Trinidad and Tobago: An inquiry on how a peaceful and multi-religious country became one of the largest basins for Daesh recruitment in the Western Hemisphere

By Emanuel Pietrobon

Trinidad and Tobago is an insular state of Caribbean America, a nation that, along with Suriname and Guyana, possesses a historical tradition of religious pluralism that includes a substantial Islamic community. A 2011 census of the population describes a multi-faith panorama composed of Catholics (21.6%), Hindus (18.2%), Pentecostals (12.0%), Anglicans (5.7%), Baptists (5.7), Muslims (5%), and a number of other faith groups.

Although Islam is the smallest among the majoritarian beliefs, it has played and plays an important role in society. Several celebrities, public figures, politicians, and thinkers are known to be practicing Muslims; among them are the philosopher Imran Hosein and the former president Noor Hassanali, the “first Muslim head of state in the Americas.”

Trinidad and Tobago is the only country in the continent with a history of political and militant Islam. The country also represents a unique paradigm in Latin America, as it has become the largest Daesh recruitment basin in the region, presenting “one of the highest per capita rates of foreign fighters in the world” of the Western Hemisphere: 36 foreign fighters per capita and 616 foreign fighters per capita of Muslims joined Daesh.

To understand what factors have led to radicalization in a country historically built on the crossroads of different cultures, religions, and civilizations peacefully coexisting for centuries, it is necessary to analyze the Trinidad society more in depth.

The history of political Islam in Trinidad and Tobago began in the 1980s, with the founding of Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JaM), currently headed by Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, born Lennox Philip. JaM is a semi-religious organization still active today that is involved in terrorist attacks, and likely finances its social and religious activities through illicit trafficking of weapons, drugs, and kidnappings. The ideological apparatus of JaM is based on an extremist application of Sunnism mixed with elements of black nationalism and black separatism.

On July 27, 1990, 250 members of JaM attempted to overthrow the government, assaulting parliament and taking hostages, including former Prime Minister Arthur Raymond Robinson. The crisis ceased on August 1, with a total of 24 deaths. The executive granted amnesty to Abu Bakr and his men, and decided not to dissolve the organization. This uprising was the first time in the Americas that an Islamist terrorist organization attempted a coup d’état.

The lack of information about JaM – especially about the origins of part of the available money used to build cultural centers and mosques, carry out social activities, and build real arsenals – pushed national and US authorities to investigate the possible existence of external lenders. In fact, some investigations seemed to confirm that the group received close to two hundred thousand dollars, in the form of charitable donations and aid, by Libyan organizations linked to Muammar Gaddafi, who was supposedly interested in exploiting the Trinidadian Islamic community for anti-American purposes, and by Saudi Arabia.

From 1990 until today, JaM has continued to carry out illegal and undemocratic activities, both at home and abroad, as evidenced by their involvement in an attempted terrorist attack on John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City in 2007 and their attempt in 2015 to help members escape from jail. Furthermore, JaM has been accused of establishing worldwide ties with the most prominent Islamist terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Daesh, and of doing business with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Venezuelan narcos.

Over the past 28 years, Trinidadian society has changed deeply, especially from the religious point of view, due to the effects of a partial secularization that has laicized a large part of the masses adhering to Christian confessions. This secularization, however, strengthened the religious identity of the growing Islamic community and gave birth to an extensive phenomena of radicalization. Currently, anthropologists and sociologists are investigating the causes behind this radicalization in order to provide policy solutions to contrast it.

The explosiveness of the radicalizing process has fully emerged since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the birth of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in 2014. From then on, Trinidad and Tobago became one of the major centers of recruitment for Daesh. From 100 to over 400 people left the country to join the Daesh army, and JaM had an important role in recruitment and proselytism, as evidenced by the public support for the jihadist cause shown by Abu Bakr, the group’s undying leader.

The anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric is also increasing among other national Islamic organizations, such as the Trinidadian Islamic Front led by Umar Abdullah – which is categorized as a “potential threat” by the Israeli writer and academic Barry Rubin.

Rubin has analyzed the origins of political Islam and radicalization in Trinidad and Tobago, and has  underlined the important role played by the revolutionary Black Power movement. This group tried to lead a racial revolution in the country during the 1960s and 70s with the aim of establishing a new political and social order of afrocentric nature. The cultural influence of the movement, according to Rubin, influenced the following generations of Afro-Trinidadians, many of whom were Muslims, and the ideologies of important movements such as JaM and the Trinidad Islamic Front.

