The Hidden Radicalization of Trinidad and Tobago

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 10

In the Summer 2016 issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s premier recruitment and radicalization magazine, Abu Sa’d At-Trinidadi urged Muslim Trinidadians to wage Jihad within their home country and “make the streets run with blood.” By singling out his homeland, At-Trinidadi exposed its dangerous secret. Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) fosters the highest ISIS recruitment rate in the Western Hemisphere.

For the country with the highest GDP per capita in the Caribbean and Latin America, the soaring ISIS recruitment rate is shocking to many. But, aggravators of radicalization have been present in the country for decades. However, understanding the demographics of Trinidadian ISIS recruits is pivotal in fully understanding the radicalization process that transpires in the country.

The vast majority of literature surrounding the country’s radicalization problem traces its origin to a coup attempt from 1990. Led by the Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM), a loosely strung together conglomerate of Islamists, the coup resulted in the assassination of the prime minister and incitement of week-long violence and chaos in the country's capital. However, the coup failed, causing JAM to unravel into several rival gangs. These still exist today and contribute to the devastating gang violence in T&T. The gangs often operate in urban, impoverished areas and are the subject of intense public scrutiny. In more than one case the T&T media has suggested that the gang activity is inspired by their Islamic faith, assigning them names like “unruly ISIS,” although the gang lacks any form of radical Islamic affiliations.

Any terrorism scholar can affirm that the demographics of these Muslim gang members are ripe for ISIS recruitment. Numerous studies maintain that the majority of western foreign ISIS recruits are urban, unmarried, lower-class Muslim males in their early to mid-twenties with a criminal record. They are prone to recruitment because of “push” factors pushing them away from their home communities like poverty, marginalization, and lack of female relationship. At-Trinidadi, ISIS’s Trinidadian poster boy, fits this profile almost to the tee. During his radicalization, he was young, had gang affiliations, and struggled to hold a steady job; he was a disenfranchised member of Trinidadian society. Yet, At-Trinidadi’s “push” factors are only half of his radicalization story.

At-Trinidadi was a convert to Islam. Most European countries have Muslim communities that are comprised of 1-2 percent converts. However, estimates predict that 28 percent of T&T’s Muslim community are converts. The ruling Al-Saud family has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars to export their fundamental, rigid, littoral, and denigrating interpretation of Islam (Salafism and Wahhabism) to the world (and T&T) since the 1970s. Their mission is so pungent that the United States’ special envoy to Muslim communities, Farah Pandith, exclaimed “In each place [muslim communities in over 80 countries] I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence.”

The Saudi poisoning of Islamic communities within T&T was echoed by T&T politician Nafeesa Mohammad. She described the moderate and tight-knit Muslim community as having four main organizations, when she was growing up. Ms. Mohammad bemoans that now there are over fifty organizations. The Saudi and Salafist presence has created a more fundamentalist and fragmented Muslim community. The dangers of Salafist indoctrination are self-evident in the story of Trinidadian Ashmead Choate. Choate obtained a Saudi scholarship to study and graduated from Mecca’s Islamic University. He returned to T&T, became the principal of a Salafist school, funded by a Saudi-linked charity, and subsequently left to join ISIS.

While Choate was not a Muslim convert, his story demonstrates the danger of Saudi proselytization. At-Trinidadi was a convert from Christianity to Salafism and referenced his reverence of Choate's teachings in his interview in Dabiq. Nearly 40 percent of Trinidadi ISIS recruits (TIR) are fundamentalist converts. These fundamentalists did not grow up in the Muslim faith and, consequently, have minimal ability to contextualize their fundamental indoctrination within a broader Islamic context. Fundamentalist converts are often only exposed to fundamentalist ideologies of their religion. Adopting the most hardline of doctrines is the path many converts, like At-Trinidadi, welcome in response to their marginalization and in trying to prove their unwavering commitment to their new religious community.

At-Trinidadi’s profile does not end there. He also spent considerable time at Boos mosque and village as did 70 percent of TIRs. The village is headed by Salafist Imam Mohammad Nazim, a radical Islamist involved with the 1990 coup. He retreated to Rio Claro, T&T, and established a community of approximately 25 households who live under his iteration of Sharia. Nazim denies having any ties to ISIS, even though three of his children and their families have joined the caliphate. It is unclear what Nazim preaches to his followers, or if he really is an agent of ISIS recruitment, but one thing rings true: Nazim is the central node of the TIR network.

At-Trinidadi is the perfect combination of drivers as to why a Trinidadian would join ISIS. But, he does not accurately depict the larger demographic. The median TIR is married, 35, part of the middle class, and from rural areas; they are not single, urban, poor disenfranchised males. Most do not suffer from any of the “push” causes of economic and social marginalization or inability to raise a family that At-Trinidadi did. Instead, they share the same “pull” factors, pulling them towards the caliphate. Conversion or exposure to Salafism and interaction with the Boos mosque is a common thread amongst the majority of TIRs.

Presently, terrorism scholarship and the media place a much larger emphasis on push factors than pull factors. Attributing At-Trinidadi’s radicalization solely to marginalization and a life of crime instead of the pull of his social networks and the mechanisms of his ideological indoctrination is case and point. “Pull” factors are not as deeply interrogated in the media and terrorism scholarship, because they involve a deep dive into local culture and social dynamics. They are often harder to define, measure, and are prickly to talk about. Interrogating “pull” factors involves investigating uneasy questions about religion, examining the impact of malice in social networks, and holding world hegemons accountable. If society is going to remedy the problem of global terrorism, it warrants a nuanced understanding of factors that both pull and push recruits into the grasp of ISIS.

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