Trinidad’s Darkest Hour

The forgotten failed Islamic coup.

Last month saw the 29th anniversary of an Islamic coup attempt to take over the government of the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

It was the first and only such Islamic terrorist attack in the Western Hemisphere attempting to overthrow an elected government. At the time, the coup was much underreported by the media due to the First Gulf War in Kuwait, occurring simultaneously.

On Friday, June 27, 1990, 114 members of a Trinidadian Islamic group, Jamaat al Muslimeen, stormed the Trinidadian parliament, also called the Red House, and Trinidad’s television and radio station.

By the time it was over six days later on August 1, 24 people were dead, including one Member of Parliament, a policeman and security guards. Much of the country’s capital, Port-of-Spain, was left a burnt-out ruin. This tragic event has been called Trinidad’s “darkest hour,” shaking the country “to its foundations.”

“The coup staggered the Caribbean country’s sense of itself as an easygoing land of calypso, cricket and British-style democracy,” stated an Associated Press report, sounding like Trinidad’s 9/11 moment.

Forty-two rebels took over the parliament building, taking 50 people hostages including the prime minister, ANR Robinson, while another 72 seized the Trinidad and Tobago television and radio station. The television station was the only one in the country.

The rebels also exploded a car bomb, blowing up Port-of-Prince police headquarters after first warning the police.

“It was the last thing on the minds of anyone that individuals would arm themselves, storm parliament and claim the government,” stated one Member of Parliament who was taken hostage, saying he was “shocked” to see men walking into the Red House with guns.

Shortly after taking over the Red House, the leader of the coup, Yasin Abu Bakr, a convert to Islam, went on television and announced that the government had been overthrown and called for calm.

But his call had the opposite effect. His coup announcement set off massive looting with accompanying fires that reduced much of Port-of-Prince “to rubble and destruction.” Looters were also killed in clashes with security forces. The rest of the county, however, remained calm.

Abu Bakr stated the reasons for the coup were “social conditions.” His Jamaat al Muslimeen is made up mostly of Trinidadian converts of African descent who are Trinidad’s most economically disenfranchised people. Trinidad’s population is evenly split between people of African and East Indian descent.

Trinidad had been a relatively prosperous Caribbean country. It had oil reserves and had experienced prosperity in the oil boom of the 1970s and early 1980s. People got jobs and lived well.

But with the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s, economic hard times began. Government ran up a seven billion dollar debt and unemployment soared to 25 per cent. Trinidad then appealed to the IMF for help, which imposed austerity measures. The government had to bring in a Value Added Tax and cancel the Cost of Living Supplement, probably angering many people who couldn’t believe they had “gone from riches to rags.”

“These economic ills built up some kind of turbulence,” stated a government report, saying there was “widespread discontent.”

It was this rich mine of anger and resentment among the general population that Jamaat hoped to exploit with its coup, although the Islamic movement was only “a sliver” of the population “with no real power.” But it didn’t work. The people did not follow Jamaat’s lead.

“Abu Bakr saw this moment as is opportunity to get rid of the ineffectual leaders and thought the people would back him,” stated the government report.

Jammat also had its own grudges against the government. It had squatted on government land and, although it wasn’t evicted the government wouldn’t allow Jamaat to build, angering the movement.

Al Muslimeen was well known to legal authorities before the coup. In 1988, authorities had raided the Jammat compound and seized weapons and ammunition. They charged Jamaat members with “larceny, robbery, illegal possession of weapons, rape and murder.” This raid apparently caused Jamaat to think the government was against them.

Abu Bakr himself had been acquitted in 2006 on charges of conspiracy to commit murder against two former Jamaat members. Weapons charge were also dropped against him. He was also subject to contempt of court charges.

Jamaat’s disrespect for the law, though, did not stop Trinidad’s political parties from working with the extremist organization. They used Jamaat “to get the vote out.”

“All the parties used Jamaat, all,” said Selwyn Reed, a Trinidadian political scientist.

But the one factor that made the coup possible was weapons bought and imported from America. Many of the weapons used in the coup had been purchased in Ft. Lauderdale’s Broward County in Florida. Miami is only a three-hour plane flight from Trinidad.

Trinidadian authorities had asked the FBI to investigate a Jamaat member, the organization’s number two man, when he was in Florida purchasing these weapons. But the FBI only responded to Trinidad’s request a week after the coup.

“The FBI treated this, as far as I can tell, as a kind of routine request,” stated one observer in the Huffington Post. “They threw it into a big hopper with a lot of other requests and finally got him (the Trinidadian government) an answer about a week after the coup.”

This late response was a big issue in Trinidad’s newspapers afterwards. Trinidadians believed that had the FBI responded to Trinidad’s request more promptly, the coup would never have happened.

The Trinidadian authorities also come in for their share of the blame. The guns were apparently allowed into the country through a corrupt and sympathetic customs officer. But several weeks before the coup, a Trinidadian newspaper report stated “a container with arms and ammunition had landed and been allowed entry into Trinidad.” Surprisingly, security authorities failed to act on this.

Beaten and brutalized, Prime Minister Robinson was described as acting heroically during the crisis. When ordered to tell the army to back off, which was shooting at the Red House, he instead ordered it to attack “with full force.” For this, he was shot in the leg.

But the biggest factor in ending the coup was reported to be the army. Trinidad is a small country and has only one army regiment. But its colonel, Ralph Brown, was the man of steel in this crisis and much credited for ending it. While some wanted to give into the rebels demands, according to the Huffington Post, Brown said: “Forget it! We’re not giving into any of these things.”

In his direct, blunt military manner Brown further told the rebels: “You guys either come out of there and surrender, or we’re going to kill you.”

“And the rebels thought it over for a while and they came out and surrendered after six days,” stated one journalist

Before their surrender, however, the rebels signed an amnesty agreement with the government. They only spent two years in jail before a court released them due to the agreement.

The Privy Council in London, England, Trinidad’s highest court, annulled the amnesty agreement, but Trinidad’s government never pursued further prosecution despite security authorities accusing Jamaat of having received money and training from Libya and Sudan.

This was probably a mistake. The serpent was still alive. As proof, a Jamaat member was sentenced to 12 years in prison in America for attempting in 2001 to buy and send 60 rifles and 10 submachine guns to Trinidad.

Only by forceful use of all legal and law enforcement means against such extremist groups that ends in eradication will societies have peace and security. This, Trinidad failed to do.

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Image Courtesy: Trinidad Express.

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