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Tracking T&T terrorist fighters
Beyond individuals leaving to participate in terrorist activities overseas, no clear trend or organised movement of people —including from any particular mosque—has been noted, say local authorities.
The position was made clear by Government after National Security Minister Edmund Dillon said 130 people are involved in such activities overseas. He indicated that 72 adults and 58 family members had gone overseas on terrorist missions.
Considering the challenges, including T&T’s heavy Muslim population with a small radical minority—and exploitation of the religion largely by fringe criminal elements—surveillance has increased and legislative curbs are upcoming.
UK sociologist Simon Cottee, who believes T&T tops the list of Western countries with the highest rates of foreign-fighter radicalisation, may have confirmed why Dillon’s announcement has now attracted attention from US media, Al Jazeera, the Atlantic and other organisations.
“As a proportion of the total number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, the figure 130 isn’t a lot. According to New York security intelligence firm, Soufan, 27,000 to 31,000 people have travelled to Syria/Iraq to join Isis and other extremist groups from at least 86 countries.
“But if T&T’s population is only 1.3 million, including 104,000 Muslims, then T&T tops the list of Western countries with the highest rates of foreign-fighter (FTF) radicalisation,” Cottee said.
“Experts credit Belgium as one of the top five countries with the highest rates of FTF radicalisation. It has a population of 11.5 million to 650,000 Muslims with 470 FTFs.
“Compare T&T: out of 104,000 Muslims, 130, left—remember, this is the official figure which I think is on the conservative side. This means T&T has a higher FTF radicalisation rate than Belgium.
Cottee said: “Tunisia and Saudi Arabia top the FTF list, with totals of 7,000 and 2,500 respectively. In Europe, where more than 5,000 have travelled to Syria, late 2015 figures are France (1,800), Britain (760,) Germany, (760) Belgium, (470).
Cottee didn’t respond to queries about why he described the 130 figure from T&T as conservative, nor did he have comparison figures for Suriname or Guyana, two other regional territories with high Muslim populations.
He said terrorism experts have largely ignored T&T, but Belgium, France, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon have the highest rates of foreign fighter radicalisation.
Next is what happens to the 130 when the Syria/Iraq “caliphate” falls, as expected over the next year, Cottee added.
“Many died, many will undoubtedly. But some will return. T&T needs a sensible, open conversation about what to do with returnees, especially women and children.”
Dillon has said agencies are monitoring how outflows may contribute to local crime. His predecessor Gary Griffith agrees.
“In my tenure, we confirmed 35 terrorist fighters left, but didn’t lump wives/children with fighters. Intel reports showed links between the 35 and people involved in serious crimes and gangs.
“A Special Branch report warned of the assassination plot against the (then) Prime Minister—the reason the 2011 State of Emergency was called. Interestingly, people alleged to be involved were among those who later left T&T.”
Griffith believes those who went to Syria were more mercenaries than Muslim.
“It may have been more about money and being misguided than religion,” he said.
Jamaat al Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr, whose organisation attempted the failed 1990 coup, said he has always condemned people going to Syria.
He cites poverty “which brings in drugs and guns. Thousands are living on $900 (a month). Numbers are dwindling (with gang wars). I conducted at least one funeral weekly in 2016.”
— Part III of a T&T Guardian investigation
SCAPEGOATS FOR RISING CRIME
When former US President Barack Obama was due here for the 2009 Americas Summit the FBI vetted Imam Nazim Mohammed of Rio Claro, an area where the largest number of deportees on an 2013-2015 Intel list was noted. He has always denied FTF recruitment or Middle East travel facilitation, even when his daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren left for Syria in 2015. His replies on this focused less on them and more about Islam and the US.
Doesn’t Mohammed want to see his grandchildren?
“They’re fine . . . but we don’t believe in this life, the life hereafter is our belief,” he said.
Some south Trinidad imams say deportees may have been financially broke, or felt alienated.
“You’ll hear about persons ‘going’ from Rio Claro, Princes Town, Gasparillo, central — even UWI, and the East-West Corridor from one particular community,” one said.
Nur-e-Islam imam Sheraz Ali confirmed that five from his mosque went overseas. One was killed.
Dominic Pitilal is also concerned about Islamphobia. He was among five nationals detained in Venezuela in 2014 on terrorism suspicion, then convicted of espionage. He was also one of 15 held in connection with an the alleged 2011 assassination plot against the former PM.
Pitilal said: “How many Muslim ‘terrorists’ were arrested for the year’s 72 murders? Making Muslims scapegoats could well make people leave here.”
Princes Town Islamic scholar Ashmead Choate, also among the 15 held for the 2011 plot, was among those listed in 2013/2015 intel, which stated that he departed for Syria via Brazil in August 2015. Unconfirmed reports state that he was killed.
Islamic front’s Umar Abdullah claims Choate wanted to “steer extremists away from violence.”
Local 2011 news reports described Choate as the mastermind behind the 2011 assassination plot against former Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and other Peoples Partnership ministers. Police claimed there was insufficient evidence to lay charges. Some associates said Choate encountered financial difficulties after that, and left.
In 2011, Choate’s attorney, reported to be Faris Al-Rawi, sought the identity of a Special Branch officer and informant on whose evidence Choate was arrested. Al-Rawi—who has never hidden the fact his father is Iraqi and that he has relatives in Iraq , Syria and Lebanon—is now Attorney General and is the one who announced Government’s anti-terrorism amendments.
THOSE LEAVING OVER 2013-2015
The 2013-2015 intelligence document indicated 105—men, women and approximately 43 children— were listed as leaving T&T for Syria.
• Mainly men leaving since 2013; more family groups, over 2014/2015.
• The men were in their early 20s to 50s and women in their teens to 50s.
• The 32 boys outnumbered girls. They were ages three to 16.
• The majority of the adults were from Rio Claro, central Trinidad, areas along the East-West Corridor areas.
• Families and groups: Cunupia (two), Rio Claro (nine), Enterprise (four) Edinburgh 500 (one), San Juan (six), Santa Cruz (one), Longdenville (one), Trincity/Gonzales(one), Maloney/D’Abadie (one), Morvant (one), Claxton Bay (two).
• Routes—Trinidad /Tobago/ Frankfurt/Turkey; Trinidad/Venezuela via Barbados, Guyana, Suriname, Brazil, Panama, London and Egypt; Curacao/Amsterdam/London; London/Dubai/Manila; T&T/Brazil; T&T/Venezuela/Africa/Turkey
• Approximately 12 T&T nationals were reportedly killed.
• Returnees include a mother and two daughters originally connected to mosques in Rio Claro and Enterprise, who left in 2014 with an older male and two boys. The females sought PP government help to return on the basis of alleged trafficking of the girls. The males proceeded to Syria and two reportedly were killed subsequently. Two males in their 30s from north and east Trinidad were sent back from Turkey in early 2016.