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The Spectre of ISIS: Trinidad’s Unfolding Jihadi Nightmare

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security.
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  • August 08, 2016

    "You now have a golden opportunity to do something that many of us here wish we could do right now. You have the ability to terrify the disbelievers in their own homes and make their streets run with their blood."

    "...terrorize the disbelievers and make them feel fear everywhere, even in their own bedrooms. Due to their mere disbelief, their blood by default is lawful to spill."

    Sending shudders through the population of Trinidad & Tobago, these words were uttered by Abu Sa’d at-Trinidadi in the latest issue of Dabiq, the glossy online propaganda magazine of ISIS.1 In an issue dedicated to targeting Christians, at-Trinidadi’s words as part of a vitriol-laced interview were undoubtedly aimed at spreading fear among the island nation’s overwhelmingly non-Muslim population and marks the first time that ISIS has used one of its Trinidadian fighters to exhort his co-religionists in Trinidad to violence against non-Muslims. Suspected of being one Shane Dominic Crawford, and also known as Asadullah, at-Trinidadi’s chilling message came shortly after it was revealed that nine Trinidadian nationals were detained in Turkey trying to infiltrate into Syria to fight alongside ISIS, continuing to demonstrate the significant lure that ISIS has for elements of the Trinidadian Muslim population.2

    Trinidad’s Muslim community has not remained immune to the globalisation of the jihadist movement, being susceptible to the lure of the radical doctrines espoused elsewhere. There is no doubt that the internet is one of the most potent recruiting tools for jihadist propaganda and to spread the message of ISIS. But it is difficult to ascertain how many Trinidadians may have been radicalised through the internet, though it is beyond doubt that ISIS has used the internet as one of its primary recruiting tools to attract foreign fighters.3That some recruits from the Caribbean may have been recruited through the internet was hinted at in comments by General John Kelly, head of America’s Southern Command and whose area of responsibility includes the Caribbean.4 In Trinidad, the internet campaign has the additional support of local groups such as the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, and its loose affiliates such as the Jamaat al Islami al Karibi, the Waajihatul Islaamiyyah and the Jamaat al Murabiteen. Al-Muslimeen has openly associated itself with Al-Qaeda and has proclaimed its intention of establishing an Islamic state in Trinidad5

    This plethora of ideologically affiliated groups has enabled ISIS to be surprisingly effective in recruiting Trinidadian youth to its cause. Although numbers vary wildly, it is clear that a substantial number of Trinidadians are fighting with ISIS. In 2015, no fewer than 35 have been identified as fighting for ISIS with other family members supporting them actively bringing the total to 896 By 2016, this figure may well be an underestimate as figures discussed in Trinidad’s Parliament have placed the numbers at anywhere between 102 and a staggering 400.7 Trinidadian police intelligence suggests that between 10 and 15 Trinidadians have been killed fighting for ISIS so far, although reliable information is difficult to obtain.8

    Trinidadians became “poster boys” for an ISIS recruiting video made in late 2015 which included their children9 Indeed, in the said video, one identifying himself as Abu Zayd al-Muhajir had brought his three children to Syria in the Ar-Raqqah province while another – Abu Khalid, a Christian convert – used the video to proclaim that Muslims in Trinidad were “restricted”. This was echoed by Zayd al-Muhajir and yet another Trinidadian, Abu Abdullah, who went so far as to encourage Muslims in Trinidad to support ISIS and its ambition of creating an Islamic Caliphate. A recurring theme was that Islam in Trinidad is being “restricted” – a statement without basis in fact, but one which has found unusual resonance among elements of the Trinidadian population.

    Traditionally, extremist doctrine found most traction with Afro-Trinidadian converts to Islam, exemplified by the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen and its affiliates. This may be a consequence of the strong link between Islam and the 1970s Black Power movement in the United States which found considerable resonance in the Trinidad.10Yasin Abu Bakr, for example, openly courts the urban Afro-Trinidadian youth in his sermons with a mix of Islamic doctrine and Black Power rhetoric, preying upon feelings of discontent among the Afro-Trinidadian urban poor.11It is of interest to note that the rural poor have been less enamoured of this message and few recruits to either ISIS or even the multitude of criminal gangs now operating in Trinidad are from rural areas.

    A disturbing trend has been observed wherein more Indo-Trinidadian Muslims, usually moderate and well-integrated into society, are succumbing to such propaganda. From the jihadist viewpoint, the Indo-Trinidadian Muslims, generally better educated and wealthier than the Afro-Trinidadian converts, offer a potentially attractive source of skilled and motivated manpower. Lured by Salafist doctrine, both through social media and through an aggressive campaign in many of Trinidad’s 85 mosques, young Muslims have been targeted for recruitment including through the use of jihad videos to attract potential recruits12 Indeed, a recruiting video featuring a supposed Trinidadian ISIS fighter bearing the name Abu Abdurahman al-Trinidadi sent shockwaves among the majority of Muslims who are appalled, angered and concerned at the apparent attraction that ISIS seems to have for too many Muslim youth13. Yet, it is an unfortunate fact that neither the government nor the mainstream Muslim leadership has been able to either mount a counter-narrative or offer an explanation for the lure of ISIS to Trinidadian Muslims, with the government now belatedly trying to meet Muslim leaders to find an explanation.14

    While there have been no studies on the motivation of Trinidadian Muslims to travel to join ISIS fighters, it is possible that the idea of the Caliphate has fired the imagination of disaffected youth. The leader of the Waajihatul Islaamiyyah, Umar Abdullah, who is constantly monitored by an officer of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service Special Branch, had identified some characteristics of Trinidadians attracted to ISIS. He noted that those who were recruited by ISIS were arrogant, lacked patience, could not live among non-Muslims, had marital problems and firmly believed they were being marginalised as Muslims15 While publicly disavowing any link to ISIS, the Waajijatul Islaamiyyah still espouses extremist views and its call for an Islamic State in Trinidad remains. The distribution of “jihad videos” among young people has also attracted elements who are attracted to the violence espoused therein.

    The latter factor should not be underestimated as the level of brutality shown in ISIS recruiting videos outdoes earlier jihad videos from the 1990s and given the increasing levels of violent crime in Trinidad, it is possible that there are recruits who find the lure of the gun and the power of life and death attractive and revel in the sense of invincibility it gives them. It is of interest to note that of the identified Trinidadian ISIS fighters, many have been linked to violent criminal elements in the past and may see in ISIS a chance at indulging in their violent tendencies while simultaneously justifying it with a “religious” rationale and feeling a sense of purpose in doing so.

    It should be noted that these extremist outfits have fanned the flames by perpetuating a myth that Muslims are not allowed to freely practice their faith in Trinidad and are being persecuted. This is being used as a rallying call by Trinidadian ISIS fighters and their sympathisers to attract more recruits16That it is having so much success points to a lack of a cogent counter-narrative. It is also a very telling example of a blatant untruth being told often enough being regarded as the truth by some. It is also interesting that, to date, while condemning ISIS and radicalisation, none of Trinidad’s moderate Islamic groups have publicly stated that Islam is not being discriminated against and that the faith enjoys freedom of practice in the country, which, for all its flaws, has never discriminated against any faith on a collective basis since its independence in 1962. As the reach of ISIS grows ever longer into the country, it remains to be seen whether it will result in any of the type of terrorist attacks that have recently plagued Europe. At-Trinidadi’s exhortations to his co-religionists is an ominous portent of things that may come to pass.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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