BOOK REVIEW Australia's plucky blond jihadi The Mother of Mohammed by Sally Neighbour
Reviewed by David Wilson
What drives a blonde Australian beach bunny to go on jihad? That extraordinary
question serves as the premise for one of the most absorbing non-fiction titles
to surface this year.
The Mother of Mohammed (MUP) by Australian journalist Sally Neighbour,
48, digs into the background of the beach bunny in question, Rabiah - born
Robyn - Hutchinson, with flair, wit and candor. This book pulls no punches.
"She was a scrawny, pale-skinned runt, with a shock of frizzy white-blonde hair
and an eye-patch she wore from the age of two to correct a severe astigmatism,"
Neighbour writes. "What she
lacked in physical stature she made up for in sheer pluck, as she stumbled
through the bush behind her brother like a pint-sized pirate, game for almost
anything," she adds, before proceeding to document her subject's slide into
radical politics and the surreal exoticism of war-torn Afghanistan.
spent four years working as a doctor in a mujahideen hospital and orphanage on
the Pakistan-Afghanistan border during the Afghan jihad in the early 1990s. She
later returned to Afghanistan under the Taliban and married a leading al-Qaeda
ideologue and member of Osama bin Laden's inner circle. Her fellow jihadis knew
her as "Umm Mohammed", meaning the mother of Mohammed. She has been described
by a former US Central Intelligence Agency agent as "the Elizabeth Taylor of
In the book, the reader enters a world where music is the call of Satan and
mosquitoes are so big that you must tie yourself to your bed to avoid being
carried off into the night. Neighbour knows all about this terrain.
Previously responsible for another, broader book on the link between Australia
and Asian terrorism she is a reporter with Australia's leading investigative
public affairs program, ABC TV's Four Corners, a writer for The
Australian newspaper and the winner of three Walkley Awards for excellence in
journalism. After researching terrorism extensively in the past, she felt that
she was more or less "over" exploring it further, she says.
Still, she remained fascinated by the personal stories of individuals seduced
into the jihad movement, in particular Australians like Jack Thomas, Jack
Roche, Mamdouh Habib and others, whom she spent much time with and grew to know
"I felt that by understanding their journeys we could perhaps understand the
extraordinary appeal and resilience of the global Islamist movement - the most
important political and social movement of the last 20 years, and one that has
re-shaped our world," Neighbour told Asia Times Online.
Neighbour started hearing Rabiah's story years ago while researching her 2004
book In the Shadow of Swords: On the Trail of Terrorism from Afghanistan to
Australia. Neighbour was intrigued by this "tough, feisty" thoroughly
Australian ex-hippy chick who packed up her six kids and joined jihad.
Only later would Neighbour learn that intelligence analysts see Rabiah as the
Australian closest to the top of al-Qaeda. The sheer improbability of how on
earth a girl from Mudgee, New South Wales, could reach that position inspired
her. "Most of all what appealed was that it was just such a great story," she
Still in touch with her 55-year-old subject after meeting her once or twice a
week for over a year and a half, she says she expects their relationship, which
she describes as "close", to continue.
Rabiah now lives in Sydney's southwestern suburbs with her two younger sons.
Her predicament is that she has no passport, thanks to the assessment of her
conducted by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO). She
recently applied for a new one and was told she would have to discuss the issue
with the ASIO.
She resists the idea because she talked to them many times in the past and told
them everything she knows and has nothing more to tell them. Still, she badly
wants to get her passport back because she wants to visit her two daughters who
are living in the Middle East, with her granddaughter and two grandsons, one of
whom was born recently and Rabiah has yet to meet.
Neighbour has yet to hear Rabiah's view on the latest developments in
Afghanistan. Her research for the book ended in December last year when she
submitted the manuscript to her publisher.
Anyway, interaction since then has mostly revolved around socializing and
fact-checking. The book took 18 months to research and write but entailed far
less work than her previous one.
When she set out to write her debut, she had never written for print, only
radio and television. She found that she had to learn how to write. "The
hardest thing was finding my personal style. I started out writing in a very
flowery fashion, with too many descriptions and adjectives, and overly
elaborate sentence structure," she says. "After a lot of practice I discovered
that the personal style that worked best for me was to write quite simply and
By the time she embarked on writing Mother of Mohammed, she had
completed its predecessor and written widely for The Australian newspaper. "So
I had the writing for print thing sorted."
