The Terrorist's Wife
Issue date: OCT 31, 2005
On Oct. 12, 2002, the night of the terrorist attack in Bali, Paridah binti Abas was four weeks pregnant. She was living in Gresik, a mid-sized Indonesian city where factory workers live in small, two- and three-room houses along crowded streets of dirt and gravel. That night, Paridah's neighborhood mosque was silent. The day's fifth and final prayer had concluded hours before. The air was muggy and still.
Paridah was lying on a thin, satin-covered mattress on the floor of the shack she shared with her husband and five children. One of her relatives was listening to the radio. Paridah sat up when she heard news about an "accident" in nearby Bali. The report, she later told me, described explosions and fires. Sirens wailed in the background. Tourists from Australia and Europe shouted their stories to reporters: A Saturday night at two popular nightclubs had ended with friends ripped to pieces and burned to death. Dozens, maybe hundreds, were dead, and an entire block of buildings was gone. Police said it was the work of terrorists.
Paridah was vomiting. Morning sickness had made her so nauseous that she found it difficult to rise. "Most of the time I was just lying down, trying to keep myself from throwing up," she later told me. "It's not nice to vomit. I was in so much pain." She says she was too sick that night to think about the explosions, that the news did not hold her attention.
She says this, despite the fact that her husband, Ali Gufron bin Nurhasyim, who is best known by his alias, Mukhlas, has since confessed to, and been convicted of, planning, overseeing, and financing that attack in Bali; despite the fact that he is a senior figure in Jemaah Islamiyah, an affiliate of al-Qaida that has staged more than 50 attacks in Southeast Asia since 1999.
Before Bali, Jemaah Islamiyah struck local targets. After Bali, the group pulled more high-profile jobs: the 2003 suicide car-bombing at the Marriott hotel in Jakarta that killed 12, the 2004 suicide car-bombing at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta that killed nine, and yet more suicide bombings in Bali last month that killed 23 and injured 150 more at two beach-side cafes and a downtown restaurant.
These days, Bali is very much on Paridah's mind. It's there that her husband has been imprisoned, cramped in a small cell, awaiting death by firing squad. And it's there that her husband's colleagues have hit again.
I know Paridah is thinking about Bali because I followed her for more than a year to a handful of cities and villages across Muslim Southeast Asia -- in the hopes that through her I could learn more about Jemaah Islamiyah. Paridah's beliefs prohibit her from being alone with men who are not her relatives. She first allowed me access, she said, because I am a woman. Today, nearly two years after our first meeting, I'm no longer sure why she continues to talk to me.
If one family can be credited with building the dynasty known as Jemaah Islamiyah, it is Paridah's. Her father, Abas bin Yusuf, was an early associate of the organization's founders; he is now under house arrest. Her brothers Hashim bin Abas and Nasir bin Abas and her brother-in-law Shamsul Bahri were jailed for their roles in multiple bombings. Two of her husband's brothers -- Amrozi bin Nurhasyim and Ali Imron bin Nurhasyim, both of whom studied at an Islamic boarding school in Paridah's home village -- have been jailed as members of JI.
In late 2002, after the first Bali attacks, Paridah was detained as an accessory. By then she had shaken the morning sickness; she was up from the floor and feeling better. Hugely pregnant during her court appearances, Paridah eventually was found guilty of only a minor immigration charge. She paid a fine of about $100 and quietly folded back into her village.
Just before her final court date, in May 2003, Paridah gave birth to the child that had kept her on the floor the night of the Bali attacks. Her sixth child, a baby boy, was named after one of Paridah's heroes, a man she says "can live humbly, despite his wealth." Paridah's voice rises an octave when she coos his name: Osama.
I first met Paridah in 2003. I was living in Jakarta -- Indonesia's hot, crowded, polluted, underemployed capital -- and working as a correspondent for U.S. public radio. That summer Indonesia was in the news. The trials of more than 30 men accused in the Bali attacks -- including Paridah's husband, Mukhlas -- were culminating in guilty verdicts.
Then, on Aug. 5, 2003, a suicide bomber drove a car into the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta's financial district, killing one Dutch citizen and 11 Indonesians and injuring at least 150 more. Authorities said Jemaah Islamiyah received $10,000 from al-Qaida for the job.
Jakarta was tense and flooded with reporters. Defense attorneys were demanding cash for interviews with jailed Bali militants and Marriott suspects. I read reports in the local press about Paridah's brief detention in connection with the Bali attacks. I tracked her down with the help of Helena Rea, an Indonesian writer who had met and interviewed Paridah.
Paridah, we learned, had moved to a tiny Indonesian village far from Jakarta. But she sometimes visited the capital. Helena arranged a meeting.
