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‘I nearly joined Isis’
Thirteen years after Umar Abdullah, leader of Waajihatul Islaamiyyah, also known as The Islamic Front, was sought by US and British Intelligence for supporting al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and jihad (holy war), he has admitted that he almost joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) as a frontline fighter.
Abdullah, 48, confessed that he was almost tempted last year by several of the 89 local men, some of whom with their wives and children journeyed to far-flung war-torn Syria to fight for Isis, but good sense prevailed.
In analysing the men with whom he interacted, Abdullah said the recruits had common characteristics—they lacked patience, were arrogant, could not live among non-Muslims, and had marital problems. He said many of them were marginalised because of their religion.
What prevented him from going to Syria, he said, was his past experience of being hounded by US and British Intelligence and chairing the Bon Accord Action Council, which falls under the Citizens Security Programme of the Ministry of National Security. The programme is aimed at reducing crime and violence.
Though he has now turned over a new leaf in life, Abdullah is still monitored by a Special Branch officer.
On Wednesday, Abdullah, who shifted from his Princes Town home and took up residence in Tobago, to avoid constant harassment by local and international police, said he has learned from his mistakes.
He said the crime he committed 13 years ago was that of publishing a newsletter in support of Osama Bin Laden (now dead), al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and jihad (holy war), for which he has paid dearly.
“Yes, I did make statements towards America at that time. But like everything else, change is constant. I have been through a lot, and I have learned a lot and educated myself.”
Abdullah said he was not in support of Isis’s actions, where innocent lives were being taken.
For years, he said, there has been a perception that Muslims are linked to terrorism.
On Monday, Trinidad Guardian reported that 89 men from T&T had joined Isis.
The news came days after the deadly terrorist attacks on Paris which claimed 129 victims, left 352 wounded and the world reeling in shock and anger, for which Isis claimed responsibility.
In responding to the bombings in Paris, Minister of National Security Edmund Dillon had stated that T&T was not under threat and there were no laws to stop these men from returning.
Within recent times, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for downing a Russian aircraft, in which more than 200 people were killed, and for bombings in Beruit which killed 43 people.
Abdullah: I know all of the brothers who went to Syria.
Abdullah said, “It was much bigger than quoting a figure with regards to T&T’s men going to fight for Isis. I know of all the brothers who went to Syria. I used to deal with them. They were part of my organisation. I used to live with some of them. I know them personally,” he admitted.
“A lot of them were very arrogant in their ways. They have no patience in doing anything. They were not able to live amongst people, neighbours and the spaces they were in. They also had marital problems.”
Abdullah said although he shared a close relationship with some of the men, they never revealed their plans to him.
He said several of them had lost all sense of direction, reasoning, patience and understanding because they focused primarily on radicalism and fighting than on the true meaning of Islam.
Three weeks ago, a recruitment video entitled “Those who believe and made Hijra,” which featured four Trinidadians in the Ar-Raqqah province of the Islamic State, was circulated on social media.
In the video, the men spoke about what prompted them to leave Trinidad to fight. One man identified as Abu Zayd claimed that in T&T the practice of Islam was limited, while Abu Khalid said although he lived comfortably in T&T, he felt he did not belong.
Last month, Trinidadian Shane Crawford, also known as “Asadullah,” was identified in an Isis video posted on YouTube.
Crawford was seen bathing in the Euphrates River, which starts in eastern Turkey and flows through Iraq and Syria.
In October 2011, Crawford was detained during the State of Emergency for being part of a plot to kill then prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and three cabinet ministers, and conspiring to cause panic in the country.
Abdullah said it was always the men’s intention to be part of a jihad.
He spoke about the activities of the men, many of whom had converted to Islam before 2013 and joined Isis after being discriminated against.
The men, he said, came from all walks of life, but many were university graduates who wore Muslim garb.
He spoke about one fighter who graduated in Islamic studies at a Medieval University as being fully educated.
“They had no jobs, they were always feeling left out and pushed aside by communities. They fought tooth and nail to get their children in public schools because of society’s perception of Muslims being terrorists. It’s difficult to bridge that gap. They are left in positions where their lives are challenging. All these are contributing factors that pushed them to Isis.They always complained about this,” Abdullah said.
From his discussions with some of the men, Abdullah said, they would link up with point men in Isis through social media before they left.
“They leave with nothing. To say there is one person or a group of persons in the country recruiting people to go Isis, that is not true. Those who go keep it a big secret. Those who want to go just have to make up enough money to buy their airline ticket. Some would pass through Venezuela. From there they travel to Paris then Turkey and cross the border to Syria.”
They all go through a screening and interrogation process, at which point some would face rejection.
“Others may end up in another radical group.”
Abdullah said once the applicant passed the test, his passport was seized.
“From the time they take your passport they take away the freedom.”
Abdullah said some were trained to fight, while others made weapons for battle for a small stipend.
“They train in areas of fighting and warfare. They train in a particular type of warfare called attack and retreat. It’s a rigid process because of the state of affairs. They have little means of coming back home. A couple of them have died. It was always their intent to fight jihad...fight for the establishment of Islam. But they failed to understand that Islam is a religion of peace.”
Abdullah dismissed the rumour that the men were paid US$1,000 a day to fight.
“They don’t get US$1,000 daily. They get far less than that. I am in connection with a couple of them there. As a matter of fact, I sent money to some of the Muslim sisters whose husbands have passed away. These sisters would tell me that life is hard where they are. They have accepted that fact that this is their fate. They are comfortable with the fact they can live and practise Islam fully.”
He said the fighters make close to US$30 a day.
Abdullah admitted that many times he tried to dissuade the men from speaking about radicalism.
“We knew this was their leaning. If things were different with me in the early stages I would have been there as well. A lot of them were waiting on me and other leaders to act. But it never happened.”
Abdullah is encouraging the Government to bring back the men to find out what triggered them to go to Syria.
“Give them an opportunity to come back and let them know there would be no prosecution on their path. They are thinking now that if they come back to Trinidad they would be prosecuted or targeted by the State.”
He said the men would also have to be embraced by the Muslim community.
Abu Bakr: They think death is better, Govt must answer
Leader of the Jamaat al-Muslimeen Yasin Abu Bakr said he wanted the Government to answer why young men were leaving our beautiful shores to go to Syria to fight.
“At least 90 per cent of them who leave know they are going to get kill in the battle zone...they will be wiped out. They think that death is better. When the Government can answer this, then we can talk. Everything is wrong in this country.”
Bakr expressed sentiments similar to Abdullah’s, stating that the main cause of the migration was that Muslims were being marginalised.
Bakr said Isis was offering the fighters shelter, money and paradise, while our country offered nothing even though in the last five years $400 billion was spent by the last government.
“There’s a lot of inequality and discrimination. There is no upward mobility for these young men.”
Asked if any of the men who joined Isis were members of the Jamaat, Bakr said no.
“Even if someone came to the mosque and wanted to do that they wouldn’t tell me because my narrative is different to that.”
He said Muslims were just asking for “partial distribution. I can’t even promise them a latrine. If this is not addressed it would get progressively worse. Since 1990 I warning them to change the way we live. We have not learned anything from 1990. We have regressed rather than progressed.”
See Page A 16—Rehabilitating T&T nationals returning from Isis will fail
Isis was formed in April 2013, growing out of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
It has since been disavowed by al-Qaeda, but has become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and Iraq.
Its precise size is unclear but it is thought to include thousands of fighters, including many foreign jihadists.
The organisation is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group has gained a reputation for brutal rule in the areas that it controls which includes large swaths of Syria and Iraq, leading to the refugee crisis in Europe.