled, Mona, the stubborn child with braided pigtails, said yes to Allah and to every decision afterwards. She doesn’t expect understanding, because she knows the truth. If she had even the slightest morsel of a doubt before her imprisonment on Sep. 12, 2007, they have long since vanished.

When we said goodbye, she didn’t shake my hand.

Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » appearance » Widgets » and move a widget into Advertise Widget Zone