We found Paridah at the main immigration office, a concrete high-rise in Jakarta's noisy center. She was waiting in line to fill out forms. Paridah is short and slight, with disproportionately long legs. But to meet her in public is to meet only a pair of eyes, behind thick, oval-shaped glasses. The rest of her is shrouded in black. Most Muslim women in Southeast Asia cover just their heads with short, patterned scarves. Paridah covered her face and head with a black veil that fell to the waist. Underneath she wore a black tunic, black pants, black socks, and black sports sandals.
Paridah was annoyed and in a hurry. Her immigration status was complicated. She and five of her six children are Malaysian, but her husband, Mukhlas, is Indonesian. To remain near him in Indonesia, Paridah and the children had to apply for Indonesian citizenship. She told us she planned to catch the train back to the village that night. She said she could talk for only a few hours. We drove to a nearby hotel and waited while our taxi was searched with a metal detector -- routine procedure at all Jakarta hotels since the Marriott bombing. We ordered tea in the lobby restaurant.
Paridah speaks Bahasa Indonesia -- the linguistic cousin of her native language, Bahasa Malay -- as well as Arabic and English. "I love books," she told me, in a singsong English. "Sometimes I re-read books four or five times." Not only Islamic texts but titles like Anna Karenina and Gone With the Wind. Her favorite magazine, she said, is National Geographic.
We sat in a corner of the restaurant so Paridah could move the veil from her mouth and eat Indonesian shrimp chips. She told us she had been "just like other girls" in high school, except that she didn't like parties. She said she started wearing the chador at age 19. She said she was closest to her father growing up. But the two fought a lot, especially about who Paridah would marry.
"I wanted to choose my own husband," she told Helena and me. "My father said, 'OK, if you can find a reason to disagree with me in the Quran, I will let you choose your own.' But I couldn't find one. Even though I tried for some months."
Paridah said her father chose Mukhlas as her husband because he was "mature, steady, and cool." Paridah tried to reject her father's choice, but eventually she gave in. She said that for 10 years, up to the time that Mukhlas was arrested, the two had a happy marriage. I asked Paridah how she felt when she heard about the attacks in Bali -- the fires, the burned bodies, the broken buildings. Her gaze held steady on mine.
"An Islamic state must be the goal of all people," she said. "Once that has been achieved, we will live together in peace." She admitted that her husband helped "lead the jihad" in Bali. She said even her children were proud of what Mukhlas did. "They believe that Indonesia must say, 'Thank you' to their father," she said. "Because he showed everyone that Bali is full of masiah -- what is the word in English? Bad things."
Paridah had been forthcoming about her childhood, but she became agitated when pressed to talk about her husband's exact role in the Bali attacks. Eventually she settled on the defense that Mukhlas' legal team had made: that although Mukhlas had wanted to punish Bali tourists, he had not meant to kill so many of them. The death toll was so high, the lawyers had suggested, because Western intelligence agents had added extra explosives to the bomb before the attack.
Helena and I asked Paridah if it would have been acceptable to have killed 20 people instead of 200, according to the Quran.
"I do not know. I am not that well educated in the Quran," she snapped, changing the subject. "Are you going to interview me about the Quran? Or about my past?" Then she said it was time to catch the train.
I also was taking a train that night. It was New Year's Eve, and I was headed to a party outside the city. Helena left the hotel in a separate taxi, and Paridah and I rode together to the main station in central Jakarta. I asked her when we could see each other again. She said she would let me know.
The open-air station was teeming, and Paridah bolted for the ticket counter. I waited with her 11-year-old son, Zaid. She purchased the tickets and set off immediately for the platform, leaving Zaid to catch her. He did, and Paridah disappeared into the crowd, a small black triangle cutting through a sea of color and chaos.
Muslim Southeast Asia is an archipelago of one peninsula and tens of thousands of islands that starts in southern Thailand and stretches below the equator toward Australia. Islam first came to this archipelago peacefully, by way of Arab, Persian, and Indian traders in the 13th century. Today the region is home to more than one-quarter of the world's Muslims.
Paridah binti Abas was born in Singapore, a tiny island city-state situated in the heart of the archipelago. In the 1970s, her father, a devout Muslim, grew disillusioned with Singapore's modern, secular direction. He moved his family back to his home country of Malaysia where, as he had hoped, he found the society more traditional. But the schools were still secular, and so, by Paridah's third year of high school, her father demanded that she quit classes and focus instead on studying the Quran.
Paridah appealed to an older brother who had remained in Singapore and made a decent salary as an engineer. He paid her school fees. Against her father's wishes, Paridah graduated high school and scored well on the college-entry exams. But there was no money left for tuition at a college or university. "I decided to myself, 'Maybe I am destined to learn the Quran,' " she told me. "Maybe that is my will."
