Islamic Foreign Fighters: Security Challenges in Trinidad and Tobago

From August 24-31, 2017, I had the opportunity to travel to Trinidad and Tobago, just off the north coast of South America, to speak with defense and security experts regarding the challenges facing their country and the work of the government to confront them.

As the U.S. government engages globally in the fight against ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups, Trinidad and Tobago has the dubious distinction of being the country which has sent the greatest number of foreign terrorist fighters to Iraq and Syria on a per capita basis.  And as the United States fights against narcotics flows, Trinidad and Tobago is playing an increasing role in transit routes for smuggling drugs to the U.S. and Europe through the Caribbean.  Insofar as the Caribbean is geographically contiguous to the United States, its stability, security and good governance directly affects the U.S. through flows of people and goods, and the opportunity for criminals and others who would do harm to the U.S. to exploit violence, corruption, and weakly governed spaces.  The ability of the United States to be secure within its own borders, and its ability to project power globally, fundamentally depends on security close to home.

This paper provides a framework for U.S. policymakers regarding the interrelated security challenges of Trinidad and Tobago, with recommendations for the dedication of greater attention and resources to those challenges.

Overview of the Challenge

Trinidad and Tobago is a country of remarkable contrasts and contradictions about which most Americans have very little knowledge.  The tiny nation of 1.2 million people straddles two islands: Trinidad, by far the larger of the two, is an industrial powerhouse and a financial center for the Eastern Caribbean, having leveraged significant offshore and onshore natural gas resources to build a major petrochemical industry, including a petroleum services sector that supports numerous projects in the surrounding region.  Tobago, often forgotten, including when people abbreviate the name of the country (to just “Trinidad”), is a beautiful island with an economy based on tourism and enjoys a degree of self-government.

Despite its small size, Trinidad and Tobago is one of the wealthiest, most economically developed, and most ethnically diverse countries in the region, with populations of African, Indian, Lebanese, Chinese, and European descent.  Its diversity is both reinforced and complicated by its relatively open borders and its tradition of being a nation of immigrants, with significant recently arrived communities from Venezuela, China, Syria, and Africa.

Despite its high per capita GDP, Trinidad and Tobago has the highest incidence of violent crime in the Eastern Caribbean, with 463 homicides in 2016, approximately 35 per 100,000 residents.  The country also has a significant gang problem and was the subject of an attempted coup in 1990 by the local radical Islamic group Jamaat al Muslimeen (JAM). It also has the dubious fame of being the largest contributor in the region on a per capita basis of Islamic fighters to Iraq and Syria.  Only diverse and quirky Trinidad and Tobago could have a group calling itself “Unruly Isis”.

Understanding Trinidad and Tobago’s Challenges

Beyond the headline-capturing problem of the radicalized youth who have left Trinidad and Tobago to fight for ISIS, the principal symptoms of the malaise affecting the country are gangs, guns and drugs.  Yet endemic corruption is arguably the underlying problem that allows the cancer to spread.  Indeed, in August 2017, the country’s Prime Minister Keith Rowley acknowledged corruption as the principal challenge facing his government.

Islamic Foreign Fighters

The present foreign fighter problem must be understood in the context of the 1990 coup attempt by the JAM, and the convoluted interaction between Islam and gangs in giving purpose to a portion of the country’s alienated youth.

Trinidad and Tobago’s original Muslim population was of East Indian descent and lived fairly harmoniously with other parts of the population.  The JAM, by contrast, had its origins in the marginalized afro-Trinidadian youth of slums such as Laventille.  Its leader, former police officer Lennox Philip (who converted to Islam and assumed the name Yasin Abu Bakr), built his movement on the alienation of such youth and the perceived widespread corruption that permeates Trini government and society.

Following the unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the state in 1990, and the government’s decision under duress to pardon the JAM leadership, the movement metastasized into multiple afro-Trinidadian youth gangs, ever more loosely connected with JAM founder Abu Bakr.  Those groups interacted with numerous other small and medium-sized gangs concentrated in the urban East-West corridor in the north that extends to the western coast.

