While Stuart Mohamed went under the radar, some of his fellow Trinidadian jihadists occupied the limelight. Shane Crawford became an international poster boy for ISIS after his six-page feature in ISIS’s premier propaganda magazine, Dabiq. In this profile, Crawford explained how he came to Islam and embraced jihad. He also castigated his fellow Muslims back in Trinidad for remaining in “a place where you have no honor and are forced to live in humiliation, subjugated by the disbelievers”. More chillingly, he urged the very same Muslims to redeem themselves by murdering their fellow citizens: “Terrify the disbelievers in their own homes and make their streets run with their blood.” – Video from Shane Crawford’s mobile phone in 2015 which was circulating on mobile and social networks and online media platforms. Episode 4 of podcast series,
Terror in the Caribbean, Shane Crawford.
Curiously, Crawford never appeared in an ISIS video, but several of his fellow Trinidadian nationals did. One of them was a career extremist named Zaid Abdul Hamid, a 39-year-old from Chaguanas (Central Trinidad), not far from where Crawford grew up in Dass Trace, Enterprise (Central Trinidad). Hamid left Trinidad in April 2014, together with his wife and three boys, who were aged seven, six and five at the time. It’s likely that he knew Crawford well, since both men shared a jail cell together when they were arrested in 2011 on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the then Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar and senior members of her cabinet – an offence for which they were not charged. According to an anonymous security source in Trinidad, Hamid was an associate of Abdullah el-Faisal, a Jamaican cleric who is currently facing charges in the US for allegedly acting as a facilitator for ISIS.
It didn’t take Hamid long to make his mark in Syria. On August 2, 2014, ISIS released a video titled Eid Greetings from the Land of Khilafah. Filmed in Raqqa, it showcased the testimony of foreign fighters from all over the world. About halfway into the 20-minute video Hamid appears, holding one of his children. “I’m feeling like I’m still dreaming,” he says. “Please, all believers, come to Sham [Syria] as soon as possible. Do not make the shayṭān [devil] hold you back… look at all the little children, they are having fun.”
Hamid was captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces in late December 2018, a good few pounds lighter than when he appeared in the Eid Greetings video. In an interview with Fox News in January he was wholly unrepentant. He also claimed, in an interview with Vice’s Aris Roussinos, that he had not fought as a combatant in ISIS, but was only a medic. Yet, the video evidence suggests otherwise: Hamid appeared in Flames of War 2, a hyper-violent official ISIS video released in November 2017. In one scene he can be seen carrying an automatic rifle in an active warzone, shouting: “We came here to take over this place and implement the sharia [Islamic law]. And after we take the neck off of Assad, we will take the neck off of Trump, inshallah [‘if God wills’].” (Revealingly, Roussinos told me that Hamid bummed two cigarettes from him, smoking one before the interview with him and another immediately after it, flagrantly transgressing ISIS’s prohibition against this practice.)
Even more prolific than Crawford and Hamid was Sean Parson (AKA Abu Khalid al-Amriki). According to a security source in Trinidad, Parson didn’t fight a single battle in Syria, but he was at the forefront of ISIS’s “cyber caliphate”, becoming a leading member of a Raqqa-based unit of English-speaking propagandists and attack planners dubbed “the Legion” by the FBI. Led by the British hacker Junaid Hussain (AKA Abu Hussain al-Britani), the group was terrifyingly effective, remotely guiding several ISIS plotters in the US to carry out attacks there. In response, the US killed all of its key members, one by one, in carefully targeted drone strikes.
Parson was especially active on Twitter, using his numerous accounts to disseminate ISIS’s message and to directly communicate with supporters outside of Syria and Iraq. One person he was in close contact with was Keonna Thomas, a 32-year-old mother of two from Philadelphia. According to court records, Parson married Thomas over Skype and had encouraged her to join him in Syria. Ever the sweet-talker, Parson told Thomas, “U probably want to do Istishadee with me.” Istishadee refers to a suicide bombing. To this, Thomas gushingly replied: “That would be amazing… a girl can only wish.”
Thomas, who was arrested by the FBI the day before she was due to board a plane to Barcelona, from where she had planned to go to Turkey and onto to Syria, was also in communication with Abdullah el- Faisal, who may have introduced her to Parson.
In July 2015, Parson gave an interview to Australian journalist, Lauren Williams, who quizzed him about life in the caliphate. Asked whether he had participated in any beheadings, Parson answered: “Yes, a few days ago on the battlefield in Al-Hasakah [a city in Syria with a large Kurdish population].” Two months after giving this interview, Parson was killed in a drone strike. In one of his last tweets he stated, perhaps in anticipation of his own fate, “You fly a remote control plane halfway across the world to kill an enemy that you are too coward to meet face to face.”