So she memorized the Quran, word for word, in three months. Afterward, she took a job at a private kindergarten that taught children to read the Quran in Arabic. Such programs are now widespread in Malaysia, but at the time -- the early 1980s -- the kindergarten was among the first of its kind.
It was a transformational moment in the Muslim world. Ideas from Iran's fundamentalist Islamic revolution were spreading eastward to otherwise moderate countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia responded to these new ideas by welcoming Islamic laws and practices into government and society.
Malaysia's large and sprawling neighbor to the west and south -- Indonesia -- did precisely the opposite. Suharto, Indonesia's longtime dictator, brutally maintained a secular state, repeatedly punishing detractors, particularly radical Islamists.
Two such activists were Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir. They were arrested and jailed in 1980 for preaching against Suharto, but they were later released on appeal. They resumed teaching at an Islamic boarding school they had founded years before. They handpicked promising students and urged these disciples to establish small, secret, self-sustaining Islamic communities -- jemaah islamiyah in Arabic -- in their villages. These jemaah were to be governed by Islamic law and refuse contact with state institutions such as schools and courts.
In 1985, a judge overturned Bashir's and Sungkar's appeals and issued warrants for their arrests. The two men fled and sought refuge in Malaysia. They called their journey a hijrah, or pilgrimage, like the Prophet Muhammad's flight to escape persecution in the seventh century.
Bashir and Sungkar settled in the southern Malaysian province where Paridah's father, Abas bin Yusuf, was born. Abas often drove to this province to meet an elderly Muslim scholar. One Abas family member told me it was through this scholar that Abas bin Yusuf first met the Indonesian exiles. At the time, the Indonesians were going door-to-door, mosque to mosque, preaching and assembling informal study groups. Malaysian shop-owners and small businessmen who sought spiritual fulfillment were eager to join. Sometimes these groups met in the Abas home.
Paridah said she overheard their conversations from her bedroom, because she was forbidden to mix with men. "I heard ... one man who spoke Indonesian slang," she told me. "I thought, 'He's a calm, smart guy.' "
One night, on a drive with her father, Abas told Paridah that this man, an Indonesian preacher named Mukhlas, was the one he had chosen to be Paridah's husband. He had graduated from Sungkar and Bashir's Islamic school in Indonesia. Paridah knew the translation of this Arabic name: Mukhlas, the sincere.
Later, Paridah would learn that Mukhlas had just returned from training in Central Asia. He had been selected from a study group and sent to a camp in Pakistan, just across the Afghan border. The camp was established to aid the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets. It was funded by private Saudi citizens and run by a close associate of Osama Bin Laden's.
According to the Jakarta office of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which has done extensive research on militant Islam in Southeast Asia, Mukhlas entered this camp in 1986 and graduated in 1989. During one battle, he reportedly fought alongside Bin Laden -- a war story he would repeat often and with relish when he returned to Southeast Asia. It is thought that between 200 and 300 Indonesians like Mukhlas graduated from the camp, along with dozens of Malaysians and Filipinos.
Paridah met Mukhlas just once before she married him. She served him tea in her family's house in Malaysia. She left the room after five minutes. The wedding was held in Paridah's parents' living room on July 1, 1990. All of Paridah's family -- eight brothers and sisters, their spouses, and their children -- attended the simple ceremony. None of Mukhlas' family from Indonesia was there. Still, authorities believe this wedding was a strategic union that forever linked Indonesians and Malaysians who had studied with Sungkar and Bashir and had trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Paridah was forthright with her husband on their wedding night. "I'm not like other women," she told him, according to her diary. I'm not feminine, I speak my mind, and I have opinions, she continued.
"Thank God," he replied. "You are the one I have been looking for."
After the wedding, Paridah returned to teaching at the Malaysian kindergarten, and Mukhlas raised money to open an Islamic boarding school. The school was modeled after Sungkar and Bashir's school back in Indonesia. It opened near Paridah's village in 1992, a fenced-in compound next to a rural mosque that was isolated from the rest of town. Paridah remembers those years fondly. She left the kindergarten to work at the boarding school. She taught math, English, and the Quran to boys and girls from around Muslim Southeast Asia. Her parents lived just a few miles down the road. Many of her siblings either attended or worked at the school.
Malaysian and Singaporean intelligence agents paint a much less benign picture. They say the school was a critical step in the formation of the militant group that would later be called Jemaah Islamiyah. They claim that students were imbued with dreams of creating an Islamic state, one that is governed by the laws of God rather than by the laws of men. After graduation, some students were sent to military camps where they learned that the only way to attain this state was with violence.
