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.”
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 ideasby 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 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.
Tomorrow: “I saw so many body-dead.”