September 26, 2018
At first glance, Shane Dominic Crowford and
Tariq Abdul Haqq have nothing in common besides being citizens of Trinidad and
Tobago, the Caribbean island nation located between Grenada and Venezuela.
On the dark side, Shane was a gangster with
a long career in crime and the prime suspect in the attempted murder of the
prime minister in 2011.
On the bright side, Tariq was a hero who
won the silver medal in the super heavyweight boxing class at the Commonwealth
Games. He was son of Yacoob Abdul Haqq, another boxing legend and nephew of one
of the most important lawyers in the country.
Despite these differences, both became
poster boys for the terrorists of Islamic State (IS). Both may have been killed
somewhere in Syria.
Shane and Tariq are not the only mystery in
the Caribbean concerning IS’s connections. A few months ago, the secret
services found that between 100 to 300 Trinidadians had joined IS.
With a population of just 1.3 million, this
makes for one of the highest per capita rates of IS recruitment in the world.
Roughly the same number of people joined Islamic State from the far larger
countries of America and Canada. To add further perspective, Portugal provided
fewer recruits than Trinidad and Tobago , even though it is a country of 10
This phenomenon is difficult to explain.
There is no obvious connection between the country and the self-proclaimed
caliphate. The Muslim community make up 5 to 10% of the population and it is
generally moderate and peaceful. The country has had free elections since the
1983 coup. The economy is in good shape with high production of nutmeg, mace,
cinnamon, ginger, and cloves and a thriving international oil and gas industry.
The tropical landscapes attract thousands of tourists from all over the world.
So, What Went Wrong?
The alarm bells rang last February. Days
ahead of the annual Carnival celebrations, the leading cultural event on the
islands, local authorities arrested thirteen young men, all Muslims, on
suspicion of plotting to carry out attacks in the country. The UK Foreign
Office warned about an ongoing threat even after the arrests: “Terrorists are
very likely to try to carry out attacks in Trinidad and Tobago.”
Some days later, almost all the suspects
were released. The country did not suffer any terrorist attack during the
national celebration. But Trinidad and Tobago does not have an immaculate past
when it comes to fundamentalist conspiracies.
In the summer of 1990, the
Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, a radical group led by Lennox Philip, aka Yasin Abu Bakr,
tried to kill the Prime Minister Artur Robinson, members of his cabinet and
deputies and take hostages. This political nightmare left 24 people dead and
more than 200 injured in a rampage of arson and pillaging by Abu Bakr’s
followers. The leader was arrested but in the end he was released with an
The independent defence analyst and
attorney-at-law Sanjay Badri-Maharaj, based in Trinidad and Tobago, says that
in the years that followed this failed plot three other groups arose from the
ashes of Jamaat-al-Muslimeen: Waajatul Islaamiyah, known for publishing
newsletters supporting al-Qaeda, Jamaat al Islami al Karibi, and Jamaat al
Badri-Maharaj has assessed the roots of the
problem: “The power wielded by these groups has helped to create a fertile
ground for recruitment into potential Jihadist groups. With a close nexus to
urban criminal gangs, the link between extremists and criminals is often
blurred. The allure of the gangs has attracted many disaffected urban youths.
The membership of these groups and their associated criminal gangs keeps
expanding, with recruits falling prey to the potent mix of propaganda and the
lure of the perceived empowerment offered by these groups.”
The Waajatul Islaamiyah (Islamic Front)
leader, Umar Abdullah, has even admitted publicly that he was recruiting young
Muslims to IS. And radical preachers such as Yasin Abu Bakr have not
In 2015 and 2016, two IS videos and an
interview showed the world that Trinidad and Tobago’s fighters are in the top
league of terrorism. A jihadist named Abu Zaid al-Muhajir announced that he had
brought three children to the caliphate. Another fighter, Abu Khalid, stated
that Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago were confined and persecuted. And finally,
styling himself as Abu Sa’d at-Trinidadi, Shane Dominic Crowford of the dark
side of society gave an interview to Dabiq magazine, a sort of Vanity Fair of
In the interview, Shane explained his
conversion, his journey to the caliphate, and a threat of death to the
infidels. This was his message to his country’s youth: “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.”
Did the message have impact? For sure. It
is not by chance that Trinidad became a case study in jihadist matters. And
it’s nothing to do with nice and tropical weather.
Today, the caliphate is shrinking and local
self-confidence is growing at the same rate. The attorney general, Faris Al
Rawi, has denied that Trinidad had a problem with IS recruitment or religious
extremism: “The number may look larger than somewhere else, but I don’t accept for
one moment that we have a problem that is much bigger than anywhere else,” he
said in an interview with The Guardian. “I don’t think that we are any more
vulnerable than any other country is.”
In the same report, the anthropologist
Dylan Kerrigan, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, observes that
the terrorist group is not much different from a gang. Each “provides a family,
male role models, social order and it promises access to what many young men
might think they want: money, power, women, respect.”
Today, most of the Trinidad and Tobago
volunteers are dead or in the hands of the Kurds or the Syrian army. Nobody
travels from the Caribbean to Syria anymore as they did two years ago. But you
can feel the fear of the returnees and their harmful influence among young
Muslims. So have the authorities learned anything from the 1990 plot or from
the recent Carnival threat? Or could things happen again in the same radical
mosques or under the mask of obscure organizations?
In this field, Fuad Abu Bakr is a
politician of note. He is the son of Yasin Abu Bakr, the leader of the failed
1990 coup d’état. He leads the New National Vision, a political party that
defends “the poor and working class” and mixes Islamic doctrine and 1970’s
black power rhetoric.
In a recent Al-Jazeera report, Fuad said it
is time to understand the full spectrum of Trinidadians who join ISIS: “When a
Muslim sees these videos of decapitating people on the beach and music playing
in the background and these gory things, many of them do not trust these
images. They say, ‘Who verified this footage?’”
He goes on: “If I have a friend who has
already travelled to Syria and he is sending me pictures of schools with kids
and gardens and a society that is operating by Islamic laws, that would
interest a Muslim individual. I think some people feel that there is no hope in
changing the political system that exists here. And I strongly believe that
some of these individuals say, ‘Maybe we will make more of a difference
New National Vision is still a small party
with little influence in Trinidadian society. At least at present…