A report by Muhammad Fraser-Rahim for Newsweek.
Last Thursday, U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Caribbean, aided and advised state security forces in Trinidad to apprehend four extremists who sought to carry out an imminent terrorist attack during Carnival.
The rumored attack represented a broadening of the threat from the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS, which has disbanded into a network of ragtag insurgency movements after losing territory in its traditional strongholds in the Middle East.
The fall of Raqqa in Syria last year, in which U.S. backed forces declared that major military operations against ISIS had ended, marked the end of ISIS’s self-declared Islamic “caliphate.” But it left the broader Middle East and the international community asking: What happens next?
The apparent threat appearing in the Caribbean went some way to answering the question. ISIS sympathizers, such as those found in the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, a small nation off the coast of Venezuela, would continue to follow the established agenda.
Trinidad and Tobago appeared on the radar of Western state security services in recent years when it emerged that it had the largest per capita number of foreign fighters joining ISIS of any country in the western hemisphere. Though estimates of the true number of recruits vary from under a couple hundred to close to 300, the exact numbers are beside the point. One individual is too many and the greatest concern is how the fighters plan to utilize their newly-acquired skills after returning home.
This issue isn’t new to those of us in the field. In 2011, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of one of the major Al-Qaeda franchises, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was created because local black Africans wanted to carry out attacks inside their countries of birth, including Senegal, Niger, Mali and Chad.
They expressed that with their new technical skills and newly-adopted Islamist ideology, they were best prepared to carry out attacks in their homeland. They placed special emphasis on the historical figures of Islamic West Africa—a strategy to gain new recruits from their region and to connect the broader extremist ideology with the local reality in which they lived.
This precedent gives major concern to governmental, civil society and grassroots community members in Trinidad and Tobago as the nation finds effective strategiesto respond appropriately.
Late last year, I traveled to the Caribbean island nation to engage with local communities, civil society and governmental officials to firstly understand the complexities of the situation and the measures that could be put in place to receive individuals who were likely to return home post-ISIS.
Secondly, we explored what measures were put in place within government structures to rehabilitate. Lastly we needed to determine how communities at the grassroots level can aid in ensuring and encouraging the resilience against extremism.
Solutions are not easy to find, but having an opportunity to engage with local actors, here are just a few recommendations to consider:
Establish a Counter-Extremism Rehabilitation Center
Trinidad and Tobago has decades of experience working with criminal gang and drug violence prevention including the work of leading organizations like Roots Foundation and Vision on Mission. Some of the organizations’ members were previously involved in the drug and gang culture and they can serve as a model to work alongside other counter extremist organizations and networks. They can share good practices as they engage with the emerging Islamist extremist ideology. Finding a tailored and focused Trinidad and Tobago-appropriate response will allow for long term sustainability to combat the problem.
Support Arts and Culture
It could be effective for local leaders to work in collaboration with existing U.S. Embassy efforts, including the International Visitors Leadership Program, to create dialogue at the grassroots level between faith based communities in Trinidad and Tobago and the U.S. Together they can attempt to find effective strategies to combat extremism. In addition, empowering local voices across societal lines on a range of topics will allow for long-term sustainability.
Trinidad and Tobago Government Counter-Extremism Policy
The government at large is moving in the right direction and has begun some positive efforts to address the rising threat both internally and regionally. However, the issue of violent extremism is a bipartisan issue on the island nation and is a public safety issue.
By working across political divides, governmental officials have the opportunity to create a focused and effective policy that is not only government-supported but also includes an all-of-society approach. It is important to include civil society, inter-generational and religious communities including representations from Afro-Trinidadian and East Indian Muslim communities, whose voices and diverse views are critical for long term success in the country.