With respect to the approximately 150-175 persons who have left Trinidad to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the majority have not come directly from the JAM, nor do they attend its principal mosque in the Port of Spain suburb of St. James. Rather, most have their origins in the afro-Muslim gangs which have spun off from the JAM since 1990. They attend or have been influenced by mosques with more extremist teachings, and in particular, mosques in Rio Claro, Carapo, and the Enterprise area. There is, nonetheless, still a connection between the JAM and the foreign fighters insofar as the leaders of the more radical mosques, including Nazim Muhammed of the Rio Claro mosque (from which the greatest number of presumed ISIS recruits have come), and Hassan Ali, head of the Carapo mosque, were part of the movement that led to the 1990 JAM coup attempt, and still maintain ties to the JAM and its leader Abu Bakr.  In another case, a JAM-affiliated leader from the Rio Claro mosque has left the mosque with a group of followers, and has reportedly set up a new temporary facility for prayer services and other activities more consistent with the group’s radical beliefs in a compound of makeshift tents in Diego Martin.

Despite some connections, in the context of Trinidad and Tobago as a democratic society with freedom of expression, the public discourse of Imams in radical mosques during prayer service does not necessarily violate the law.  Similarly, at least one of the JAM mosque compounds has an obstacle course that could be used for paramilitary training.  Yet such a facility is no more inherently threatening on paper than a rock climbing wall in a U.S. community center.  The state has, however, taken action when the activities of those mosques have violated the law.  A case in point is the 2015 trial and conviction on murder charges of Rajaee Ali, the son of the leader of the Rio Claro mosque.

With respect to the foreign fighters, very few are known to have returned, yet little is known about those who have left.  Trinidad and Tobago has a relatively strong anti-terrorism law, passed by parliament in 2005 and strengthened on three separate occasions since (2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014).  As with the rhetoric of Imams and the facilities in radical mosques, taking legal action against foreign fighters under Trinidad and Tobago’s 2005 terrorism act has been challenging because of the difficulty of proving, at the level required to achieve a criminal conviction, that an Islamic citizen traveling from Trinidad and Tobago to another Islamic country such as Turkey, is necessarily doing so with the intention to fight for ISIS.

Not only has the movement of foreign terrorist fighters from Trinidad and Tobago to the Middle East contributed to the problem of ISIS there, but their return presents risks of terrorist incidents in, or from, Trinidad and Tobago, and the rest of the region, with implications for the United States.

Criminal Gangs

The recruitment of foreign fighters from the portion of Trinidad and Tobago’s gangs identifying themselves as “Islamic” is only one part of the corrosive situation of gangs in the country.

While the previously noted shared ancestry of the Islamic gangs always gave them a greater level of organizational cohesion than the others in the society, particularly after 1990, the interactions between the gangs, both in urban slums such as Laventille, and within the country’s prisons, forced the diverse universe of gangs into three groupings: (1) Islamic criminal gangs; (2) a more atomized set of non-Islamic groups sharing the same neighborhoods, referred to as “Rasta City;” and (3) “independent” gangs, often away from the urban centers, or occupying territory around key logistics sites such as ports.  The latter grouping, sometimes because of their separation from the struggle between the Muslim gangs and other gangs in poor urban areas, tend to work with both in order to make money moving and selling drugs, or facilitating other types of illicit activities.

By the end of 2015, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service estimated there were 147 gangs, with 1,698 members, responsible for approximately 34% of all murders in the country.

The growth of the gangs, particularly in the north and west-urban corridor of the country, concentrated on the greater Port of Spain area, has been fueled in part by the role of the gangs in a range of revenue producing activities.  One counterintuitive source of activity for both Islamic and other gangs has been obtaining construction contracts, or otherwise obtaining employment in government infrastructure and social services programs.  In response to the government’s efforts to provide economic opportunity in marginalized areas through the Unemployment Relief Program (URP) and Community Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Program (CEPEP), the gangs have organized their own small businesses to win the contracts, and obliged outside companies to employ their members and others that they designate.  The ability of the gang leaders—either as the heads of the construction firms or neighborhood points of access for contractors—has allowed them to expand their hold over the communities by effectively determining who works, and by doling out the resources that come from the execution of the contracts.  Instead of helping to reduce gang power and violence in marginalized neighborhoods, URP contracts for projects like box drains have arguably fueled bloody struggles between gangs to win them.

