Now known as Rabiah she went on to become a trusted insider of the Al Qaeda leadership. She married a leading al Qaeda strategist and was also handpicked by Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman Al Zawahiri to set up a new women's hospital in Kandahar.
Presenter: Joanna McCarthy
Speaker: Sally Neighbour, a journalist with the Australian newspaper and ABC-TV's Four Corners program and author of The Mother of Mohammed: An Australian Woman's Extraordinary Jouney into Jihad
NEIGHBOUR: A lot had been written about Rabiah, some of it by me I should add, a lot of stories about her connections to the jihad movement. I had written about her marriage to this leading al Qaeda figure, Abu Walid al-Masri, her links with al Zawahiri, the fact that he had asked her to set up a hospital. She was frustrated with having stories written about her that she had no input into. So we finally met. It took me a long time to get to meet her, by the way, and an even longer time to persuade her, but ultimately I was able to persuade her that I would tell her story in a way that was faithful to her. So a lot of it was us establishing a connection, her finally beginning to trust me, and the fact that she wanted to set the record straight and have her story told in a way that was accurate and faithful to her beliefs and her experience.
McCARTHY: Well, let's go to the very beginning of her journey and Rabiah's political activism really began in the anti-Suharto student movement, while she was still a university student. How did that experience shape the rest of her life?
NEIGHBOUR: She wasn't actually a university student herself at that point, but on one of her many trips to Indonesia, in the mid-1980s, she met up with a group of students. She had been a Muslim for some years, having converted to Islam on her first visit to Indonesia and she met up and got involved with this group of university students who were part of the resistance movement against Suharto. And it was during that time, that she really came to see Islam, not just a matter of personal faith, but as essentially a political belief system too, as an all encompassing way of social life, religious life and also political life and came to believe that Muslims should be governed by Islamic law, because it was in her view the perfect system and in the view of the Muslims who were agitating for it in Indonesia at the time.
McCARTHY: And she came to enjoy a very close personal relationship with Indonesian cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir and his wife, sponsoring his trip to Australia in the 1980s. What were her impressions of Bashir?
NEIGHBOUR: She's very fond of Bashir. She speaks of great fondness of him still. And remember this was back in the 1980s, so it was well before the formation of JI. At this time, Bashir's movement, which was known as Darul Islam at the time, was largely a political movement. Bashir had been imprisoned under Suharto and had been deemed to be a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International who'd been essentially imprisoned for his political and religious belief. So, to her, Bashir was a heroic figure and was a very important figure in her conversion to I guess radical Islam, if you like, political Islam.
McCARTHY: And Rabiah later decides to move to Pakistan and she arrives there without a husband and with her children in tow. How was she regarded?
NEIGHBOUR: Well, people were, as she tells it, amazed to see this woman in her 30s just show up with five children, saying I am here to join the jihad like everybody else. In the circles that she moved in, it was almost unheard of for a woman to be married. In extremely devout Islamic circles, women are simply expected to be married. They are not expected to travel without their "mahram" - which is their husband or male relative to escort them. They're really expected to be married almost as a matter of requirement. So people were pretty stunned, but she established a role for herself there. She got a job in the Mujahideen hospital and orphanage and was soon accepted as one of them.
McCARTHY: And what did this mean, what did joining the jihad mean to her?
NEIGHBOUR: Well, as you know, jihad has numerous meanings. While it is often described as being military jihad, I mean jihad actually means personal struggle or striving. And Rabiah said her jihad was to go and work with the refugees. As you know, there were millions of refugees in the Afghan conflict, living in and around Peshawar, and its vast refugee camps at the time, a major humanitarian crisis. So she wanted to go and work with the refugees. And so as she tells it, her jihad was to help these people, to do what she could to help people who were in a very dire situation.
McCARTHY: And to what extent did Rabiah condone the violence of the global jihad?
NEIGHBOUR: Well, at that time, of course, it was before the jihadists, it was by and large before the jihadists had turned to terrorism, so at that point, it was certainly a military movement, particularly in Afghanistan to establish Islamic law and she is one of those who believes it's justified to use military force to defend Muslims who are under siege or being oppressed and also to fight for an Islamic state. She doesn't condone terrorism and this was in the days before the jihadists resorted to terrorism.
McCARTHY: Rabiah moves to Afghanistan in 2000, and she married Abu Walid, who the former right hand man of Osama bin Laden and a member of the al Qaeda Shura, or governing council. How close was she to the al Qaeda leadership and what's her relationship with them now?
NEIGHBOUR: Well, she was married, as you say, to a member of the al Qaeda leadership, I should say. Abu Walid is a fascinating character. A lot is known about him, because he was a prolific writer. He worked for Al Jazeera, he was an author who wrote a very long history of the jihadist movement. And Abu Walid also always differed with bin Laden on the resort to terrorism. There was a small group within the al Qaeda leadership who opposed the use of terrorism, who opposed the attacks on September 11 before they occurred and whose views bin Laden ... disregarded and so there was this split in the al Qaeda leadership and Abu Walid later became a vehement critic of bin Laden, said he had destroyed Afghanistan and destroyed the movement through his attacks on September 11 and the other terrorist attacks. So she was very close to the al Qaeda leadership, but close to the more dovish part of it.