It helped that Rabiah's story was easier to tell than the one in her debut
because it centered on a personal narrative and thus had a natural storyline.
Again unlike in the first book, the amount of research she could do was finite.
The best thing was that Rabiah herself is such a "great talent", Neighbour
says, consciously deploying TV jargon. Rabiah couples an extraordinary memory
for detail with a natural storytelling gift. Altogether, she is a great subject
to work with, Neighbour says.
The hardest part of the process, she adds, was recording a mass of information
about every stage of her life, and then needing to sort it. In addition to
recording Rabiah's version of events, Neighbour had to do plenty of historical
research and find and interview as many people as possible who had known her
plus travel to places in Australia, Indonesia and Afghanistan, which feature in
The toughest compositional challenge was telling her story in a way that was
faithful to her beliefs and experience. Rabiah's cooperation rode on that
While sustaining the professional objectivity and skepticism necessary for any
similar project, she grew to respect and admire Rabiah. Still, she had to focus
on staying detached and keep a critical mind and rigorous approach to the
facts. "I did not want to be accused of being too close to her or too soft on
The part of Rabiah's story that surprised Neighbour most was learning of her
family's direct contacts with Osama Bin Laden and others in the al-Qaeda
leadership. She was also struck by how much light that discovery shed on the
split within al-Qaeda over its use of terrorism, personified by the schism
between Rabiah's husband Abu Walid and Bin Laden.
The key factor in Rabiah becoming embroiled in the global holy war was the
habit, inherited from her grandfather, of seeing things in black and white.
During her exhaustive investigation of Islamic culture, Neighbour herself
became less prone to judge.
Her view toward people that the West sees as Islamic extremists and thus fears
and loathes has changed. "I think words like 'extremist' are bandied around too
readily," she says, suggesting that "extreme" does not necessarily mean
As applies to Rabiah, it is possible for someone to have extreme religious or
political beliefs, without either wanting to force them on others or posing a
threat to people who do not share them.
"Rabiah would like to live in an Islamic state. However, she doesn't think
Australia should be one, or that anyone else should have to live in one unless
they want to."
Australia should, it seems, learn to tolerate others it sees as extreme - like
the people who want to build an Islamic school in Camden, New South Wales - and
realize that their beliefs, extreme or otherwise, pose no threat.
Like many Australians, Neighbour once reacted with horror when she saw a woman
in what she called a burqa although the black Islamic face veil worn by
Salafist women in Australia is actually called a niqab (the burqa
is the Afghan all-in-one gown that covers the face).
Neighbour once saw the veil as a symbol of oppression and ignorance and
tyranny. But she has discovered that women who wear the veil are usually
"tough, independent, feisty, funny and very strong - they have to be to put up
with the abuse they cop".
Now, when Neighbour sees a veil, she just registers a garment that happens to
signify a particular religious belief. "And I know that behind it there is a
woman - just like me."
Neighbour sympathizes with Rabiah "a great deal". What's more, despite not
sharing her views, Neighbour respects and admires the strength of them and her
refusal to compromise.
According to the ASIO, Rabiah only poses a possible risk to the security of
Australia and or other countries if she travels abroad, not if or while she
remains in Australia.
Nor has she ever been accused of that. In fact, Neighbour notes, she says that
she has never even been interviewed by the Australian Federal Police.
Oddly one of the factors cited in her adverse assessment by the ASIO is her
link with the Ahel al Sunna wal Jamaah Association (ASJA), led by Sheik
Mohammed Omran in Melbourne.
"Yet ASJA itself remains a legal entity, and Omran and his cohorts all have
their passports and are free to travel. The assertion by ASIO that Rabiah, if
she travels, might engage in politically motivated violence is not supported by
any evidence that I have come across in nearly two years investigating her."
Still, in answer to the question of whether the former pint-sized pirate will
ever mellow, Neighbour has a simple answer: "No."
The Mother of Mohammed. An Australian Woman's Extraordinary Journey into Jihad
by Sally Neighbour. Melbourne University Press, April 2009. ISBN-10:
0522856683. Price US$34.99, 304 pages.
David Wilson is an Anglo-Australian recovering print journalist with a
special interest in Asia. His work has previously appeared everywhere from the
Malaysia Star to the Times Literary Supplement and International Herald