Foreign Policy Essay
Trinidad’s Islamic State Problem
Editor’s Note: One of the least known, but most alarming, aspects of the Islamic State is its ability to draw recruits and sympathizers from around the world, including from many countries not known as hotbeds of radicalism. On a per-capita basis, Trinidad was one of the largest providers of volunteers for the caliphate, a development that seems to come out of nowhere. Simon Cottee of the University of Kent looks in detail at the volunteers from Trinidad, assessing their motivations and the danger they pose should they return.
In November 2013 Shane Crawford and two other men pulled off a double murder in a busy town in central Trinidad. Less than a month later all three were in Syria fighting for the Islamic State—the first Trinidadians, or Trinis (to use the local idiom), to do so. By the time the U.S. State Department added Crawford to its list of “Global Terrorists” in 2017, more than 240 Trini nationals had migrated to the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. This makes Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), a small twin-island republic in the Caribbean, one of the world’s biggest recruiting grounds, per capita, of the Islamic State.
Trinidad has still yet to come to terms with this unenviable record, and there remains a widespread sense of incomprehension in the county that any of its nationals could have traded the paradise on their shores for a world of sectarian slaughter and chaos in Syria and Iraq. Now, more than six months after the fall of the territorial caliphate, the country faces the mother of all returnee problems: what to do about the scores of its nationals who are currently in detention in Syria and Iraq. This problem is all the more urgent given the uncertainty in northeastern Syria following President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and support from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). At the time of writing, the Ain Issa camp, which houses hundreds of foreign Islamic State-affiliated women and children, has fallen.
One local group in Trinidad, the “Concerned Muslims of T&T,” is calling for the repatriation of all Trini women and children, while other voices, notably Col. Claudia Carrizales, a U.S. Embassy military liaison officer, have expressed alarm at the prospect of returning foreign fighters. “Within the next year or so, you will eventually have some hardened FTFs [foreign terrorist fighters] return to this country,” Carrizales said recently at a conference in the country’s capital, Port of Spain, adding: “Those are your citizens. They are your responsibility. Are you ready to deal with that kind of threat?”
But how did Trinidad get to this point in the first place?
I first became alerted to the issue of Trinis joining the Islamic State in mid-2014 via the reporting of local journalist Mark Bassant, but it wasn’t until early 2016 that I decided to return to the country—I used to be a lecturer in criminology at the University of the West Indies—in an effort to make better sense of what was going on. Since then I’ve made many more research trips to Trinidad, interviewing Islamists, police officers, politicians, journalists, community activists, ordinary Muslims, and relatives and friends of Trini foreign fighters.
Who Are the Trini Jihadists?
According to the T&T government, 130 Trinis left the country between 2013 and 2015 to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. This may sound like a trifling number, a mere ripple among the 41,000 or so international citizens from 80 countries who joined the Islamic State, but it easily places Trinidad, with a population of 1.3 million, including around 100,000 Muslims, at the top of the list of Western countries with the highest rates of Islamic State recruitment. To put this into context, the figure of 130 amounts to 96 individuals per million—a rate that is roughly double that of Belgium, which, according to some estimates, has the highest per-capita rate of foreign fighters in the Western world. Yet 130 is almost certainly a gross underestimate. Based on recent discussions I’ve had with several national security sources in Trinidad, the true figure is likely to be in the region of 240.
Who are these individuals? In a recent article published in the journal International Affairs, I presented demographic data on 70 of them:
- Thirty-four percent are adult men, 23 percent are adult women and 43 percent are minors.
- Of the adults, the ratio of males to females is 60:40. This places T&T at the top of the list of Western countries for female Islamic State migrants.
- The average age at time of departure across all 40 of the adults is 34. This is unusual compared to age averages found for all other Western Islamic State contingents; travelers from other countries are, on average, nearly a decade younger.
- Nearly all the adult men were employed at the time they departed to join the Islamic State. The vast majority—90 percent—can be categorized as middle class, while 10 percent can be categorized as lower class.
- Among the men, nearly 80 percent were married at the time of leaving, while among the women all were married, with the sole exception of an 18 year old who left with her family. So, among the Trini individuals for whom we have data, there were no “jihadi brides,” and while in the European and North American context the norm was “bunches of guys” leaving, in Trinidad it was “bunches of families,” of which there were at least 26.