Beyond government projects, drug trafficking and local sales have been an important source of gang revenues.  Although involvement in drugs theoretically violates the precepts of the Islamic faith, both the Rasta City gangs and those identifying themselves as “Islamic” have been involved in trafficking activities to some extent.  Nonetheless the nature of that involvement appears to differ among gangs, with some groups actively engaging in moving, selling and using drugs, and others “taxing” the trade through the area they control.

As with other powerful gangs in the region, gangs in Trinidad supply a degree of alternative governance in the area that they control.  Through the previously noted exploitation of the URP and CPEP programs, the gangs have become de facto providers of employment.  Similarly, by making it too dangerous for representatives of the public utility services companies from entering the neighborhoods to cut off electricity and cable service to customers who don’t pay their bills, the gangs are perceived by some as helping community members maintain access to such services for free.  In the context of the perceived corruption and non-responsiveness of the legitimate authorities, gangs have imposed their own codes of justice on the neighborhood (in some cases in writing), and have become involved in resolving domestic disputes such as spousal abuse or helping parents deal with unruly children.  Gang leaders have also become involved in providing resources for community members on an individual basis, such as providing money for poor children to buy food or school books.  In at least one case, the local gang boss in Beetham Estate Gardens reportedly throws a local Carnival (Mardi Gras) party for the neighborhood, so that its residents do not have to leave their neighborhood to celebrate.

For Trinidad and Tobago, the region and the U.S., the presence of criminal gangs decreases the areas over which the state has positive control, as well as indirectly weakens governance by depressing economic activity and advancing a culture of violence, which ultimately creates a space in which narcotrafficking and illicit networks impacting the United States can flourish.  As seen in this section, the gang culture is also directly tied to the foreign fighter threat, and thus the U.S. fight against terrorism.


Although Trinidad has always been the major commercial airline and shipping hub for the Eastern and Southern Caribbean, its emergence as a major narcotrafficking hub is recent.  The increasing isolation of Venezuela and attention given to commercial and other vessels leaving it, have made it more attractive for narcotraffickers to move their product into Trinidad and launch it toward the United States from there.  In addition, the ability to move drugs from Trinidad toward the United States by advancing island-to-island offers an alternative to taking a more direct route with more expensive and higher-profile boats. Trinidad has twelve widely dispersed small ports of entry, relatively unguarded, that facilitate the traffic. Trinidad and Tobago’s relatively open borders, high levels of corruption and status as a regional center of finance and industry has facilitated its emerging role as a hub for drugs and other illicit activity.  A small number of the numerous yachts which famously are moored in Chaguaramas to wait out the hurricane season are believed to be used to smuggle drugs to Europe and the U.S., leaving the Gulf of Paria free of drugs, then rendezvousing with narcotraffickers near the coast of Venezuela to load illicit cargo before continuing on to their final destination.

To some degree, drugs are hidden in Trinidad and Tobago’s commercial cargo as well, as illustrated by the January 2014 seizure in Norfolk, Virginia of 332 kilograms of liquid cocaine from Trinidad, concealed in cans labeled as orange juice, and the seizure by Canadian authorities in December 2015 of a similar shipment.  Yet either because of the lack of shipments, or the success of corruption in protecting drug shipments, authorities have yet to bring a case against a major narcotrafficking organization within Trinidad and Tobago itself.  The last takedown of a great narco-boss in Trinidad and Tobago was the 1996 arrest of Nankissoon Boodram (“Dole Chadee”), and even then he was initially detained on a minor offense and convicted for murder, not drugs. The Trini government executed Chadee and eight other members of the gang during a four-day period in June 1999.  However, authorities have not yet even resolved the previously mentioned three-and-a-half year old case of the shipment of cocaine to the U.S. disguised as orange juice.

Experts consulted for this work make a loose distinction between a small number of actors who appear to be major transporters of cocaine through the region, and others more focused on the retail trade.  The former category includes Vaughn Mieres (“Sandman”) who is believed to control drug trafficking through the north coast, and Phillip Boodram (“The Boss,”), who is now in custody.  They argue, however, that even such local facilitators are relatively minor actors in the movement of cocaine from source countries like Colombia through Venezuela to the United States and Europe.