According to the anthropologist Dylan Kerrigan, most of the Trinidadian fighters were collected in the criminal underworld and convinced through the opportunity of the economic return. The existence of radicalization is undeniable especially among young people and even among the wealthiest classes, as shown by Tariq Abdul Haqq, a national boxer and medalist at the Commonwealth games, who died somewhere in the Middle East. Haqq was radicalized in Trinidad and Tobago and decided to leave his athletic career and to join Daesh.

An important study on the roots of radicalization in Trinidad and Tobago was conducted by political scientists John McCoy and Andy Knight of the University of Alberta in 2017 and is titled “Homegrown Violent Extremism in Trinidad and Tobago: Local Patterns, Global Trends.” The results of the study received the attention of the United Nations, who plans to use it to formulate its approaches to prevent and contrast radicalization.

McCoy and Knight highlighted Trinidad and Tobago’s tradition of political violence mixed with religious radicalism by emphasizing the failed revolutionary experiments of black suprematists and terrorists of JaM. According to them, these groups matured in a context of endemic poverty, rampant criminality, and social marginalization – which were skillfully exploited by organizations like Al Qaeda and Daesh to recruit new soldiers, especially among the converts. McCoy and Knight also found the existence of gated communities inhabited exclusively by Muslims, which are characterized by visits of Saudi citizens with short-stay visas of three months.

The inconsistency of the police apparatus and the unpreparedness of the security services and social staff in the penitentiary structures and poorer neighborhoods facilitated the proselytizing and recruitment activities of the preaching agents on behalf of the terrorist organizations operating in their homeland – as JaM, and abroad like Daesh and Al Qaeda, especially for young people aged between 16 and 25 from the poorest classes in the country.

Youth distress, poverty and religious illiteracy, accompanied by the existence of cultural phenomena imported from the United States – such as the black nationalism of the Black Power Movement and the racial and religious separatism of the Nation of Islam (NoI) – facilitated the engraftment and ideological grip of the various jihadist ideologies on part of the Afro-Trinidadian Islamic community.

The role of the NoI in the radicalization of the Afro-Trinidadian Muslims is often underestimated or ignored, even if it is a strictly controlled black separatist organization in the United States. The NoI began its activities in Trinidad and Tobago in 1993 with the arrival of David Muhammad, a charismatic preacher from the United Kingdom. Over the years, Muhammad has become a public figure in the country, has authored books on the relationship between Islam and black identity, has led a radio program, “The Black Agenda,” focused on interracial relations in the Caribbean, and is the representative of the NoI in the Eastern Caribbean.

Under the leadership of Muhammad, the NoI acquired lands in Trinidad and Tobago, and established links with JaM – as shown by the presence of Abu Bakr at a NoI-related event in the country. In addition, NoI directs activities in support of Afro-Trinidadian community and it is particularly active in penitentiaries.

The aims of Islamist terrorist organizations in Trinidad and Tobago and the radicalization issue have attracted the attention of the United States. In February 2017, Donald Trump discussed regional security with Keith Rowley, the country’s prime minister, over concerns of terrorism or even the possibility of extremists taking advantage of the visa system to carry out attacks in Florida.

The two countries have collaborated in the fight against terrorism. It is precisely in the context of this collaboration that in February 2018 a joint operation between Trinidad’s police and the United States military prevented a terrorist attack against the Carnival in Port of Spain, leading to the arrest of four individuals.

However, the Trinidadian situation is at high risk, and the lack of preparation and inefficiency of the security services and police forces, accompanied by political immobility, have allowed radical Islam to proliferate undisturbed. This proliferation has created religious and racial enclaves in the country that was historically founded on the coexistence of different ethnic groups and faiths, radicalizing large sections of the Afro-Trinidadian Islamic population.

The only possible solutions to the Trinidadian question were provided by foreign experts such as Andy Knight and John McCoy, while at home an anti-terrorist governmental unit was only established very recently, at the end of 2015. To date, JaM continues to be publicly recognized despite an attempted coup, their implication in illicit trafficking, their rhetoric imbued with anti-Westernism and Islamic supremacism, their open support for Al Qaeda and Daesh, and their involvement in proselytism and recruitment for them.

Emanuel Pietrobon, an undergraduate student of Development and International Cooperation Sciences at University of Turin, is currently in Lodz (Poland) after winning a 6-month Erasmus scholarship in Information and Communication Sciences at the Academy of Humanities and Economics. Emanuel is interested in international relations, geopolitics, strategies for covered wars, the political and social role of christianity in the world, religion and politics, society, and scenario analysis.

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