Allah's Torch: A Report from Behind the Scenes in Asia's War on Terror

Overview

On the front–lines with the building of Al Queda forces in Indonesia both before and after 9/11, written in provocative style by the former Asia bureau chief for Newsweek International.

In Allah's Torch, National Geographic's Tracy Dahlby takes readers into the sprawling, porous, virtually lawless domain of Indonesia, where overlapping lines of radical Islamic rage are now converging in Asia, posing new threats to Westerners at home and abroad....

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Allah's Torch

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Overview

On the front–lines with the building of Al Queda forces in Indonesia both before and after 9/11, written in provocative style by the former Asia bureau chief for Newsweek International.

In Allah's Torch, National Geographic's Tracy Dahlby takes readers into the sprawling, porous, virtually lawless domain of Indonesia, where overlapping lines of radical Islamic rage are now converging in Asia, posing new threats to Westerners at home and abroad.

From the moment the adventure begins, the night the author blunders on board an Indonesian passenger ship with 600 Islamic warriors on an anti–Christian jihad, readers glimpse the passions, politics and personalities fuelling radical Islam's relentless march. We listen as Koran–thumping preachers, hardened holy warriors and fresh–faced recruits, police investigators, military commandos, and spies try to make sense of the epidemic chaos that threatens the region – and now the world beyond.

Based on reporting both before and after September 11, Allah's Torch is an action–packed and thought–provoking narrative that enables readers to see the face of Islamic terror more clearly and assess the threat for themselves.

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Editorial Reviews

Jakarta Post
“A portrait of a religion under change, which can be as thoughtful and as insightful as it is sometimes irreverent.”
Newsweek (International Edition)
Thoughtful and engaging. Dahlby combines the sharp sensitivities of a political observer with an old-fashioned flair for storytelling.
Publishers Weekly
Vast, vital and incredibly diverse economically, socially, ethnically and religiously, the Republic of Indonesia has been hit hard by successive dictatorships, the East Asian recession and religious militants. Dahlby, former Newsweek and Washington Post bureau chief, begins his journalistic account of his pre- and post-9/11 travels there with a study of religious conflict in the Moluccas in 1999. A reluctant interisland passenger along with several hundred Islamic jihadis, he meets a Moluccan elder statesman and his savvy daughter. On a later trip, he finds the country suffering from the aftereffects of 9/11 and American pressure to deal with what is inaccurately perceived as a monolithic jihadist movement-Indonesia's Islam, and its militant factions, are no more monolithic than any other aspect of the country. While he gives short history lessons (on Indonesia's Dutch colonial period, for instance) and cuts to larger current political debates during his journeys, Dahlby stays closer to his own feelings and the logistics of his trips than many readers will want: his style is sometimes positively chatty; he draws on his own politics freely in interpreting his experiences. Yet the writing has a strong visual quality and vividly drawn players given the desperate shortage of popular material on Indonesia, this title helps fill the information gap. Agent, Philip Spitzer. (On sale Jan. 4) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Indonesia, that congeries of 13,677 islands, contains the largest concentration of Muslims in the world. And most of them, it appears, hate America. This is a sudden change of heart, writes former Newsweek International editor Dahlby. In 2000, he notes, 75 percent of Indonesians surveyed in a major poll expressed positive feelings toward the US. Three years later, the figure stood at 15 percent, the result of several factors: perceived American arrogance toward Muslims after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the sudden rise of a powerful Islamist movement openly proposing to turn secular Indonesia into a fundamentalist theocracy. In the company of a long-suffering interpreter named Norman Wibowo (whose "real name was inscribed on the hilt of a kris, or Javanese dagger, buried in a secret vault in old Surakarta"), Dahlby wanders around the Indonesian islands looking for errant terrorists and their supporters, all with an eye to coming up with "a clearer picture of who or what we were up against and what we really meant when we talked about a war on terror." Some of what he turns up is revealing, even if it will seem unhappily familiar: long before al Qaeda made the news, Indonesian police warned the Clinton and then Bush administrations that Islamist factions posed an imminent threat, alerts that were dismissed, Dahlby suggests, because Washington disdains "third-world intelligence." As the bomb attack in Bali in October 2002 shows, the Indonesian police have reason to be concerned; meanwhile, thanks to a young and chronically underemployed population that proves a fertile recruiting ground, the Islamist ranks grow. Regrettably, though, most of Dahlby's narrative takes the form of asometimes cute ("Did I just hear somebody use the phrase 'gross overstatement'?"), sometimes merely self-indulgent travelogue full of set pieces-guerrillas out of Terry and the Pirates, strange food, mysterious rajahs, and so forth-that is at odds with and ultimately undermines the dire import of Dahlby's findings on the ground. Useful, but trying of the patience. Agent: Philip Spitzer/Philip Spitzer Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060561116
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/27/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Tracy Dahlby lived for thirteen years in Asia, where he served as Tokyo bureau chief for Newsweek and the Washington Post, and covered events throughout the region. He has written on Asia for National Geographic magazine, and is the winner of major awards for print journalism and documentary filmmaking.

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First Chapter

Allah's Torch
A Report from Behind the Scenes in Asia's War on Terror

Chapter One

Holy War

May 11, 2000, 7 P.M.

The moon was shining over the harbor at Makassar, the storied old spice port nine hundred miles east of Jakarta, when Norman and I stood in the steamy night, staring up at the huge steel flanks of the interisland passenger liner the M.V. Bukit Siguntang. With its upper decks wrapped around a large single funnel, and bathed in a garish yellow light from intertwining floodlights, the vessel resembled a giant wedding cake from hell. Dozens of embarking passengers, shoving and yelling, and using their luggage as battering rams, fought for a foothold on the rickety gangway. Every now and then, pairs of gimlet-eyed cops in maroon berets and camouflage would yank some poor devil out of the mob, probe his deteriorating cardboard box with the snout of a machine gun, and haul him off into the shadows.