- Forty-three percent are converts, which, though high, doesn’t deviate from the pattern in other Western Islamic State mobilizations, where converts are also over-represented.
- Thirty percent had a criminal record or had been involved in criminal activities prior to their departure, which is also broadly in line with research on European foreign fighters.
- Finally, the vast majority of those who left come from three areas in Trinidad: Rio Claro in the southeast, Chaguanas in west-central Trinidad, and Diego Martin in the northwest. The majority—nearly 70 percent—lived in Rio Claro on or near the Boos Settlement Muslim community led by Imam Nazim Mohammed.
- Many attended Salafi mosques (of which there are fewer than five out of a total of 85 mosques in T&T; Salafi-Muslims in T&T are a tiny minority within a minority).
Motives and Networks
What factors “pulled” or “pushed” these individuals to leave Trinidad and join the Islamic State? The Trinis who left to join the Islamic State were not pushed by frustration over poverty or social exclusion, because they were neither poor nor socially excluded; they were not pushed by anger over anti-Islamic bigotry, because in Trinidad they were blessed with a highly tolerant culture that is broadly favorable to Islam; they were not pushed by the pains of exile or migration, because they were very much of the society they grew up in; and they were not pushed by charismatic others who exploited their so-called vulnerability, since most were bright and mature individuals.
What seems to have pushed them, although “push” is far too deterministic a metaphor, was a profound spiritual disaffection from the very best that Trinidad had to offer, which was a decent life of tranquility and ease on a tropical island that they came to see as sexually permissive, corrupt and lacking in any real value—a sort of anti-paradise. What seems to have “pulled” them to the Islamic State was a conviction that it was the true paradise that Trinidad claimed to be but was not: a pristine society of faith free of corruption, deviance and worldly temptation.
Just as important a question as why they radicalized and joined the Islamic State is how they radicalized and joined. This is really a question about recruiters, facilitators and networks. One of the most striking features about the entire cohort of Trini Islamic State travelers is just how networked it was. Everyone in it was connected to everyone else. They all knew each other, either because they were friends or because they were related.
The node at the center of the network was Imam Nazim Mohammed, who remains in Trinidad and presides over his own religious settlement (a sizable area of land that includes the mosque he leads and around 30 houses he owns) in the rural town of Rio Claro. Mohammed’s network has its roots in the Jamaat al Muslimeen, a group of black Muslims led by Yasin Abu Bakr. In July 1990, 114 men from Bakr’s group, including Mohammed and one of his sons, attempted to overthrow the government of T&T, effectively holding the country for ransom for six bloody days. They didn’t succeed, but the dark legacy of the attempted coup, of which the pro-Islamic State network in Trinidad is a part, lives on. Bakr and his men were imprisoned for their involvement but were pardoned in 1992. After their release, Mohammed began to distance himself from the al Muslimeen leader and eventually established his own religious community in the south of the country, where he embarked on a project of Islamic proselytization and disengaged altogether from domestic politics.
According to a national security source, as of January 2018, 30 male Trini Islamic State fighters had been killed in Syria and Iraq. This number is likely to be much higher today, now that the territorial caliphate has been defeated. Just two women, one man, two boys and two teenaged girls have returned to Trinidad, which is a tiny number compared to the hundreds who have returned to Europe.
Based on recent conversations I’ve had with security sources in Trinidad and journalists on the ground in Syria, I estimate that there are 50 to 60 Trini minors currently in detention in Syria and Iraq. This may sound like a high figure, but it appears that a large proportion of the Trini contingent in Syria were minors.
According to “Concerned Muslims of T&T,” there are 40 Trini children and 16 Trini women in the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria alone. One detainee at the camp, possibly from Trinidad, told a Sky News reporter in February that there were at least 90 Trini children in Syria. This may be an exaggeration, but several journalists who have visited Al-Hol have told me that the number quoted by the “Concerned Muslims” group sounds plausible.
Thus far the T&T government, like most Western states, has shown little political will in seeking to address this issue and has not yet even publicly acknowledged that there are Trini children in the Al-Hol camp. The “Concerned Muslims” group is calling on the government to change course and bring home all Islamic State-affiliated Trini women and children.