Today, some 20 men from Jemaah Islamiyah's top tier -- most of them veterans from Pakistan and Afghanistan -- are still at large. The two most wanted are Mohamad Noordin Top and Azhari Husin. Both are Malaysian, and both worked at the Malaysian school run by Mukhlas and Paridah. Authorities say Top is the more charismatic of the two, with the power to convince young boys to become suicide bombers. Husin is the technical expert. He learned how to build bombs in Afghanistan.
Jemaah Islamiyah formalized itself in Malaysia in 1993. According to court documents, Sungkar, the senior of the two Indonesian exiles, named himself the group's first amir, or supreme leader. He required all members to swear an oath of allegiance. He organized the group into regional brigades -- Malaysia for religious indoctrination, Singapore for fund-raising, the southern Philippines for military training, and Indonesia as the focus of the coming violence.
The goal of the group, then and now, was plain: a caliphate, or Pan-Islamic state governed by Muslim laws, across the archipelago. Sungkar's kingdom would stretch from southern Thailand to the eastern tip of Indonesia.
In the late 1990s, Jemaah Islamiyah was poised to take the fight for this caliphate into its next, bloody stage. By then, the organization had an "important ongoing contact with the Al Qaeda leadership," according to the International Crisis Group. Jemaah Islamiyah's leaders circulated Osama Bin Laden's speeches and writings among its members. One Jemaah Islamiyah commander later hosted two of the Sept. 11 hijackers in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
In 1998, Indonesian dictator Suharto was forced from power amid mass street protests. This allowed Bashir and Sungkar to return home. They resumed preaching and recruiting at their Indonesian boarding school. (Sungkar's health didn't allow him to enjoy the new Indonesia for long, however. He died of a heart attack in November 1999.) Mukhlas and other Jemaah Islamiyah leaders traveled around Southeast Asia, preaching, planning, and training. Paridah stayed in Malaysia and assumed more responsibility at the school.
Two years later, in 2000, militants linked to Jemaah Islamiyah launched the group's first high-profile attack. Operatives attempted to assassinate the Philippines' ambassador in Jakarta. They failed, but they killed two others.
That Christmas Eve, Hashim bin Abas -- one of Paridah's brothers -- helped the group to launch simultaneous bombings at 30 Christian churches across Indonesia. The blasts killed 19 people in all. Indonesian authorities denied that the attacks were the work of Islamic militants. Authorities continued to do so until the devastating attacks on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on Oct. 12, 2002.
Bali is a tiny enclave of Hinduism in Southeast Asia's otherwise Muslim archipelago. The island is just a one-hour flight from Jakarta, but it seems a world away. Bali's pristine beaches, legendary surf, sculpted rice fields, and serene culture have drawn hoards of tourists for decades, mainly from nearby Australia. To serve this trade, in the 1970s the Balinese built the town of Kuta, a strip of storefronts, bars, and restaurants that stretches along the beach.
I visited Bali in 2003, just a few months after the island's first, devastating terrorist attacks. I went to Kuta to see what was left of two nightclubs hit by bombs. Driving down the strip, I passed T-shirt stores, surfboard stores, fast-food stores. None of them had customers. Then a big empty space opened up on the right. In front of the space was a corrugated fence, half-covered with faded wreaths and dusty flowers. This was where the Sari Club used to be. Across the street was another empty lot -- all that was left of Paddy's Irish Pub.
I was told that officials had dumped the rubble from both clubs into the ocean and made offerings of whole, live animals to the Hindu gods. Behind the corrugated fence, little pieces of broken glass were all that was left on the ground. Some of the shards were green, like beer bottles.
I rented a room as close to the site as I could find, in a cheap and dirty set of bungalows about a hundred feet away. The manager, Benny Subakir, saw me walking around with a microphone. He sat me down to tell me about the blasts.
He said he had felt the first bomb before he heard it. It was just before midnight, and he was in his room, next to the bungalow office, reading. He said he thought the sound came from the direction of Paddy's. He ran into the street. Then a second, almost otherworldly, boom uprooted him from where he stood. In its wake was only fire. Benny walked in a daze toward the flames. He said he remembers little from the next few hours.
Survivors describe howling, burning people with missing ears, missing limbs, missing skin, trapped behind walls of fire, unable to escape as they burned to death. "I saw so many body-dead," Benny told me, a blank look on his face. "On the roof over there, I saw half a body-dead. I put it in a bucket and gave it to police. After that, nobody came to Bali." He was right: By the time I visited Bali, the hotel occupancy rate was less than one-quarter what it had been at the same time the year before. All told, Bali -- one of Indonesia's largest sources of revenue -- lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now, after a second wave of suicide bombings in Bali last month, the island faces the same economic devastation as before. Despite free giveaways from tour operators and airlines, Bali's restaurants, beaches, and clubs are once again empty. Business owners, nearly all of them Indonesians, wonder how they will survive.
