T&T has a major problem with homegrown terrorism and the terrorist group Isis has a foothold in the country, says Professor W Andy Knight, former director of the Institute of International Relations (IIR), at the University of the West Indies.
He said based on high-profile information, T&T has become a recruiting ground for Isis and al Qaeda and Isis sleeper cells have already been established locally. Evidence of this, Knight said, is the fact that T&T has the second highest per capita rate of extremist travellers in the western world, second only to Kosovo.
Through research here at home, Knight and his Canadian colleague, John McCoy, have found that Isis was utilising a combination of recruitment and propaganda tactics. Apart from slick media productions, the terror group has been using social media and the dark Web to convince young people in this country that they are winning the war against the United States and its allies in the Middle East.
"Isis recruiters paint a picture of a well-run caliphate, a just and fair society governed by Shariah law and they project an ideal state, which they claim is based on the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. They portray the West, including Trinidad and Tobago, as morally corrupt, overly sexualised, and decaying in values," he said.
Knight is urging the Government to "beef up" security intelligence by training people in the tactics of countering violent extremism and dangerous radicalisation. He and his colleague are developing a counter-violent extremism (CVE) programme in Alberta, Canada, which they hope can be tailored to other settings, like T&T, to deal with foreign fighters who are returning to their home countries.
"Transforming the terrorist world view is a challenge but this form of counterterrorism must become the next strategy in the war on terrorism," he said.
Knight teaches international relations at the University of Alberta in Canada, while McCoy is an expert in homegrown violent extremism and newcomer integration in Canada.
infiltrating the system
The people most susceptible to Isis recruitment in this country are largely from marginalised communities, said Knight.
"Several of them have felt excluded from the mainstream of Trinidad and Tobago society for some time. Some of them are recent converts to Islam and have very little grounding in the religion. Many Isis followers in Trinidad and Tobago are targeted by so-called imams who preach a brand of Islam that mainstream Muslims in the country reject."
He said T&T has an established Muslim population that is well-integrated into the society and are contributing members in all sectors of the society. He described them as peaceful citizens who viewed Isis' vitriolic rhetoric as "anathema to the basic tenets of the Muslim faith." Despite this, Isis sympathisers are still able to blend into this already well-established Muslim community and infiltrate remand centres, prisons, schools and mosques to spread their propaganda of hate.
They promise people who show interest in joining substantial rewards in the Islamic State as well as in the after life.
"They make youth believe that they are joining a purposive movement that is important, morally right, and larger than themselves. In addition to the well-made videos that are all over the Internet, Isis has a media arm that produces an online English language magazine called Dabiq which publishes well-written articles and reports that glorify the Islamic State."
It was in this magazine that Trinidadian Abu Sa'd al Trinidadi was featured last month.
Threat is real, attack can happen anywhere
The growing link between terrorism, gangs, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and money laundering has had an impact on the Isis threat which Knight described as real.
T&T has a major problem with criminal activity which has perpetrated different levels of the society and Isis takes advantage of countries that do not have a good handle on crime, said Knight. He explained that if the group was unable to strike at the US homeland, it might decide to go after soft targets in the Caribbean because if its proximity to the US.
"The threat of Isis is real. Extremists can target oil facilities and infrastructure. They can target stadiums during well-attended football matches and cricket tournaments. They can target hotels and restaurants. They can target Carnival and all-inclusive fetes. They can target businesses and university campuses."
He said ISIS has attacked before in countries such as France, Germany, Belgium and Bangladesh.
"Why would they not try to do something similar in this hemisphere?" he said.
Imam: Hard to change people's minds
An Anjuman Sunnat ul Jammat Association (ASJA) cleric said technology is the key to becoming involved in the militant group.
Imam Ayoub Latchan of the St John's Village Masjid on the outskirts of San Fernando, said extremists are giving good Muslims a bad name.
"Their way of life is not our way of life. I will not agree with what is happening. What they're doing is not benefiting anyone or helpful," he said, adding that opposition was not about fighting but winning and encouraging people.
Latchan said: "We need to level the playing field and know a lot about people on the whole. What we see happening is that once someone sees or hears it is a Muslim who does something wrong, the media fraternity pastes Islam and the entire community as however they feel.
"Even though we might take a position and say we disagree, how could I send a message to a particular individual who might be there and he has his own mindset?"
Latchan said Islamic leaders can send many messages against Isis but if a person's mind was made up, it would be difficult to make that person change.
"Those who want to go and do that will go and do it," he said.
The cleric said Isis fighters know "all the good things" but is was no turning back since he described it as "a mindset thing." In the midst of all the negativity against Islam, Lalchan said his personal practice is to speak to his congregation about the upcoming Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, and the sacrifice (Eid-ul-Adha).
He said killing others makes no sense and he called on people to go beyond thinking that such a practice is noble or honourable.
"The world has gone Islamophobia. Muslims are under so much pressure already. Some people have so much difficulty travelling from place to place. They are leaving us with a bad name," he said.