Islands in the Foreign Fighter Stream: Trinidad’s Extremism Problem


In late July 1990, a Muslim extremist group attempted a coup against the government in Trinidad and Tobago that brought the government to a standstill for nearly a week, instigated widespread riots, and resulted in the death of 24 Trinidadians. This relatively unknown event has been the only Islamist coup attempt in the Western hemisphere. Of its 1.3 million citizens, nearly all of which live on Trinidad, only 5% of all Trinidadians are Muslims, raising questions as to how such a small segment of the population — just a sliver of that 5 percent — were able to cause so much damage. Yet the coup attempt was not the end of Trinidad’s challenges with religious extremism — Trinidad and Tobago is now the 14th-ranked per-capita supplier of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, by far the greatest supplier in the Western hemisphere. This presents both Trinidad and Tobago and the United States with a security challenge that must be addressed.

Muslims have lived in Trinidad, and almost all of them do live on Trinidad rather than Tobago, since at least the mid-19th century, when tens of thousands of East Indians migrated there for work, often as indentured servants after Great Britain’s abolition of slavery. Yet the roots of radical Islam in Trinidad stem not from Indo-Trinidadians, but rather from the communities of the Afro-Trinidadian descendants of slaves. The Black nationalist movement in Trinidad in the 1970s mirrored that of the United States, including some of the latter’s Islamic elements. One of the leaders of the U.S. Black nationalist movement was a Trinidadian-American, Stokely Carmichael, who coined the term “black power.” As Trinidad and Tobago reeled from the crash of its oil industry in the 1980s, Islamic groups grew in popularity through targeted recruitment efforts and a backlash against colonial traditions. Still, the growth of Islam in black communities was not explosive. Muslims represent only 2.5% of the total Afro-Trinidadian population today.

The most powerful group of such Trinidadians remains the Jamaat al Muslimeen. Founded by the Canadian-educated Yasin Abu Bakr, this group has been the vanguard of extremist Islamism on the island. It was Jamaat al Muslimeen that attempted to overthrow the government in 1990. Because Abu Bakr was able to obtain amnesty for himself and his fellow conspirators in exchange for the release of the prime minister and other hostages in 1990, Jamaat al Muslimeen still exists today. And while the group has flirted with transnational terrorism, it is generally considered to be a low threat to the government of Trinidad and Tobago.

Worryingly, the recent drop in oil prices is creating similar conditions to those that existed on the islands in 1990 and is helping drive a new mobilization of extremist Islamism as evidenced by the number Trinidadian foreign fighters. Energy resources account for nearly half of Trinidad and Tobago’s gross domestic product and 80 percent of its exports. The government benchmarked its current budget with oil prices twice what they are today. Without a rise in prices soon, Trinidad and Tobago will quickly eat through its reserves from headier days, and the true size of the reserves remains in question owing to mismanagement and corruption. Governments services are contracting and unemployment is rising, particularly among the young, who are more likely to turn to illicit sources of income. Coupled with widespread corruption and rampant crime, Trinidad and Tobago is in a precarious position.

From this environment of poor economic and social opportunities, the Islamic State has drawn somewhere around 89 Trinidadians to join them in Iraq and Syria. While this does not sound like a large number, this is orders of magnitude larger per capita of the Muslim population (in this case from Muslim Afro-Trinidadians) than any state in Europe. For example, these 89 foreign fighters represent 0.8% of Afro-Trinidadian Muslims, while France’s foreign fighters are just 0.01% of all French Muslims. Radical religion is providing a segment of the Trinidadian population a better alternative than the island’s current economy provides. The exact number of fighters and family members is unknown publically, but it is a significant number of people for such a small country. As the Islamic State’s foreign fighters return to their states of origin, Trinidad and Tobago is woefully ill-prepared to receive them. Under current laws, the government can only freeze their assets and seize their property. New legislation is expected soon, but at the moment, Trinidad and Tobago’s best hope is that other countries interdict Trinidadian fighters before they return home. Unless, of course, other countries can help in some way.

The United States has a significant interest in focusing its assistance on Trinidad and Tobago. Before this emergent concern about foreign fighters, the eastern Caribbean served as a major smuggling route for drugs and people from South America. Trinidad and Tobago, situated a mere 11 kilometers from the Venezuelan coast, acted as a way-point for illicit activity for some time. That radicalized individuals with the intent to do the United States harm would join this flow of people and contraband is not a far-fetched concern. And as in many places, problems of crime and extremism are often intertwined and stem from the same proximate causes, requiring assistance to combat both.

Beyond possessing an interest in helping Trinidad and Tobago, the United States also wields a standing mechanism by which to do so. The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) was begun in 2009 to support other regional security assistance efforts originally conceived to combat the drug flow into the United States: the Merida Initiative, the Central America Regional Security Initiative, and the successor efforts of Plan Colombia. With $48.4 million requested in the Department of State’s fiscal year 2017 budget justification, the CBSI provides robust support to Caribbean nations. The Initiative has three goals: “substantially reduce illicit trafficking, increase public safety and security, and promote social justice.”

It is difficult to ascertain from public documents exactly how much of the CBSI budget goes to Trinidad and Tobago specifically. According to dated materials provided by State, the CBSI in Trinidad and Tobago focuses on police investigations, border and port security, criminal justice sector coordination, and youth education programs. Without data, it is difficult to assess exactly what the United States is doing and how well it is doing it. But given the departure of so many foreign fighters and increasing crime levels, something is not working. Either the United States is not targeting the right capabilities and failing in execution or this assistance is not being well received by Trinidad and Tobago — in reality, it is likely some combination of these.

How might the United States help Trinidad and Tobago improve its internal security to combat trafficking, crime, and radicalization? A few years ago the Trinidadians conducted an inquiry into the causes and consequences of the 1990 coup and created a suite of recommendations that would address still-existing problems some 26 years later. While focused on preventing another coup, these measures would serve well if applied to Trinidad and Tobago’s crime and extremism challenges.

These recommendations cover the national security structure, intelligence capabilities, the police, and the military. The United States could certainly assist Trinidad and Tobago in consolidating its intelligence services and developing a single clearing house for information and crisis management. Developing the Police Service would provide the greatest benefit to Trinidad and Tobago in not just combating crime and extremism, but potentially preventing it in the first place.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Police Service requires assistance and reform across all of its capabilities, from IT systems to hiring and retention practices to eradicating corruption. Most importantly, the Police Service needs an overarching policing strategy alongside the data and research to develop that strategy, which would serve to baseline its technical and doctrinal requirements. Police assistance should not focus only on criminal investigations, an essential task for police officers, but also on how to conduct community and problem-oriented policing. They should also be trained to develop radicalization prevention programs in minority communities, such as Trinidad’s Muslim communities, from American police that have had some success in this.

The United States has every interest in supporting Trinidad and Tobago’s fight against crime and extremism, and it retains the capability to do so. Admittedly, the government of Trinidad and Tobago may be reluctant to receive such invasive assistance. However, the threat posed by a declining economy, widespread violence, and mostly ineffectual governance suggests the United States should insist on providing this assistance to not only help stabilize Trinidad and Tobago itself, but to protect the United States from violence and extremism exported from Trinidad and Tobago. Doing so is without a doubt in both nations’ interests and capabilities.


Jason Fritz is a senior editor at War on the Rocks. He is also a senior consultant at the Noetic Group and a doctoral student in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University’s School of Public Affairs.


Image: Neiljs, CC