INSIDE a modest whitewashed house, where two innocent children are playing, a tragedy in two acts is destroying the family of Azahari bin Husin.
The intelligence services of a dozen nations are on his trail to stop him slaughtering more people in a “holy war” for which he abandoned his home and put the analytical skills he acquired in a British university at the service of Al-Qaeda.
Last Saturday’s suicide bombings in Bali, which claimed the lives of 19 victims and three “martyrs”, were attributed by police to his group. So urgent is the hunt that the United States last week offered a $10m (£5.6m) reward for the capture or death of Azahari’s top electronics expert, Amar Usman, 32, alias Dulmatin, who is believed to devise the bombs.
Officers from Malaysia’s special branch have been questioning Azahari’s neighbours, who point at the house past the three coconut palms in a quiet street and know its inhabitants are under watch.
But a second, more intimate cruelty is consuming Azahari’s loved ones. The wife he walked away from in 2001, Nur Aini, a bespectacled teacher, is stricken with throat cancer. She is now so sick that her mother and members of the extended family look after her little boy and girl. And she has not seen or heard from her college sweetheart since the day he left. “She’s mentally tortured,” said the imam of her local mosque. “What wife wouldn’t be?”
“Please go away and leave us in peace,” said her mother, Hajah Esah Lasom. “She cannot talk to you.” Nur Aini literally cannot speak. Surgery for the cancer has left her in a grave condition and she attends hospital four days a week. But in her only known interview, late last year, she wrote down answers to a Malaysian journalist’s questions and gave a rare glimpse of the pain endured by the women whose men have embraced jihad.
She said Azahari seemed traumatised by her illness. “He started praying a lot when I was diagnosed with cancer. But isn’t that a natural thing to do? Especially for someone you love?” she asked.
When he left his family, he did so saying he had found “a greater cause, to serve God”.
The two clever young academics had shared both family and working life, teaching in Indonesia and then at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur.
“We were so close,” said Nur Aini. “We talked a lot and shared a lot of things. Now I don’t even know where he is. There was never a day we didn’t talk to each other. Now I have not heard his voice in such a long time.”
When he went on the run, she lost her job despite her sickness. “Initially I was using a loudspeaker to lecture. But then things got worse. Azahari was alleged to be a militant. The university sacked me,” she wrote.
“I mean he prayed and was a religious person. But not someone I would say is a fanatic. This comes as a surprise to me,” she said. “This life is unbearable for me. I love him and miss him so much. Look at the kids. He is not here. They live on charity from the family. It is so embarrassing.”
She spends as much time as she can with the children but cannot teach or play with them because her throat hurts if she exerts herself.
“I would be happy if he could at least call,” she said. “I need to talk to him. I need to ask him about the media headlines and his alleged role in Jemaah Islamiya.” Unfortunately for Nur Aini, the number of people who need to talk to Azahari has since multiplied.
Last weekend’s Bali bombings were the fourth atrocity laid to Azahari’s account after the attacks that killed 202 people in Bali three years ago, a blast at the Jakarta Marriott hotel in 2003 and the suicide bombing of Australia’s embassy in the Indonesian capital in 2004. Jemaah Islamiya (JI), the southeast Asian affiliate of Al-Qaeda, remains lethal.
Now 45, Azahari started out as the model of a cosmopolitan young Malaysian. He went to Adelaide University, where he was remembered for sport, partying and a penchant for motorbikes. In the 1980s he did a doctorate in real estate at Reading University, which says he appeared to be “a completely normal student”.
He applied his skill in statistics to analysing the property markets as Asia boomed in the 1990s, attending conferences and writing half a dozen books on real estate management.
The turning point came when Azahari joined a religious studies group in Malaysia founded by the radical preacher Abu Bakar Bashir and by the late Abdullah Sungkar. They were the spiritual founders of JI.
In early 1998 Azahari took sabbatical leave and went to the southern Philippines for months of clandestine military training. The next year he left for Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he trained with explosives as a guest of the Taliban.
His mentor was the best: Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, the top Al-Qaeda man in southeast Asia, now in the hands of the CIA. And his planning work was good: Indonesian police seized a bomb-making manual written by him and a set of Arabic manuscripts on warfare which he seems to have mastered with ease.
“He was always a very nice man,” said the next-door neighbour. “I used to let him park his car in my drive.”
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"