Alarmed by the chaos, I grabbed Norman by the arm, and said, "Remember, pal,we're here for a look -- but that is all. If anything, and I mean anything, seems dangerously out of whack, we're off the ship immediately. Comprendo?"

Norman nodded in agreement,but from the way his eyes dilated with excitement I could tell he wasn't really listening. In the next instant he raced ahead to the base of the gangway, waved for me to join him, and then suddenly disappeared into the levitating mob like a man being sucked up into the bowels of an alien spacecraft.

I froze. Without Norman I was absolutely and forever sunk -- just a confused, ignorant bule, or "white face," stranded on a dock in the middle of nowhere. And so I took a deep breath, walked forward on legs of concrete, and burrowed into the scrum. Halfway up the ramp a blunt object struck me square in the forehead -- thunk! -- and my skull rang like a brass bowl.When the ringing stopped, I was inside the belly of the ship.

It was dark and strange in there, the underpowered fluorescent tubes casting everything in a sickly greenish hue -- the long rows of wooden bunks, the surging crowd, the sea of oily bobbing heads. But when I finally managed to locate Norman in the mob and we reached the broad lobby outside the first-class cabins, there was something far more sinister to worry about. All around us now, hunkered down on dirty strips of cardboard or old pieces of straw matting, were large numbers of very unhappy-looking young men.

Mostly in their late teens or early twenties, and eerily silent to a man, they had the look of shipwreck survivors clinging to the wreckage. Those not rocking on their haunches, mumbling noiselessly over dog-eared copies of the Koran, stared fixedly into the middle distance. And unless I very badly missed my guess, I knew that we were staring into the face of a shadowy new Islamic terror brigade calling itself the Laskar Jihad, or Holy War Army.


I can't say we hadn't been forewarned. The Jihad's founder and spiritual leader, a man named Jaffar Umar Thalib, had vowed for weeks now to hurl his holy warriors at eastern Indonesia's far Molucca Islands, which happened to be our destination, too. Jaffar held the view, shared by many local Islamists, that a United Nations–sponsored independence referendum in predominantly Christian East Timor in 1999 had been part of an evil scheme hatched by then-president Bill Clinton (who was identified in militant propaganda as head of something called the "American Church") and his fellow capitalist cronies to break up Indonesia by creating a Christian republic in its distant watery gut.

It was to thwart that alleged plot that Jaffar had publicly proclaimed the establishment of the Jihad in January 2000 from his base in Central Java.And now, four months later, he boasted a strike force of ten thousand fighters, the largest of a small but dangerous constellation of radical Islamic organizations using reformasi freedoms jujitsu-style to undermine democratic society by raising private armies. Jaffar's call to adventure in defense of Islam was particularly popular with the alienated young men from Java's impoverished tobacco- and coffee-farming belts, and delicious paranoia made the glory of dying shahid -- a martyr for Islam -- all the sweeter.

In Jakarta, meanwhile, Jaffar's threats of holy way had duly alarmed President Abdurrahman Wahid, a moderate Muslim cleric and Indonesia's first democratically elected leader since 1955. But when Wahid sent an order for Jaffar's arrest through constitutional channels, to both his armed forces chief of staff and his civilian defense minister, he was promptly ignored. Indonesia's military didn't cotton to Wahid's reformist plans to curb its vast powers, and so in the great wormy can of Indonesian politics, the Laskar Jihad had become -- as an authoritative report published by the Brusselsbased International Crisis Group, later put it -- "the greatest symbol of the government's impotence."

Allah's Torch
A Report from Behind the Scenes in Asia's War on Terror
. Copyright © by Tracy Dahlby. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2005

    Interesting travellogue and politics

    I picked up this book because I have recently become interested in Indonesia (I am studying silat - an indigenous Indonesian martial art). The title of this book is a bit deceiving, because it sounds so stern and dry. Yet, the book is really a type of travelogue, by an American from New York, with his guide, 'Norman'. The book is pretty funny and the writer has a good sense of humor. I think that at times it is 'black humor', because really, sometimes you need that to not 'freak out' (the author often gets into situations in which he doesn't know if the person he is interviewing is going to laugh and joke with him, or have him killed!). I admire the author's courage and humor. His insights are interesting, and the book provided me with not only an insight into modern, post-9/11 Indonesia, but also: Indonesian history (the Dutch colonial masters, who don't sound like they treated the Indonesians well, and who themselves lived pretty 'cruddy' lives far from home), and Islam in general. The picture of Islam that comes out is one that shows how complex Islam is. I would recommend this book not just for anyone interested in Indonesia, but also for anyone interested in Islam. I just wish the author had talked to more moderate Muslims, because I think that Indonesia is full of them. He did talk mostly to the 'radicals'. But on the other hand, in college in 1984, I had a Malaysian guy on my floor who had some very 'radical' thoughts on religion along the lines of ('in Islam, we are told to try to convert a non-believer. If he says no, we ask again. If he says no again, we insist. Then, on the third no, we chop his head off'). Maybe southeast Asia really IS like that. I hope not, though. I also wish the author had left out the unnecessary 'Bush bashing'. For instance, he once writes that Bush's attack on Afghanistan had 'merely expanded that circumference of our ignorance'. I doubt that the women in Afghanistan - who can vote for the first time in their lives - would agree with him on that. I mean, it is his opinion, but I found that it was really not related to southeast Asia, and the book really is peppered with comments like that. For me, that detracted from the book a bit, but I would still highgly recommend the book.

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