From a U.S. perspective, narcotrafficking through Trinidad and Tobago not only directly contributes to the drug problem (although U.S. demand is still the major problem); like the gang threat, it also contributes to corruption and weak governance that facilitate the operation of illicit networks in the region, and the recruitment of foreign fighters.


The relatively high level of violence in Trinidad and Tobago and the relative power of the gangs to rob and intimidate have arguably been magnified by the large number of firearms in the country, with some 3/4 of murders involving the use of firearms, and gang members twice as likely as non-gang members to use firearms.  In the matter-of-fact words of one Trini security expert, “there is an oversupply of guns in the country relative to normal criminal needs.”

Trinidad security experts believe that firearms enter the country through the country’s commercial ports, Port of Spain and Port Point Lisas, hidden in commercial cargo, as well as from Venezuela.  Not only do Venezuelans cross the narrow stretch of water that separate the two nations to sell guns for needed food, medicine and other merchandise, but merchants from Trinidad reportedly travel to Venezuela to buy guns there.  Although very few guns have been seized entering the country, 1,456 illegal arms of all types were collected by police in 2015 and 2016, due in part to a financial incentive program that the police have for such seizures.

While guns have generally been captured in small numbers, there have been a handful of larger seizures.  In August 2010, for example, police found 18 high-powered rifles and other gear in the compound of Indian businessman and narcotrafficker Hafeez Karamath.

By contributing to the culture of violence in Trinidad and Tobago, the ready availability of firearms contributes to refugee flows and weakened governance throughout the region and threatens U.S. interests.


If there is one bright spot in the Trinidad criminal landscape, it is the drastic reduction in kidnappings, which have fallen from over 100 per year seven years ago, to less than ten per year today.  While part of the credit goes to the police anti-kidnapping unit, security experts from the country also credit the strong reaction of powerful interests, citing the case of the July 2002 kidnapping of the grandson of Lebanese businessman Anthony Sabga, after which a number of the people questioned by the police turned up dead.  Subsequently there were no further kidnappings of prominent Lebanese families.


Trinidad and Tobago’s social composition has also shifted from the arrival of a significant number of Venezuelans, Syrians and Chinese.

With respect to Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago—a relatively open country—does not require visas for stays of fewer than 90 days, nor does it have an effective system for monitoring businesses that employ workers without proper permits.  There are an increasing number of Venezuelans in urban areas, including Cedros, where there is a ferry crossing from the Venezuelan town of Pedernales, as well as further to the north in San Fernando, where in recent years Venezuelans have traditionally come to work at sub-minimum wage jobs to earn hard currency to take back home, in Arima, in the center of the country, and increasingly in the greater Port of Spain area.  As with elsewhere in the region, persons with whom I spoke during my trip reported observing increasing numbers of Venezuelans working in restaurants and other service sector jobs and illicit activities like prostitution.  While there is evidence of Venezuelans bringing guns and other contraband goods to sell in Trinidad in exchange for food and other staples, their presence does not appear to have created significant social tensions or changed the dynamics of criminality in the country.

Although a portion of the Venezuelans coming to Trinidad to conduct transactions or work are staying in the country, the percentage does not appear to be as high as it is among other countries in the Caribbean.  In part, the proximity of Venezuela and its relatively open borders gives those coming to Trinidad and Tobago more liberty to come and go as they need to learn a living.  In addition, the portion of eastern Venezuela closest to Trinidad is a relatively rural area in Delta Amacuro State, removed from the problems of Caracas, which still permits residents some option of obtaining basic sustenance including agricultural products, fish and shellfish to sustain themselves, or to trade in Trinidad for needed consumer supplies.

With respect to Syrian immigrants, a large but ultimately unknown quantity of Syrians has arrived in the country as a result of the ongoing civil war, with their incorporation into Trinidadian society facilitated by the wealthy and close-knit community of Lebanese and Syrians who migrated in the 1940’s and whose numbers have increased since the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s. While very little is known about them, the introduction of some potentially radicalized Syrian Muslims into an established community of 5,000, and into an environment with a radicalized afro-Muslim community, could raise uncertainties and risks.