Back in 2003, the trials of suspected bombers were the island's main attraction. The proceedings were held in an ornate, open-air pavilion. A Balinese spiritual consultant monitored the level of bad karma in the space at all times. If he felt too much evil from the suspects, he would chant mantras to neutralize it.
I went to court to see ParidahÕs husband, Ali Gufron bin Nurhasyim, alias Mukhlas -- the man suspected of planning and leading the first attack on Bali. Just after the lunch break, Mukhlas strode to the front of the pavilion, trailed by his defense team. He was handsome and impeccably assembled in a long, white tunic, white trousers, and a white skullcap. His beard had grown long while in detention. He shouted "Allahu Akbar" -- God is great -- as he took his seat.
Prosecutors say Mukhlas confessed to leading the Bali attack. Mukhlas later contended he was coerced into making this statement, that investigators punched him and stripped him of his clothing to humiliate him. At his trial, though, his lawyers didn't specifically deny the charges against him. Rather, they spent their time trying to prove that foreign intelligence agents had added extra explosives to the bomb.
According to witness testimony, Mukhlas began planning the attack in early 2002. In February of that year, Mukhlas and the top tier of Jemaah Islamiyah met in Thailand. They agreed their next target was to be "soft" -- a shopping mall, a nightclub, something loosely guarded but representative of the values of the West.
According to court testimony, a wealthy Malaysian businessman gave Mukhlas more than $30,000 to launch a soft attack. The businessman later said the money came "from al-Qaida." Mukhlas is said to have convened a follow-up meeting that April in Indonesia to discuss potential targets. Witnesses say the group wanted a target that would bring the greatest possible destruction to "America and her allies." After considering an international school in Jakarta and an American-owned gold mine, the group settled on Bali. The island of "bad things."
In May, Mukhlas asked Paridah to join him near his hometown on Indonesia's main island of Java, where he and his deputies were plotting the Bali attacks. By September, Paridah was pregnant with their sixth child, Osama.
That same month, witnesses say that Mukhlas and his top deputy took a ferry from eastern Java over to Bali to scout locations for the attack. The Sari Club, a popular disco crowded every night with drinking and dancing tourists, seemed like a perfect target. The plot would eventually include Paddy's, the Irish pub across the street. Mukhlas also decided to detonate a small bomb outside the U.S. Consulate in Bali, to send a message to his Western enemies.
One of Mukhlas' brothers, Amrozi, who had worked as a mechanic most of his life, readied a vehicle to transport the bombers and the bombs: It was a Mitsubishi L300 van that would later lead investigators to the brothers. A third brother, Ali Imron, was in charge of handling the explosives.
Jemaah Islamiyah's bomb experts had hand-mixed the lethal chemicals -- a cheap and easy-to-obtain concoction of potassium chlorate, sulfuric acid, and aluminum powder. Ali Imron testified that he bought 12 plastic filing cabinets and filled their drawers with explosives; the cabinets were then bolted to the floor of the van, alongside another drawer full of TNT.
Two young Indonesian boys had been selected by Mukhlas' deputy to transport the bombs. The plan was simple: One boy would wear a flak vest stuffed with explosives, walk in the front door of Paddy's, and blow himself up. The other boy would wait in the Mitsubishi. As soon as people came pouring out of Paddy's, he would ignite the filing cabinets.
On Oct. 12, 2002, those two boys became Southeast Asia's first suicide bombers, killing themselves and some 200 victims. Once the Balinese police -- with the help of Australian federal investigators -- found the Mitsubishi's serial number in the rubble, it didn't take long to trace the van to Mukhlas' brother Amrozi. Police swooped in on the brothers' hometown and began making arrests.
Meanwhile, Jemaah Islamiyah went ahead with its regular, twice-yearly meeting in central Java to discuss recruitment and fund-raising. One member in attendance was Nasir bin Abas, a brother of Paridah's who had trained with Mukhlas on the Afghan border in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, Nasir helped establish, and later oversaw, Jemaah Islamiyah's military training camp in the Philippines.
When he saw Mukhlas at that meeting, Nasir later testified, he suspected his brother-in-law of the Bali bombings. He took Mukhlas aside. "I directly asked him, 'Mukhlas, is that you who did that?' " At first Mukhlas denied it, Nasir told me in an interview. Three or four days later, Nasir said, Mukhlas confessed. "He said, 'I did the bombing in Bali with my brothers.' "
In court, Mukhlas denied that this conversation ever took place. Likewise, Paridah is vague with me about what she and her family were doing in the months following the Bali attack, when her husband was on the run.
