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

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

by Tracy Dahlby

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Indonesia, Southeast Asia—is the world's largest muslim nation an emerging front in the war on terrorism?

One night in 2000, veteran journalist Tracy Dahlby blundered on board an Indonesian passenger ship carrying six hundred Islamic warriors on an anti-Christian holy war. Once a fabled destination for European merchants, the Spice Islands had become


Indonesia, Southeast Asia—is the world's largest muslim nation an emerging front in the war on terrorism?

One night in 2000, veteran journalist Tracy Dahlby blundered on board an Indonesian passenger ship carrying six hundred Islamic warriors on an anti-Christian holy war. Once a fabled destination for European merchants, the Spice Islands had become the bull's-eye for jihadis looking to transport their destructive passions into a sprawling, porous, virtually lawless region. In October 2003, similar passions hit the resort island of Bali, where nightclub bombings killed 202 people, mainly foreign tourists. An exhilarating reporting adventure, Allah's Torch illuminates an exotic corner of the globe, revealing both its inescapable charms and pockets of Islamic rage that, as the repeat attack on Bali in late 2005 chillingly illustrates, pose an ongoing threat to global stability and America's vital interests.

Editorial Reviews

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
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.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.05(d)

Read an Excerpt

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.

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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