Trinidad, a South African nation usually considered part of the Caribbean, may be home to a population of just 1.3 million.
But it’s one of the biggest recruiting grounds for ISIS — and so is neighboring, and equally small, Tobago.
So how does that happen?
The Guardian reports:
Five years ago, Tariq Abdul Haqq was one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most promising young boxers, a Commonwealth Games medallist with Olympic dreams.
Now he lies dead somewhere in Iraq or Syria, buried in the ruins of the self-declared caliphate, along with dozens of his countrymen. Together they formed one of the most unlikely, and most underreported groups of fighters drawn to Isis.
The tiny Caribbean nation, with a population of just 1.3 million, lies about 10,000km from the former Isis capital in Raqqa. Yet at the bloody peak of the group’s power, Trinidad and Tobago had one of the highest recruitment rates in the world.
More than 100 of its citizens left to join Islamic State, including about 70 men who planned to fight and die. They were joined by dozens of children and women, the latter including both willing and unwilling companions, security officials say.
By way of comparison: Canada and the US, with populations many times larger, are each thought to have produced fewer than 300 recruits who made the journey east.
The power of this story – the flight from a balmy Caribbean island state rich in oil and gas to the frontlines of a desert war – was not lost on the propagandists of Isis.
Their Dabiq magazine, aimed at potential recruits and sympathisers, featured a long interview with fighter Abu Sa’d al-Trinidadi – formerly Shane Crawford – in the summer of 2016. He detailed his conversion, his trip to Syria and ended threatening death to Christians and bloodshed in the streets of his former home.
An unnerved Trinidad government raced to introduce new controls on travel and finance that would make the journey to any new jihadi project harder, and would track anyone attempting to return.
There has never been a terror attack on the islands, a plot uncovered, or even any formal Isis threat against Trinidad and Tobago.
But the country now faces the possibility that citizens trained by Isis could return to radicalise a younger generation – or that would-be recruits no longer able to make that dark pilgrimage will seek other targets for extremism.
The island has a thriving international oil and gas industry, and for the US there are potential worries about a more direct threat. Trinidad’s citizens can travel through the Caribbean without visas, and a Trinidadian has already been jailed for his role in a 2007 plot to attack New York’s JFK airport.
Within a month of taking office, Donald Trump called Trinidad’s prime minister, Keith Rowley, to discuss terrorism. The UK government has also recently warned of possible terrorist attacks in the country – although it issued similar travel warnings for countries including Spain and France.
Trinidad’s Muslims make up around one in 10 of the country’s population, and the overwhelming majority follow moderate forms of Islam.
But a tiny minority have been drawn to a more extreme creed. In 1990 a group called Jamaat al Muslimeen launched the western hemisphere’s first and only Islamist coup attempt, taking the prime minister and legislators hostage for several days.
Eventually the army regained control, but the imam behind the coup, Yasin Abu Bakr, was released from jail within a couple of years under an amnesty deal and has resumed preaching.
At a sermon recently attended by the Guardian, Abu Bakr argued that European nations had no moral grounds to criticise Isis beheadings, because of the use of the guillotine during the French revolution.
The attorney general, Faris Al Rawi, denied that Trinidad had a particular problem with Isis recruitment or religious extremism.
“The number may look larger than somewhere else, but I don’t accept for one moment that we have a problem that is much larger than anywhere else,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think that we are any more vulnerable than any other country is.”
For many Trinidadian Isis recruits, religion was more excuse than driving motivation, said anthropologist Dylan Kerrigan, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies.
Young men, many of them recent converts, were drawn to the caliphate mostly by promises of money and a sense of community – an appeal similar to that of gangs in an increasingly violent country, he said.
“[A gang] provides a family, male role models, social order and it promises access to what many young men might think they want: money, power, women, respect,” said Kerrigan who has researched extremism for UN counter-terrorism units.
“[One] imam told me that instead of joining a local gang, some see traveling to the Middle East as like joining another gang.”
Al Rawi said a string of new measures, including intelligence sharing with the US, UK and Israel, mean it will be very hard for those who have left to slip back into Trinidad undetected.
People who knew some of the Isis volunteers say most of them – and some of their dependents – are dead. The only Trinidadians known to have returned to the island were a family group picked up from a Turkish refugee camp, after apparently trying and failing to reach Isis-held territory. They are now under close surveillance, Faris said.
He dismissed concerns about further radicalisation, arguing that many of those who travelled to Syria were simply criminals looking to return with an extra edge over rivals.
“There are many people who are willing to make a trip to a war-torn area just to say you have been there – for the ‘cred’,” he said. “You have to disaggregate the genuine jihadi – who may potentially die as a martyr for a cause – from a pure criminal borrowing the look and persona of terrorism.”
Joining Isis may also have offered a practical escape to those facing the law. Before he was lionized in Dabiq, Shane Crawford, was a petty criminal who had been detained several times including on suspicion of planning to assassinate the then prime minister. He travelled to Syria with two friends who had been released from jail pending an investigation.
But some members of prominent families were drawn in too – perhaps none more high-profile than boxer Tariq Abdul Haqq. His aunt, Pamela Elder, is one of the country’s most respected lawyers and his father Yacoob Abdul Haqq had been a senior boxing official until his 2012 death.
Abdul Haqq was also an acquaintance of Fuad Abu Bakr, the son and heir apparent of the 1990 coup leader Abu Bakr.
The schools, clinics, soup kitchens and factories that filled Jamaat al Muslimeen’s compound were mostly destroyed after Abu Bakr senior’s arrest, but the government spared his large, airy mosque, where both father and son now teach. There is space for hundreds of men to pray from the main floor, and dozens of women to gather on a balcony to hear Friday sermons.
A preacher and politician, Fuad appears to have inherited his father’s extreme religious views along with his imposing height and charisma.
In an interview with the Guardian he described the men who went to fight for Isis in glowing terms, and slammed a new law banning child marriage as a violation of religious rights.
He dismissed reports of Isis brutality, denied that the jihadi group’s widely documented revival of sexual slavery was real, and compared the organisation’s self-declared caliphate to Israel and the Vatican.
“They want independence and an Islamic State, and they have the right to self-determination … so how can you say to these people that you cannot have an Islamic State because that is not an acceptable political status? There is a Jewish State, there is a Catholic state.”
Bakr said he knew several of those who travelled to Syria. Saying that he had to choose his words carefully when discussing their journeys, to avoid violating Trinidadian laws against supporting terrorism, he was still open in his admiration.
“They are not bad people, they are some of the most excellent people I knew, some of them,” he said. “People from all walks of life, businessmen, who just decided this is the right thing to do.”
Then, in an extraordinary invocation of one of the greatest champions of non-violent resistance, he paraphrased lines from a 1963 speech by Martin Luther King Jr in tribute to the Trinidadians who signed up for Isis’s project of extreme violence.
“Martin Luther King said a man who is not willing to die for something is not really fit to live, and I respect someone who is willing to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of their fellow man, and that is what those individuals think they are doing.”
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