The Ministry of Tourism for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago hosts a website extolling the many exquisite charms of the “true Caribbean” to be found there. The islands offer rich history, culture, biodiversity, and lodging with views “to die for.”
Of late, though, a diaspora of Trinidad and Tobago emigres have preferred the views in Syria and Iraq, and the company of Islamic terrorist group ISIS. At least 130 of T&T’s 1.2 million citizens left their white and turquoise shorelines to fight with vicious Islamists half a world away. How did that happen? “Entire families went,” including at least 42 children, according to findings in a recent study by UK professor Simon Cottee of Kent University.
While the answer to how this pocket of Islamic terror developed is complex, now that ISIS is territorially defeated and its thousands of surviving foreign terrorist fighters are dispersing to all points, a more pressing question has arisen. What will T&T returnees and their sympathizing community do next without a pressing, defined cause like promulgating an ISIS caliphate?
The United Kingdom, which governed the tourist-heavy islands until their independence in 1976, has this to say on its “Foreign travel advice” website:
Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Trinidad & Tobago. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in crowded spaces and places visited by foreigners.
Closer to American interests and overland smuggling lanes to the U.S. Southern border, the United States and some of its allies in Latin America are worried about T&T, too.
Shia groups like Hezbollah, along with its sponsor the government of Iran, have long held criminal and intelligence footholds throughout South America, as I explained in a recent update on the subject. This has included Venezuela and its offshore island of Marguerite, about 150 nautical miles from Trinidad.
But Sunni extremists like ISIS? That’s a newer upward trend, as I wrote recently when recounting a suspected plot by local ISIS sympathizers in Suriname, just around the coastal bend, to kill the U.S. ambassador in the former Dutch colony. Sizeable communities of South and Southeast Asian Muslim communities live in Suriname, Guyana, and Panama. A steady stream of migration from the Middle East dates to the early 2000s, attracted by free-trade zones in the region, according to the Jamestown Foundation and other sources. Visa-free travel is allowed throughout the Caribbean.
Trinidad & Tobago is a hotspot fitting the profile. Only about five percent of its population is Muslim, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. But this five percent are causing outsized global security concern. A hardline Sunni Islamist mosque and its imams have been accused of ginning up all kinds of trouble for decades. In 1990, a Muslim organization known as Jamaat al Muslimeen attempted a coup against the government. More than 40 Islamist insurgents stormed Parliament, taking the prime minister and most of his cabinet hostage for six days. In 2007, members of Jamaat al Muslimeen were tied to a plot to bomb New York’s JFK airport; one of its members was sentenced to life in prison.
The dark cloud has persisted, but U.S. security appears to be on top of the situation.
Earlier this year, troops with the U.S. Army’s Southern Command participated in anti-terror raids helping to capture four “high value targets” allegedly plotting to attack the annual “Carnival” celebrations. In 2017, Southern Command’s Admiral Kurt Tidd said: “Some of the individuals who left Trinidad-Tobago” have shown up “on film engaged in terrorist acts” and have committed murders in Syria. Even the New York Times couldn’t ignore the developing threat from T&T’s jihadists, posting a story in 2017 citing American officials who fear “that Trinidadian fighters could return from the Middle East and attack American diplomatic and oil installations in Trinidad, or even take a three-and-a-half hour flight to Miami.”
Just last month, the U.S. Treasury Department showed that American security agencies remain on heightened alert. The Department listed two citizens of T&T on its terrorism sanctions list. It is now illegal for anyone or any entity to engage in transactions with dual U.S.-Trinidad citizen Emraan Ali and Trinidadian ISIS supporter Eddie Aleong. They join six other Trinidadian individuals or entities on the international sanctions list for terrorism involvement.
The Treasury Department accuses both men of working together to raise and send cash to Trinidadian ISIS fighters in the conflict zone. In 2015, Ali lived for a time at an ISIS guest house in Raqqah, Syria, the fallen ISIS caliphate “capital,” while Aleong is suspected of facilitating money transfers to ISIS as recently as March 2018.
According to local island press reports, the whereabouts of the 51-year-old Ali remain unknown since he and his wife departed to Syria several years ago. Ali married the daughter of an island imam recently interviewed by the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian. “I don’t get no information on them; I don’t know where they are,” said Imam Nazim Mohammed. Aleong is believed to still be in the area.
Islanders who joined ISIS are more of a concern than recruits from other countries, partly because they speak English. T&T nationals did “very well” in ISIS, former U.S. Ambassador John L. Estrada told the New York Times. “They are high up in the ranks, they are very respected, and they are English-speaking. ISIL have used them for propaganda to spread their message through the Caribbean.”
Issue 15 of the ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq shows why it might be a problem if and when Trinidadian ISIS fighters come home. The magazine featured an interview with “Abu Sa’d al-Trinidadi,” a convert to Islam who had joined the group in Syria. He described how he and a small group of like-minded island co-religionists, after seeing the light, accumulated weapons, ammunition, and money to eventually “make hijrah” but also to be used in the meantime so that “whenever the disbelievers in Trinidad would kill or harm a Muslim, we would take revenge. … We were successful in many operations.” His wife was arrested at one point, apparently on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the prime minister and cabinet members, “but the police weren’t able to make a case against us.” He and two friends finally left for Syria after a delay to “exact revenge on two kafir criminals we were hunting,” an operation “carried out in the middle of the city in broad daylight and caught on camera.”
The U.S. government in recent years has pushed the island nation to do counterterrorism, according to a newly released U.S. State Department Countries Reports on Terrorism reflecting calendar year 2017.
“The threat from the possible return of foreign terrorist fighters remains a primary concern,” the report states, referring to T&T foreign terrorist fighters.
Also for the first time, in November 2017, the Trinidad and Tobago National Security Council approved a national counterterrorism strategy, and has shared intelligence with the United States.
Follow Todd Bensman on Twitter: @BensmanTodd