Visiting the Space Where the Sari Club Used To Be

Paridah with her youngest child, Osama

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 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 put together 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. 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 in order 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.

Tomorrow: “Weren’t you afraid of coming here?”