By: Xander Causwell, Columnist
Photo by: The Guardian
Violent Islamist extremism in Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) has endured despite improbable odds and ineffectual domestic militant operations. Nonetheless, T&T extremist groups will likely continue supporting foreign jihadist operations until the former are dismantled. In 2017 the international community intensified scrutiny of the Republic of T&T’s security apparatus due to the overrepresentation of Trinidadians in the ranks of Islamic State (IS).[i] Predictably, global commentators reacted with facetious headlines such as “ISIS in the Caribbean.” Pundits have further quipped that T&T is the only country in the Western Hemisphere to have experienced an Islamic insurrection, harking back to an incident in 1990.[ii] Perhaps Islamic extremism in the Caribbean evokes more comedy than concern because both locals and foreigners perceive such a movement as incompatible with the region’s cultural image. Aside from the 1990 insurrection, Islamic extremist violence has remained virtually nonexistent across the region. Prior to the rise of IS, analysts believed T&T Islamist militancy to be on the decline, so the foreign fighter revelations came as a great shock.[iii] Considering the ostensibly infertile environment in which this movement exists, its sui generis origins, staying power, and proliferation are worth revisiting.
The rise of Islamist militancy in T&T appears even more unlikely based on the country’s demographics: the movement originated not in T&T’s long-established East Indian Muslim community, but in the international Black Power movement that emerged prior to 1990. T&T’s Muslim community has constituted a significant minority since the 1800s. The overwhelming majority of these Muslims have been, and remain, descendants of migrants from the Asian Subcontinent. The contemporary Islamic extremist groups, however, consist almost entirely of Afro-descendant converts. The 1990 insurrection leader, Yasin Abu Bakr (born Lenox Philip), was inspired to convert by Muslim African-American civil rights leaders. He formed Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM) in the 1980s to champion the cause of marginalized Afro-Trinidadians. Under his leadership, the movement grew more radical in their Sunni Islamic faith, culminating in a failed insurrection by over 100 JAM members.[iv] Presently, Afro-Trinidadian Muslims constitute a small fraction of T&T’s total Muslim population, yet they dominate membership in the Islamist extremism movement. The number of foreign fighters (100-130, by conservative estimates) that the twin islands have recently ‘exported’ seems impressive compared to their total population size (1.3 million); relative to the size of the Afro-Trinidadian Muslim community (4,167), the figure is staggering.[v]
Discontent with militant leadership, beginning with Abu Bakr’s, caused the extremists to splinter, which means the small Afro-Trinidadian Muslim community now boasts multiple Islamist militant groups. Hardliners in JAM viewed Abu Bakr’s surrender to security forces, in exchange for amnesty, as an unforgivable capitulation that warranted breaking away. JAM’s dabbling in the narcotics trade has alienated even more purists over the years. These zealous offshoots, however, have failed to carry out attacks in T&T or elsewhere.[vi] Determining the exact number of Islamist militant groups is just as difficult as distinguishing those groups from organized criminal gangs who happen to espouse extreme Islamist beliefs. Yet the movement has continued to grow despite inadequate leadership: the number of foreign fighters now rivals the 1990s nadir levels of JAM membership.
The inability of T&T’s Islamic extremist groups to carry out domestic militant acts may conform to a certain strategic logic, rather than stereotypical Caribbean lethargy. As Tyler Cowen explains, terrorism can be conceptualized as a costly form of theater.[vii] Terrorist activity is expensive to organize, especially when one considers the opportunity costs, which is likely why the Islamist militant groups initially turn to crime. Criminal activity is itself time-consuming, leading to the prioritization of daily trafficking operations and the postponement of planned attacks. This delay gives security forces valuable time to uncover the plots. More importantly, T&T may be too small a stage for a local extremist leader to justify paying the ultimate price—risk of death or injury to himself or his followers—to produce a terrorist ‘spectacle.’ Terror attacks occur in small countries frequently, but more often in relation to local grievances; T&T’s Islamic extremists see themselves as part of a global jihad. To endanger themselves for such a local ‘production’ would seem irrational given their worldview.
The real danger presented by T&T Islamic extremists stems from members’ persistent willingness to participate in global jihad, and this necessitates a domestic crackdown on the militant groups. JAM and its local rivals pose little immediate threat to the world beyond their transnational criminal activity. Members of their network, however, have consistently displayed an enthusiasm for terrorist activity abroad. A foiled plot to attack JFK Airport in New York included individuals linked to JAM.[viii] One of JAM’s offshoots, Waajihatul Islaamiyyah, has declared allegiance to al-Qaeda.[ix] The disproportionate representation of T&T extremists among IS foreign fighters further demonstrates just how responsive the network is to substantial opportunities to play on the world stage. Unless the government of Trinidad & Tobago succeeds in eliminating the militant network, the world can expect T&T to remain a latent source of violent Islamist zeal. To their credit, however, the government of Trinidad & Tobago has recently initiated reforms specifically targeting local extremists. For one, the government intends to expand the legal definition of terrorism to include more of the criminal activities that sustain the militant groups.[x] To execute the new strategy, T&T’s primary intelligence service, the Strategic Service Agency, has expanded its purview beyond counternarcotics policy.[xi]
The saga of Islamic extremism in T&T offers cautionary lessons. The evolution of JAM demonstrates how rapidly social justice movements can mutate into violent forms, especially when local grievances find common cause with external militant trends. T&T’s experience also shows that ideological militant groups can persist and even proliferate while operating below the level of political violence for decades. The foreign fighter debacle was a wake-up call that should have been unnecessary.
[i] Frances Robles, “Trying to Stanch Trinidad’s Flow of Young Recruits to ISIS,” The New York Times, February 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/world/americas/trying-to-stanch-trinidads-flow-of-young-recruits-to-isis.html.
[ii] Simon Cottee, “ISIS in the Caribbean,” The Atlantic, December 8, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/12/isis-trinidad/509930/.
[iii] Chris Zambelis, “Jamaat al-Muslimeen: The Growth and Decline of Islamist Militancy in Trinidad and Tobago,” Terrorism Monitor 7, no. 23 (2009): 8-11, https://jamestown.org/program/jamaat-al-muslimeen-the-growth-and-decline-of-islamist-militancy-in-trinidad-and-tobago/.
[iv] John McCoy and W. Andy Knight, “Homegrown Violent Extremism in Trinidad and Tobago: Local Patterns, Global Trends,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40, no. 4 (2017): 272-76, https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2016.1206734.
[v] Frances Robles, “Trying to Stanch Trinidad’s Flow of Young Recruits to ISIS;” Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Ministry of Planning and Sustainable Development, Central Statistical Office, Trinidad and Tobago 2011 Population and Housing Census Demographic Report, (Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, 2012) 184,
[vi] John McCoy and W. Andy Knight. “Homegrown Violent Extremism in Trinidad and Tobago,” 277-78.
[vii] Tyler Cowen, “Terrorism as Theater: Analysis and Policy Implications,” Public Choice 128 (2006): 233–44.
[viii] The Economist, “Caribbean Politics: Potential Terrorist Hub?” The Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire, June 5, 2007, accessed March 4, 2018, https://search.proquest.com/docview/466562857?accountid=11091
[x] Jamaica Observer, “Trinidad to Amend Anti-Terrorism Legislation,” Jamaica Observer, February 2, 2017,
[xi] Trinidad Daily Express, “Senate Passes Controversial Strategic Services Agency Bill,” Trinidad Daily Express, May 11, 2016, http://www.trinidadexpress.com/20160511/news/senate-passes-controversial-strategic-services-agency-bill.