Trinidad: The Western Hemisphere’s Jihadist Hotspot

The Caribbean island has produced more ISIS recruits than any other western country.

It is difficult to believe that a lush, tropical vacation destination like the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, a relatively prosperous country with full religious and legal freedoms, has produced more fighters per capita for the murderous Islamic State (ISIS) than any other country in the Western Hemisphere.

But, unfortunately for Trinidad and the civilized world, that is the tragic fact of the matter. While Muslims constitute only five per cent of the country’s population, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, a portion is “causing outsized global security concern,” states Todd Benson in the publication Center for Immigration Studies.

Unknown to most and largely unreported by the media, Trinidad, with only a population estimated between 1.2 and 1.5 million people, has sent at least 130 of its citizens to join the Islamic State. The United States, by contrast, with a population about 240 times larger than Trinidad’s, has sent about 250 to 300, about one per cent of the 30,000 foreigners who joined ISIS.

T. and T. citizens in ISIS “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,” said John Estrada, former U.S. ambassador, to Trinidad and Tobago, adding Trinidadians did “very well” in ISIS.  

Part of the problem was that no law existed in Trinidad that forbade joining ISIS until 2017; however, legislation was then introduced. But no reason has been given as to why Trinidad has such a strong, radical Islamic scene.

However, Dr. Simon Cottee of England’s Kent University, who has studied this Trinidadian phenomenon, has attempted to explain the attraction ISIS has for some of the island’s Muslims.  

“Redemption through violent self-sacrifice is a pretty big draw,” Cottee said in Trinidad and Tobago News. “But I also think a lot of those Trinis who went truly believed that the ISIS caliphate was the real deal, a kind of Islamic utopia where they could go with their families and be spiritually saved.”

Trinidad is a nation whose population is split almost evenly between those of black African descent and those of East Indian origin, most of whom are Hindus. Both groups largely form separate political parties and separate churches and temples. Cottee dismisses the notion, though, that the jihadists came primarily from the island’s black population.

“Quite a few were Afro-Trinis who had converted to Islam,” Cottee said, “but many were born-Muslims from wealthy families of East Indian origin. Some had criminal records or pending court appearances while others were law-abiding and came from respectable families.”

But there was one curious aspect of this migration of Trinidad’s citizens to ISIS not found in any other Western country, and it concerns the number of children the Trinidadian recruits brought with them to ISIS territory. They numbered about 42, constituting what has been termed a “unique situation.”

“The most striking thing is the block recruitment of Trinis to ISIS,” said Cottee. “Entire families went. It was mothers, daughters, fathers and sons. According to my estimates about 30 per cent were men, 30 percent were women and the remainder – 40 percent were children. This is pretty unique because you don’t see this elsewhere in Europe.”

In the main, Cottee says ISIS volunteers from Europe were young men.

The United States' concern regarding Trinidad’s radical Islamic scene is not unwarranted.  

For example, two of the men wanted in the 2007 plot to bomb fuel lines that ran underground through populated areas of New York City to JFK airport were arrested in Trinidad where they visited a known, radical mosque. A U.S. Attorney called their homicidal plans “one of the most chilling plots imaginable.” (The two men arrested were not Trinidadians but Guyanese; a co-conspirator, however, was from Trinidad.) The New York Times (NYT) states United States authorities said the island’s radical Islamic community was “an obvious place…to turn when they were looking for Islamist support.”

Rondell Henry, a native of Trinidad and naturalized U.S citizen, was planning last March a Nice-like, truck-ramming attack in Washington D.C. to kill as many innocent people as possible. But no connection has been established with his homeland’s radical Islamic scene.

In 2005, a Muslim from Trinidad was convicted in Florida of trying to smuggle 70 machine guns and 20 silencers to Trinidad, while in 2017 U.S. authorities assisted Trinidad’s security forces in thwarting an Islamic terrorist attack on the island’s famous carnival.

In the carnival plot, Trinidadian police said “several persons of interest were detained.” Eight were reported arrested, all connected to the island’s Islamic community. The U.S. embassy issued a security alert but the carnival went ahead as planned.

In 2018, the Treasury Department also put two Trinidadians on its terrorism sanctions list for raising money for countrymen with ISIS in Syria. They joined eight other citizens of Trinidad and “enterprises” on the list.

Besides directly assisting Trinidadian security authorities, the United States has taken other measures to confront Islamic radicalism in the Caribbean nation. In 2017, the NYT states President Trump spoke to Trinidad’s prime minister by phone about terrorism and common security concerns, “including foreign fighters.” The United States is particularly concerned about attacks against U.S. embassies in the region and against commercial concerns such as oil industry infrastructure.

According to the NYT, the American government has also “hosted meetings with Muslim leaders at the U.S. embassy in Port of Spain,” the country’s capital, and paid some to attend workshops on “anti-extremism” in the United States.

The United States is probably targeting the main problem with Islamic radicalism in Trinidad, namely, some Islamic leaders. Cottee states “there were some local clerics who promoted the idea of holy war.” The NYT states efforts to stop the flow of Trinidadian fighters to ISIS “have been complicated by some imams and parents.”

Many of the Trinidadian fighters in Syria said they were “swayed” by certain imams. One ISIS volunteer said he was influenced by Islamic lectures and a Trinidadian Muslim leader. The father of another volunteer, killed in Syria, said he “welcomed his son’s death as a martyr.”

“I feel elated. Speaking about it now, I am over-elated,” he said.

At one mosque near Port of Spain, 15 to 20 ISIS volunteers spent two weeks there before leaving for the Islamic State where, one official said, they received an “orientation.” But the imam denied he was running “an Islamic State training program,” although two of his children and five grandchildren “are believed “involved with the Islamic State.”

America and other nations should be very concerned about this island “breeding ground” for jihadists so close to the United States and its interests. For example, one Trinidadian ISIS volunteer, Shane Crawford, known as Abu S’ad al-Trinidadi, represents this jihadist danger. Crawford was given prominence in an ISIS publication calling for attacks on Western embassies.

Of special concern are such radicalized jihadists, like Crawford, returning from Syria with combat and explosives experience. After all, one has to keep in mind it is only a three-hour plane flight from the island to Miami.


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