Captives and Returnees
Now, over 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 US troops and support from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
In February 2019, Sky News interviewed a female detainee at the Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria. Veiled and speaking with a Caribbean accent, she estimated that there were 90 Trinidadian children being held in Syria. “I would like to hear Trinidad’s view on the people who are here… Ninety kids. Do they care? Are they even concerned?”
It is difficult to know if this figure is accurate since the Kurdish authorities in Syria do not share data on detainees with journalists or researchers. One local group in Trinidad, the “Concerned Muslims of T&T”, is calling for the repatriation of all Trinidadian women and children. According to them, there are 40 children and 16 women in the Al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria alone. A story in Middle East Eye, dated 15th November 2019, claims that the number of Trinidadian children is as high as 70 in the Al Hol camp; of this number, 19 were reportedly born in Syria. The group is calling on the government of Trinidad and Tobago to bring home all the ISIS-affiliated Trinidadian women and children.
The moral case for the repatriation of Trinidadian 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. ISIS was known for employing male children soldiers and for female children as brides. The emotional and mental condition of some of these children will require special attention and an effective social welfare system for them to be reintegrated into society. This infrastructure does not exist in Trinidad and Tobago and the government has not revealed any plans on how they will deal with returnees.
There is another moral case, however, which is equally strong and flows directly from the one just stated: this is the case for prosecuting the Trinidadian women who took their children to Syria or Iraq. Under Anti-Terrorism legislation these women will walk free since at the time they left to travel to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq it wasn’t a crime to do so in Trinidad, and ISIS had yet to be proscribed by the government as a terrorist group. (The revisions to the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which hinder travel to jihadi hot-spots abroad and clamp down on terrorist financing did not pass into law until August 2018 and cannot be applied retroactively.)
There is also the issue of whether or not these women were complicit in committing war crimes or other human rights abuses, given that some ISIS women kept Yazidi slaves and reportedly fought on the battlefield. If women are allowed to return home, how will the extent of their involvement be determined? Will they be able to live among normal citizens of Trinidad and Tobago and propagate radicalized ideologies or will they simply re-assimilate into society and Trinidadian culture and lifestyle? How will one be able to determine if female returnees were members of the Al-Khansaa Brigade (a female enforcement division of ISIS who not only fought on the front line but also punished other women who do not adhere to the rules of being an ISIS female).
Research Fellow at Lowy Institute, Lydia Khalil presented a paper entitled, Beyond the Veil: Women in Jihad after the Caliphate, and makes the point that the “Islamic State still views women as critical to the long-term survival of the organisation in their roles as wives, mothers, and indoctrinators of the next generation of jihad. In the words of one IS supporter smuggled out of Syria back to her home country: “We will bring up strong sons and daughters and tell them about the life in the caliphate. Even if we hadn’t been able to keep it, our children will one day get it back.”
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 ISIS was conscripting boys into combat as young as ten and girls into marriages (and sexual servitude) as young as nine.
Imam Sheraz Ali (of Nur E Islam, El Socorro, Trinidad) has suggested that many ISIS-affiliated Trinidadian women were coerced or threatened into joining ISIS by their husbands. Ali has also remarked that there is no evidence that any Trinidadian women took part in the fighting in Syria and Iraq. While some Trinidadian women may have been coerced into going to Syria or Iraq, the account Ali presents is one-sided. Indeed, many, like Aneesa Waheed, Tricia Ramirez and Aliya Abdul Haqq, to name just a few, were die-hard supporters of ISIS who wanted to join the group; and, far from being “groomed” or “misled” into joining, they were, in fact, actively cheerleading for ISIS on social media before they left Trinidad. The idea they didn’t know what they were getting themselves seems contemptible.
The number of male Trinidadians currently in detention in these two countries remains unclear, although four men can definitely be accounted for: Zaid Abdul Hamid, Safraz Ali, and Nicholas Joseph Lee (AKA Abu Yousuf al-Amriki) and Ziyad Mohammed. The total number of Trinidadian male detainees is unknown. It is important to note that it is assumed that many fighters are dead but in some instances there has been no conclusive evidence.
The recent case of Al Bara Shishani in Ukraine is a prime example. Shishani is the ISIS deputy minister of war and was thought to have been killed in battle. It was discovered that he used false passports to cross borders and is now in custody in Kiev. It is a dilemma faced by many countries and poor border control is an easy escape route.
