A Woman at the Center of the Southeast Asian Jihad

Paridah binti Abas in her husband's home village of Tenggulun, Indonesia, with her eldest son, Zaid. Click image to expand.
Paridah binti Abas in her husband’s home village of Tenggulun, Indonesia, with her eldest son, Zaid

On Oct. 12, 2002, the night of the first terrorist attack in Bali, Paridah binti Abas was four weeks pregnant. She was living in Gresik, a mid-sized Indonesian city where factory workers occupy small two- and three-room houses along crowded streets of dirt and gravel. 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 for more than a year I followed her 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 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 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, or full head and face covering, 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.

Tomorrow: “I decided to myself, ‘Maybe I am destined to learn the Quran.’ ”