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. 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. Thesuicide 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.