The moral case for the repatriation of Trini minors is a strong one, since they are innocents who didn’t choose to go to Syria to join a genocidal religious-political movement. This makes them victims, and the T&T government has a duty to bring them home. There is another moral case, however, which is equally strong and flows directly from the one just stated: the case for prosecuting the Trini women who took their children to Syria or Iraq.
Under anti-terrorism legislation, these women, if or when they return to Trinidad, will walk free, without as much as a slap on the wrist, since at the time they left to travel to Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq, it wasn’t a crime to do so in Trinidad. Further, the Islamic State had yet to be proscribed by the government as a terrorist group. (Revisions to the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which now hinder travel to jihadi hotspots abroad and clamp down on terrorist financing, did not pass into law until August 2018 and cannot be applied retroactively.) Even had the women been complicit in committing war crimes or other human rights abuses, which certainly can’t be ruled out, it will be very difficult to prove this, given the difficulties of recovering evidence.
One possible way forward would be to prosecute the women under international human trafficking legislation, to which T&T is a signatory. The United Nations Protocol on human trafficking defines it as “the recruitment or receipt of persons … for the purpose of exploitation.” Under the protocol, exploitation includes “sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery.” In the case of child trafficking, only the act of recruitment and intent to exploit are relevant. It is a matter of record that the Islamic State was conscripting boys as young as 10 into combat and girls as young as nine into marriages (and sexual servitude).
Some foreign Islamic State members have said that, prior to traveling to Syria or Iraq, they didn’t know that it was a war zone, but this seems barely credible. Indeed, for many travelers, the whole point of going to Syria or Iraq was to defend the caliphate in a time of war. And many, prior to leaving and as was clear from their social media activity, positively embraced the prospect that their children would become servants of the caliphate, either as soldiers or as breeding machines laying the ground for the next generation.
It is possible, as local Imam Sheraz Ali has pointed out, that some Trini women were themselves coerced or trafficked by their husbands into going to the caliphate or deceived about where their family was headed when they left. For example, Gailon Su, one of the wives of Anthony Hamlet, an Islamic State sniper from Rio Claro, has insisted that Hamlet tricked her into going to Syria; her daughter, Sarah Su, who remains in Trinidad, told me that her mother thought she was headed to Saudi Arabia for hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. But many were die-hard supporters of the group who wanted to join it and were simply heeding its call to take up arms in its defense. It would be an outrage for these women to return to Trinidad without facing censure or justice.
If the authorities in Trinidad are to repatriate its Islamic State-affiliated women, as I am suggesting they should, the price of repatriation must be a serious moral reckoning with what these women have done and, for the vast majority who took their children to Syria, the harms they inflicted on their children by effectively pimping them out to a merciless terrorist group. They cannot return as victims deserving of sympathy but must be held to scrupulous moral account.
This raises some difficult questions. One relates to the custodianship of the children, and whom they live with once they are returned to Trinidad. This is made all the more difficult because many of the children’s extended family members in Trinidad are part of the pro-Islamic State network there.
Another question has to do with capacity and cost: It will not be cheap to repatriate 40 or more children to Trinidad, and their care and rehabilitation over many years will require a long-term investment of resources.
Finally, there is the question of politics. Any government that embarks on repatriating Islamic State-affiliated children and separating them from their mothers will likely face a backlash from many Trinis, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who believe the country, with a spiraling murder rate and a huge recent influx of Venezuelans into the country, has enough problems to deal with already. It will also likely face stringent opposition from some Muslims, who will no doubt view the policy as Islamophobic.
The issue of adult Trini male returnees poses a very different set of challenges. Morally, it seems perverse to expect the Kurds or Iraqis—or, as now seems likely, the Turks or Syrians—to detain and house these nationals indefinitely, since it is Trinidad that owns them, so to speak, and it was Trinidad that inflicted them on the world.
But it also seems equally perverse to agitate for their return to Trinidad, where it is unlikely that they will be prosecuted, given the difficulties of marshalling battlefield evidence against them, and where they may sow further discord in the communities from which they came. Even more crucially, these returnees will pose a grave security risk on account of their extensive combat experience.
There are no easy answers to the returnee problem. But it is not going to go away, and the T&T government’s reluctance to fully address it is starting to look more and more imprudent by the day, as the status and security of northeastern Syria has now become uncertain. It is time for the government to take a stance, whether it is for or against repatriation, and whatever it decides it must seriously weigh up the imperatives of justice, cost and security.