Trinidad and Tobago is a twin island republic known as the birthplace of steelpan and calypso. The oil-rich nation of Trinidad and Tobago is the western world’s highest per capita supplier of ISIS recruits. What would cause so many to leave this tropical paradise for a war zone?
From a settlement in this small lumber town, Imam Nazim Mohammed operates a mosque, an elementary school and a weekly food program for the poor.
But Mohammed, 78, has earned a reputation that few in the West can match. Some 70 per cent of the 130 Trinidadians who left the Caribbean nation to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq have lived on or near the 30 houses in the imam’s settlement. And among those who have left to join the jihadist group are some 15 members of his family.
The imam who in 1990 joined Islamic militants in a bloody attempted coup, has been questioned by local authorities about the alarming number of people connected to him who have declared war on the West.
Mohammed insists that his loved ones did not inform him of their plans to join ISIS. He denies any personal connection to the terror group.
The issue of ISIS fighters from Trinidad have been chronicled by newspaper and magazine writers who expressed alarm that this tropical island, known as the birthplace of steel drums and calypso, could produce such a high number of radicalized killers.
A nine-month investigation by the Caribbean Investigative Journalism Network has for the first time revealed that:
Many of the ISIS fighters from Trinidad belonged to a small Islamic network of independent mosques that base their teachings mainly on Salafism.
For unknown reasons, local authorities have yet to arrest or charge anyone who sent recruits to the terror network.
The Trinidadians who travelled to Syria did so as families; there were no individuals.
One of the key cyber planners for ISIS was from Trinidad and Tobago.
A strong body of research on radicalization suggests that social networks, particularly families, play a strong role in facilitating radicalization and recruitment to terrorist groups. Data collected by British criminologist, Dr Simon Cottee, on Trinidadian ISIS travellers support the claim that everyone in T&T who left for Syria and Iraq was part of the same network. They all knew each other, either because they were related or were friends. No one self-radicalized, and no one left for Syria and Iraq without the support of the network.
The network stretched across three main geographic areas: Rio Claro in the south-east of Trinidad, Chaguanas in central and Diego Martin in the north-east. At the center of the network, in the form of its leading spiritual authority, is 78-year-old Imam Nazim Mohammed, who remains in Trinidad and presides over his own religious settlement (a sizeable area of land that includes the mosque and around 30 houses he owns) in the rural town of Rio Claro. The majority of those who participated in the pro-ISIS network in Trinidad — nearly 70 per cent — lived on or near Mohammed’s settlement before they mobilized for Syria/Iraq.
In media interviews, including one with the author, Mohammed has denied any association with ISIS, yet some 15 members of his family left to join the group in Syria and Iraq, including his daughter Aneesa, his son-in-law Daud Waheed and several of his grandchildren. Mohammed is also related to Emraan Ali, who married his granddaughter and helped finance his mosque. In September 2018, the US Department of the Treasury named and sanctioned Ali, along with fellow Trinidadian national Eddie Aleong, as a financier of ISIS. (Ali left for Syria, with his family, in March 2015; his current status is unknown.)
Mohammed’s network has its roots in the Jamaat al Muslimeen, a group of predominantly Afro-Trini Muslims led by Imam 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 to ransom for six days. They didn’t succeed, and Bakr and his men were tried for treason. After their release from prison (they were pardoned in 1992), 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.
Raoul Pantin (who died in 2015) recounted his hostage experience and interaction with Imam Nazim during the coup in a book titled, Days of Wrath – The 1990 Coup in Trinidad and Tobago. Pantin wrote that Mohammed said what they were doing “was purifying a corrupt society as God’s work. As for taking up the gun, that too was God’s work. Our enemy has the gun… we would be fools not to take up the gun… we would be fools not to take up the gun. Allah has given man two hands to feed himself with. Whether we win or lose, it is the will of Allah.”
Over the past three years in several media interviews, Mohammed denied running an Islamic State training program, and insisted that he operated an elementary school and a weekly food program for the poor. But he acknowledged that two of his children and five of his grandchildren were in Syria, and that the adults were believed to be involved with the Islamic State. In an interview with the New York Times in February 2017, he said, “Killing and murdering is not Islamic… Our program is to help people. You know how many people have come here for help?” He insisted that his children did not notify him of their plans, and he shrugged off the group’s influence. “Who is ISIS?” he said. “ISIS is just a few people.”
The Foiled Carnival Terror Plot of 2018
In 2018, there was a Carnival terror plot which was foiled due to intelligence collaboration between the US Embassy and the Ministry of National Security in Trinidad. A total of 15 people were arrested and questioned, a few homes and mosques were searched and only two people were charged for possession of a firearm. Trinidad may consider itself lucky to have escaped bombings or other planned attacks which were trending in the news at that time. But have those suspects been monitored? What about their associates?
One of the people questioned was Eddie Aleong of Enterprise in Central Trinidad. He was one of two Trinidadian men who were sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for suspicion of financing ISIS. His assets have been frozen, but he has not been arrested or charged. The question is how will the authorities in the twin island republic deal with individuals who are known to be liaisons for ISIS recruits?
Based on several credible reports, there are currently about 100 T&T nationals at the Al Hol camp in northeast Syria. Although the majority are said to be children, there are women and possibly men. Is Trinidad and Tobago prepared for returnee ISIS families?
In 2018, the government of Trinidad and Tobago stated that 130 citizens had joined ISIS. However, sources linked the Ministry of National Security said that the number is closer to 240 people. The reason for the disparity is due to the fact that as time progressed, security intelligence got confirmation of who joined the “caliphate.” It is obvious that a lack of proper surveillance allowed Trinidadian IS migrants to go unnoticed. With a population of 1.3 million and approximately eight per cent Muslim, the recruitment statistics are alarmingly high.
With the withdrawal of US troops, several detention camps and prisons have been compromised and refugee camps in places such as Al Hol are becoming overcrowded. The real numbers and life stories of ISIS migrants and their intentions are being uncovered. What factors led to their belief in being part of a movement wrought with violence and grounded in an ideology of Salafism?
Known Stats on Trinidadian ISIS Migrants
(Based on data of 70 known individuals.)
– Trinidad and Tobago is the highest per capita in the Western world for number of ISIS migrants
– 34 per cent male; 23 per cent female; 43 per cent minors
– Trinidad & Tobago tops the list in the Western world for the number of female ISIS migrants and the number of migrant families
– All attended Salafi mosques. Salafi: a far right branch of Sunni Islam which became popular in the late 19thcentury)
– ISIS migrants came from these mosques: Umar Ibn Khattab; Masjid Al Khaleefa; Masjid Da’Watil Haqq; Nur E Islam
– Of the known ISIS migrants, it is estimated that approximately 70 per cent came from Umar Ibn Khattab