The last time Paridah saw Mukhlas as a free man was Dec. 3, 2002. "He was leaving on his bicycle to fetch some things," she told me. He didn't return home. Police came to her door and told her Mukhlas had been arrested.
Police also detained Paridah. They eventually charged her with minor immigration violations and imposed fines. In May 2003, she had her last court date and gave birth to Osama. She packed up her children and her house and prepared for another move -- this time to her husband's hometown in rural Indonesia.
The remote Indonesian village of Tenggulun is a haphazard collection of wood and corrugated-steel shacks along two perpendicular, paved streets. The shacks are mostly one story and unpainted. Behind the shacks are plots of corn and rice. Down the main street, bulls pull carts full of hay and crops at the end of each day, and chickens roam from house to house.
On that main street last year, I told the driver to stop the car. I had noticed a small compound of dingy, one-room buildings clumped around a freshly painted mosque. The driver told me this was Al Islam, an Islamic boarding school. The school had been founded by relatives of Mukhlas.
Children leaving the compound stopped their bicycles to stare. My Indonesian friend and colleague, Helena Rea, opened the passenger door. A boy ran past the car. Helena recognized the boy as Zaid, Paridah and MukhlasÕ son. Helena called his name and ran after him. I ran after her.
Helena turned left down a dirt street just off the main road, and for a moment I lost her. By this time, a gaggle of Tenggulun's women -- some of them with covered heads, some only in sarongs, many with babies -- had come out of their homes to watch. I caught sight of Helena, who pointed toward a house. I told the driver we would find our own way back to the city. Shaking his head and clicking his tongue, he sped back out of town.
Paridah came out of her house to greet Helena and me. Around her stood five of her six children, a handful of their friends, and some relatives and neighbors. The porch was strewn with children's bicycles, an old stroller, a motorbike, and piles of little shoes. Laundry in all sizes hung from the corrugated steel roof. Paridah invited us inside. The children followed, as did Mukhlas' mother and sister. The women touched our hands and asked if we wanted to bathe. Paridah introduced us as friends from Jakarta. We had arranged the meeting with Paridah by mail. Tenggulun has no phone service.
Paridah closed the door and cinched the stained red-and-white gingham curtains. Properly hidden from the gaze of men, she removed the black veil and gown that covered her face, head, and body. Underneath, she wore a small, cream-colored head wrap, baggy brown polyester pants, and a dirty white T-shirt. It was the first time I had seen her face. Her high cheekbones angled to a narrow chin, her lips were naturally dark, and her teeth flashed an impeccably white smile when she caught me staring.
We heard a baby's cry and peeked into the back room of the two-room shack where Paridah slept with the children. The cry came from a homemade cotton sling hanging from a large spring. Inside was Paridah's youngest son, Osama. He had just awakened from his nap.
She brought him into the front room. The women cooed over him, and we situated ourselves on a mat on the floor.
We talked about Paridah's life in Tenggulun and about the status of Mukhlas' case, which was up for an appeal. Paridah told us she had enrolled her three eldest children at Al Islam, the school run by Mukhlas' older brothers. The brothers gave Paridah a break on tuition and offered her a part-time job teaching English, math, and Quranic translation.
Later, we assembled in Paridah's traditional, outdoor kitchen and squatted over cutting boards and newspaper-wrapped vegetables from the nearby market. We made Malaysian curries and stews.
We talked late into the night, that night and the next. Paridah asked Helena and me about the rules and customs of Christianity. She asked our opinions about the so-called clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Paridah argued that moral and religious beliefs would only become more important in the coming decades. The practice of democracy, she contended, would not survive the 21st century. We tried to push Paridah to talk about her and her husband's roles in Jemaah Islamiyah, but she was vague and changed the subject.
Just before sunrise on our last morning in Tenggulun, I lay awake thinking about our conversations. Helena told me that at 4 a.m., she had seen young students from the Islamic boarding school marching down the main street in a military-style formation, chanting angry slogans. We decided we needed to ask Paridah more questions.
That last morning, Paridah was cheery. She sent a daughter to the store for milk to make sweet Malaysian tea. She told us she was taking us to visit Mukhlas' brother Ja'far, both as a gesture of respect to the family and to ask him to drive Helena and me back to the city. Paridah assembled her veil and gown and hurried out the door. We followed. "Remember to smile sweetly at Ja'far," Paridah called over her shoulder. "That way you will get what you want."
We found Ja'far at his house. An almost exact copy of Mukhlas in stature and facial features, Ja'far looked more rugged than his devout younger brother, sporting long hair, a denim shirt and jeans, and a floppy farmer's hat. We sat on the floor, and his wife served us tea.
