Anti-American "Training Camp" -- or "Circus Act"?

Gullible teens, an imam/magician, and plenty of threatening talk helped me fathom how easily young Muslim soldiers can be recruited

By Michael Shari

It was Naufal Dunggio's first meal ever at a five-star hotel. Would he prefer à la carte or the buffet, asked the waiter at the Mandarin Oriental in Jakarta? Dunggio, sporting a severe crewcut and a long-sleeved shirt of fluorescent orange, lowered his head, pursed his lips suspiciously, and asked my interpreter what a buffet was. After several minutes of back-and-forth, he was eventually persuaded that he could, indeed, serve himself as many times as he liked. Then, ordering coffee, he glazed over at the dizzying spectrum of choices from regular to latte before settling on cappuccino.

If Dunggio struggled with the menu, he was in his element when it came discussing his line of work. The fast-talking, 32-year-old secretary general of the Hizbulloh Front -- which claims no link to the similarly-spelled Middle Eastern terrorist organization -- described the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center as a plot by Israel, preposterous as that sounds.

"I strongly believe that Mossad agents were behind all of this," he said, referring to Israeli intelligence. He claimed CNN showed "four Jews dancing and screaming in New York" immediately after the World Trade Center collapsed. Another piece of "evidence" in Dunggio's repertoire: "Two thousand to 4,000 Jews took off from work at the World Trade Center before the incident."


  That's why, he said, the Hizbulloh Front is now recruiting Indonesian kids to expel American and British expatriates, tourists, and diplomats from Indonesia. The organization also plans to send some of the 22,800 members he claims it has to fight alongside their Afghan "brothers and sisters" against the U.S. and Britain, now that air strikes have begun. Young and eager warriors are being prepared for this "jihad" at a "training camp" half an hour from the hotel, he said.

Dunggio, who is also a lecturer in political science at the little-known Ibnu Chaldun Jakarta University, never mentioned that the recruits are young, unemployed teenage boys with a junior high school education. Many are malleable youngsters who can be trained to sacrifice themselves for a cause they don't understand.

In collaboration with other radical groups such as Laskar Jihad (Holy War Soldiers) and the Islamic Defenders Front, thousands of street urchins like these have been turned into "soldiers" who have died fighting non-Muslim minorities in Ambon and Lombok in the remote reaches of the Indonesian archipelago. Now, Dunggio said, they can be deployed on any "battlefield," from the five-star hotels of Jakarta to the barren crags of Afghanistan.


  Later, we visited the Hizbulloh Front "training camp," which turned out to be the backyard of a house on the suburban outskirts of Jakarta. I was not blindfolded, but there's no way I could retrace my way to it through the maze of streets and lanes that we traveled for half an hour from the city center. To avoid the unwelcome attention that foreign visitors attract, the 50 recruits attended this training session indoors, in a large, featureless living room that had no furniture. A two-person Dutch TV crew came along -- the first time journalists had visited the place.

On the instructions of an Indonesian imam, or Islamic cleric, who wore a prayer cap and a cotton tunic, a recruit crushed a fluorescent light bulb in a salad bowl with his bare right hand, grinding the pieces into small shards until his palm bled. Then he washed his hands in a sink and, on the imam's instructions, placed the glass shards in his mouth and chewed them. I could hear the glass crunching between his teeth. The imam prayed and instructed the youth to stick out his tongue, which he did, whimpering. As if by magic, there was no blood on his tongue.

Then the imam instructed a Dutch woman from the TV crew to stand still in the middle of the room. She complied. The imam armed her with a two-inch-long brass dagger that was scented with a "spiritual" perfume. Then one of the recruits stood up and lunged at her suddenly. The youth fell to the floor, as if by magic, and writhed as if his body had been possessed. The recruits, sitting around the edge of the living room floor, ooohed and ahhhed.


  Next, the imam instructed me to stand up in the middle of the room. He did not arm me with any weapon. Instead, he stood behind me and passed his hands over my shoulders, arms, and upper back. He began to pray in Arabic. At that moment, an older man wearing a prayer cap and tunic, who had been sitting behind the recruits, stood up and unsheathed a foot-long "kris," a wavy-bladed Javanese dagger.

He took a position about 10 feet in front of me, raised the dagger above his head, opened his mouth as if to issue a war cry and prepared to lunge at me. No need to fear, the imam was declaring: I now possessed "spiritual protection" from "physical attack," and Secretary General Dunggio was bracing me with a hand on my right shoulderblade. It was all too much for me. Then I said, loudly, "I'm sorry, but I will NOT do this."

The recruits all broke out in good-natured laughter. A couple of them invited me to sit next to them at a safer location near the wall and huddled close, as if to protect me. But my would-be attacker looked grave, perhaps even disappointed. The imam and Dunggio broke out into spontaneous giggles and chatter about the "weak Americans." The imam, gesturing theatrically, said, "The Americans have powerful weapons, but we have inner spiritual strength."


  Then, in an effort to demonstrate that they wouldn't have harmed me -- at least not then, not there -- the imam ordered a recruit to take my place. And then, oddly, another recruit replaced the man who had wielded the kris, and lunged at the new target. He was thrown back by the "spiritual force" -- or threw himself back -- onto the floor, and then writhed, as if possessed, his hands flailing, the kris blade slicing the air a few inches from my knee.

I returned to the Mandarin hotel by taxi, uninjured and much better informed about the "training" involved in Indonesia's anti-American jihad. As far as I can tell, what I witnessed was an amateur circus act that was intended to whip up the morale of young, unemployed, uneducated Indonesians who might not otherwise have hated Americans.

Still, the U.S. embassy is taking the threat to heart. A notice posted on its Web site on Oct. 8 allows all embassy staff to take "authorized departure" -- in other words, evacuate -- and advises American citizens in Indonesia to stay home and avoid public places. So far, some embassy staff have chosen to evacuate, an embassy source told BusinessWeek Online. The source, who declined to go into detail, said the embassy considered "the threat from the Hizbulloh Front" to be "serious" and was taking "appropriate security precautions." The most obvious precautions as of Oct. 8 were concertina-wire barricades and four Indonesian police armored cars.

It's not hard to imagine why. Dunggio says his men are preparing to "sweep across Indonesia" and expel the thousands of resident Americans and Britons in their path. "We'll strike suddenly and without warning," he says. "Maybe not today, maybe tomorrow. Maybe in the night."

Shari is the Singapore bureau chief for BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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