Groups in Trinidad, such as “Concerned Muslims” and individuals such as Umar Abdullah of the Islamic Front have been calling on the government to ensure that T&T nationals are allowed to safely return home. Some members of the population are apprehensive about this, especially given the background of someone like Umar Abdullah who was investigated in 2002 to 2003 by American and British intelligence agencies for his possible links to Al Qaeda. According to reports in the local news at that time, newsletters published by the Islamic Front openly supported Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban and jihad and called for the setting up of an Islamic State in Trinidad and Tobago. Abdullah grew up in South Trinidad and once lived on Imam Nazim Mohammed’s settlement. Within recent times, Abdullah said he tried to dissuade some Trinidadian ISIS recruits.
Some male nationals of Trinidad and Tobago in detention in Syria have sought to deny or minimize their involvement in ISIS. For example, 39-year-old Safraz Ali (Ali has two aliases: Ahmed Kanadi and Abu Henricki) claims that he didn’t know about the ISIS beheading of western hostages before he left Trinidad and that he hadn’t fought on the battlefield for ISIS. Many other western ISIS-affiliated detainees have made similar pleas, insisting that they were misled into going to Syria and Iraq and that were only cooks or farmhands for ISIS. These claims must be treated with a great deal of skepticism, and are clearly intended to garner sympathy.
Thus far, there have been no public calls in Trinidad for the repatriation of male ISIS-affiliated Trinidadians. But the government should be prepared for their possible return and put mechanisms in place for this. Clearly, these individuals will pose a grave security risk, given their extensive combat experience. They may also, just like their female counterparts, try to sow further discord once they return. They must be rigorously assessed and closely monitored by the security services, and, where possible, tried for involvement in war crimes in Syria and for trafficking their children into ISIS.
Interim Chair of the Islamic Round Table in T&T, Mr Hafeez Khan shared his view on the returnees, stating that his personal belief is that “those who went knew what they were getting into.”
The government must also invest more resources into counter-terrorism. At present, counter-terrorism efforts are spearheaded by the SAA (Strategic Services Agency) and Special Branch, two branches of the state that do not always cooperate effectively and openly with each other. The Police Commissioner Gary Griffith has long called for a specialist unit devoted to monitoring and foiling terrorist threats. The case for introducing such a unit is now overwhelming.
In August 2018, the T&T government passed legislation to clamp down on terrorist funding and to stop people from going to terrorist hot-spots like Iraq and Syria. This, though late in coming, is to be commended. However, it has yet to fully address the issue of radicalization in the country. In America and Europe, governments have supported efforts to “counter-message” violent extremists and empower communities to protect themselves against the recruiters and radicals. Should the T&T government do the same?
The US Embassy in Trinidad has engaged several community groups as part of a CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programme to develop sustainable engagement and empowerment social models with the goal of “counter-messaging” to address various forms of radicalization.
The T&T government needs to become involved in such projects while also proceeding with caution in who it enlists as community partners. Whatever it chooses to do on this front, its efforts should be carefully calibrated and focused exclusively on engaging those communities in which ISIS recruitment has been taking place and on the mosques – in Rio Claro, Chaguanas and Diego Martin – most closely associated with the block migrations to Syria and Iraq. For far too long the government has slept on the problem of violent extremism. It is time for it to take a more proactive and positive approach.
On Sunday, November 17, 2019, Minister of National Security Stuart Young said, “As Minister of National Security, I am ensuring that the relevant authorities are conducting verification and information gathering exercises and I will say that some of the evidence obtained so far with respect to some Trinidadians who went to join ISIS is very disturbing… at National Security, rest assured that we will continue to act responsibly and based on facts and evidence using, inter alia, Team Nightingale to ensure that the best decisions and actions are taken in the public interest.” Team Nightingale is comprised of several units of the Ministry of National Security and was formed to deal with the reintegration and repatriation of TT Nationals.
“Some of the evidence obtained so far with respect to some Trinidadians who went to join ISIS is very disturbing.”
Minister of National Security, Stuart Young
17th November 2019
On 25th November 2019, the Minister of National Security of Trinidad and Tobago, the Honourable Stuart Young, hosted a meeting with a team from the Embassy of the United States of America and discussed matters related to the repatriation and reintegration of returnees. A press release on the meeting stated that Minister Young “reiterated his commitment to advancing bilateral security cooperation to ensure the safety and security of all persons in Trinidad and Tobago.”