We asked him if he thought Mukhlas was guilty. He said that while he believed his brother wanted to combat the "bad things" in Bali, he didn't believe that Mukhlas was capable of making such a huge bomb.
The night before, Helena and I had grilled Paridah about her husband's whereabouts in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Jemaah Islamiyah planned and executed violent attacks including Bali. Paridah told us -- just as she had told police -- that during those years Mukhlas lived in Indonesia -- there, in Tenggulun. She said Mukhlas moved to Tenggulun to look after his ailing father and spent long months helping his older brothers open their boarding school.
Helena asked Ja'far if he missed Mukhlas now that his brother was in jail. "No," Ja'far said. "I haven't seen him in 10 years." Paridah sat up straight and stared hard at Ja'far. Her alibi for Mukhlas during Jemaah Islamiyah's most violent years was quickly unraveling; Ja'far was contradicting her story.
"When was Mukhlas in Tenggulun?" Helena pressed. "Did he ever work at Al Islam, the boarding school?"
Ja'far did not notice Paridah's face. He continued to talk, and as he did, Paridah's eyes grew increasingly wide and scornful. "He was never here, for a long time," Ja'far said. "He was always moving around. Of course, he preached here a few times, but he was never part of the structure of Al Islam."
Paridah interrupted Ja'far to correct Helena on a translation. She turned to her brother-in-law, glaring, and abruptly asked if he would drive Helena and me to the city. He said he had loaned his car to a friend, but he would try to find us a ride. We stood quickly to leave.
In silence, we walked back to Paridah's house. We reached the porch, and Paridah darted inside. "Poor Paridah," Helena said after she was gone. "She knows she lies. I want her to know that we know. I want to tell her. But now is not the time."
Inside, Paridah was packing cucumbers, Malaysian spices, and taro chips for us to take on the drive. A van pulled up with Ja'far trailing behind on a motorbike. He said the van's driver would take us to the nearest bus stop, at a junction in the next village. But he said we had to leave immediately. We packed our bags and said a rushed and awkward goodbye to Paridah and her in-laws while most of the village looked on.
In the van were two local women covered head-to-toe in black. One of them had taught at Al Islam from 1996 to 2001. Her husband recently had been detained for aiding the Bali attackers. She said her family lived next door to the boarding school, and during those five years she had seen Mukhlas only two or three times.
The driver, a man, was suspicious of our questions. He asked Helena if she was a Muslim. Helena was silent -- she did not say she had been raised a Christian. The driver sped up and dropped us at the bus stop with no word of goodbye.
Hours later, as I waited for a plane back to Jakarta, I noticed that I was still calibrated to life in the village. My blouse was buttoned up to the top, and I was avoiding eye contact with men. I saw a devout couple dressed exactly as Paridah and Mukhlas would dress -- she covered in black, he in a white tunic and cap -- and I found myself wanting to talk to them.
I looked around the airport. None of the other passengers -- mostly middle-class Indonesians wearing jeans and T-shirts -- was smiling at the black-and-white couple. Instead, they cut their conversations mid-sentence to stop and glare, frozen with fear.
Then I remembered the last thing Paridah had said to me. Just as I was stepping into the van to leave Tenggulun, she pulled me back. "Before you go, I want to ask you one more thing," she had said.
"I want to know," she said and paused. "Well, I want to know, weren't you afraid of coming here?"
"Why would I be afraid?"
A few weeks later, back in Jakarta, I read in the Indonesian papers that Paridah, along with her children and Mukhlas' mother, had visited Mukhlas at the prison in Bali where he was awaiting his death sentence. I sent a batch of books to Tenggulun with a letter asking about Mukhlas. But by the time the package reached the village, Paridah was already gone.
The last time I saw Paridah binti Abas was in her home village in southern Malaysia. After months of looking for her, I learned that she had moved back there from Indonesia. Some Malaysian friends helped me locate her family home and phone number. When I called, she told me she didn't really want me to visit. But she said she would allow it because I had worked so hard to track her down.
I flew to Singapore and took the one-hour bus trip to the southern Malaysian city of Johor Bahru. An electronics-manufacturing hub, the region is more developed than where Paridah had been living in rural Indonesia. In Johor, houses with yards and painted siding sit on clean, orderly streets. The six-room house where Paridah's family lives has an indoor kitchen, a working phone line, and a computer.
I stayed for a few days. We cooked, and we stayed up late and talked. Paridah explained why she left Indonesia, where her husband now sits on death row. She said she was having trouble paying the monthly immigration fees that she and five of her six children -- all born in Malaysia -- were required to pay. Her sixth child, Osama, was left in Indonesia with relatives because that's where he was born. Paridah said she was in the process of securing Malaysian citizenship for Osama.
As before, our talks turned to the killing of innocent people and how Paridah felt about it. She said she still was "undecided" about the killing in Bali and other bombings by her husband's organization, Jemaah Islamiyah. She said she "didn't know what to believe" about her husband, his brothers, her brothers -- many of whom are now in prison.
We talked about Nasir, Paridah's brother who had been a Jemaah Islamiyah commander but now is cooperating with authorities. "Maybe someday he will come back to the road from which he went astray," Paridah told me, looking out of the kitchen window toward the canal behind the house. "At least, that's what my father thinks."
Sharp-eyed and slight like his daughter, Paridah's father, Abas bin Yusuf, is under house arrest by Malaysian officials for his involvement in Jemaah Islamiyah, dating back to the group's founding in the 1980s. While I as there, he spent his days smoking, reading, and watching TV. But at least once a day he rode his motorbike toward the center of town, for what he said were meetings with friends. He was kind to me during my stay, in part because, on Paridah's orders, I didn't ask him any questions and was vague about why I was there.
Paridah's younger sister Noorhayati was even more guarded than Abas. Last year, her husband, a Malaysian preacher, was sentenced to three years in an Indonesian prison for helping plan a 2003 suicide car-bombing at the Marriott hotel in Jakarta. That attack killed 12 people.
I was firmer with Paridah than I had been before. I at least wanted to know: Did she consider Bali a justified holy war or a crime? If her son Zaid were to run off to fight in Iraq, would she be happy?
"Yes," she said. "As long as he was sponsored by an international organization that would take care of him when he was hungry or sick -- or apprehended by hostile forces."
Would that be considered a holy war? I asked. If he died fighting soldiers from my hometown, would he be considered a hero, a martyr?
She gave me a look she had given me before, a look that invited me to read her mind. I gathered that the answer was yes.
Since then, we have communicated by e-mail -- at first during my final months living in Jakarta, and now since I have returned to the United States. Her notes seem to be hinting at something that she hopes I will decipher.
In one e-mail, she asked me not to mention our correspondence to her family, saying, "U can guess why ... but please make a smart guess." In another, she wrote a single line about the death of Mukhlas' father back in Indonesia, followed by a parable about an unbeliever who dares to challenge the reasoning of Islam. In the end, the unbeliever is told by a scholar: "If GOD wants, hell will become a very painful place."
Paridah sent one e-mail from Jakarta, on Sept. 8, 2004. She said she was back in Indonesia "trying every possible way" to bring Osama to Malaysia. She said she hoped I was "in the pink of health." The next day, a Daihatsu van sped up to the front gate of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and exploded, blowing through four layers of asphalt road and shattering the windows of surrounding high-rises. The blast killed nine and injured hundreds more. The suicide bomber was a young man from a rural Indonesian village. The men who planned the attack were from Paridah's home province in Malaysia. In the 1990s, they helped Paridah and her husband establish an Islamic boarding school that became a recruiting ground for Jemaah Islamiyah.
Since the Bali, Marriott, and Australian Embassy attacks, authorities have arrested hundreds of members of Jemaah Islamiyah -- including the group's co-founder and spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir -- and it's thought that the organization has been considerably weakened. That said, it's very likely that JI is to blame for a second string of terrorist attacks last month in Bali that killed 23 people, including three suicide bombers. Authorities say the small scale of that attack might mean the group has less money than before and is acting independently of its al-Qaida mentors. But it also means that young men are still willing to die for the idea of a Pan-Islamic state across Southeast Asia.
That Paridah's e-mail came from Jakarta, just one day before the Australian Embassy attack was, I think, a coincidence. But I am convinced that there is something more I was supposed to figure out about that visit to Jakarta. After knowing her for nearly two years, I do not believe that Paridah is attending strategy meetings of Jemaah Islamiyah or helping to plot the next attack. But I do believe that she and her family are serving as some sort of liaison between operatives in Malaysia and Indonesia. I also think she is employing her experience at the boarding school to educate a new generation of militants. Perhaps there is still more for me to decode.
Either way, Paridah seems happier these days. Osama finally received his citizenship and has joined her in Malaysia. Paridah has a new job as a teacher. The children are studying English and martial arts.
When I ask her about the future, though, all Paridah will say is that she is waiting. Waiting for her husband to be executed or to win his appeal, waiting for her brothers to be released from jail. And waiting for that day when a pure, Islamic state will allow us both to live in peace.
Kelly McEvers is a contributor to National Public Radio and a founding editor of www.SixBillion.org.
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