Finally, Trinidad’s Chinese community has grown significantly in recent years, partly as a product of Chinese coming into the country via work visas associated with the boom in construction projects by PRC-based companies in the late 2000s.  The roots of the Chinese community in the country dates back to immigration from Guangdong province during the 19th the early 20thCenturies.  The community has traditionally been well organized, with a network for providing loans and other mutual assistance within the community.  The established Chinese community has little formal interaction with the recent migrants.

In recent years, the new community has increasingly become the target of robberies and other violence by unknown assailants.  Even the driver of the Chinese ambassador has been kidnapped.

While the community of recent Chinese migrants is generally seen as law-abiding, its members are notoriously reluctant to report crimes, cooperate with Trinidad authorities as witnesses, or otherwise involve the Trinidad government in their internal affairs.  It is striking that, with the exception of a small number of immigration cases, Trini authorities with whom I spoke were not aware of a single member of the Chinese community in the nations’ jails.

Some interviewed for this study also worry that recent incidents of violence against Chinese businesses reflects the entrance of a new Chinese mafia (triad) group into the country, or worry that the large number of perennially empty Chinese restaurants and shops, as well as gambling machines installed by Chinese businessmen in restaurants and shops across the country, are a vehicle for money laundering.  Experts noted the cash-intensive nature of the restaurants themselves, the gambling machines installed in both Chinese and other restaurants and stores across the country, a lottery run out of such stores based on the national lotto “Play Whe,” and the informal role of such establishments as informal money changing houses, buying U.S. dollars at a premium rate.  Trini security experts interviewed suggested that local narcotraffickers may use the gambling in such establishments to launder their own earnings.  Yet those experts also unanimously acknowledged that authorities have almost no visibility into the Chinese community.

Overall, the flow of Venezuela, Chinese, and Syrian refugees through Trinidad and Tobago negatively impacts U.S. interests because it both strains the socioeconomic fiber of the countries involved and potentially facilitates illicit networks.

The difficulties in Trinidad and Tobago described in the preceding paragraphs have further has been compounded by the sustained contraction of the economy since 2014, caused in part by depressed oil prices.  The closure of the Arcelor Mittal plant in March 2016, with the layoff of 650 workers, although occurring for a complex array of reasons, is a high-profile example of the job losses that have occurred during the recession.  While the evaporation of jobs in the formal sector has contributed to crime and violence, the government’s loss of tax revenues and royalty payments from the oil sector has reduced its resources to sustain police presence in troubled neighborhoods, and otherwise respond to the security challenge.


While the issue of foreign fighters from Trinidad and Tobago has drawn greater U.S. attention to the country, outside of the U.S. embassy team and other experts whose job is to follow and engage with the country, the scant attention paid to the country at the policy level has been focused primarily on the “foreign fighter” issue, and not the broader interrelated problems of narcotrafficking flows, gangs, migrants, guns and corruption that influence U.S. security in the region.

The interdependent problems in the country are not exclusive to Trinidad and Tobago, but are found to different degrees throughout the Caribbean and the region.  Understanding how to successfully work with the partner government of Trinidad and Tobago to tackle the interrelated challenges of foreign terrorist fighters, gangs, guns, drugs, and corruption is fundamental to strengthening governance across the region and, in the process, advancing U.S. strategic and security interests.  Reciprocally, the solutions that the U.S. finds in its engagement with Trinidad and Tobago may help to advance more effective engagement across the region.

The U.S. embassy team in the country has done a laudable job in the country with limited resources available.  But the position of U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago has been vacant since Ambassador John Estrada left in January 2017.  While the U.S. Security Cooperation Organization, operating from the embassy, has managed helpful training engagements and technical assistance programs, and has conducted important exercises such as Tradewinds, the U.S. Senior Defense Official in the country is operating with almost no support staff.  It also appears likely that security cooperation and other institution-building programs administered through the Department of State through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, could be cut significantlyin the coming years.

To address the challenges outlined in this paper, the United States should consider the following:

  • Incorporate into a future version of the U.S. National Military Strategy and National Security Strategy, the strategic importance of stability and strong governance in the Caribbean, with respect to the vulnerability to the United States presented by violence, narcotrafficking, refugees, illicit networks, and the presence of adversarial extra hemispheric actors permitted by weak governance in the region;
  • Increase attention to U.S. engagement with Trinidad and Tobago, explicitly reflecting lessons learned regarding what works and does not work in the cooperative, multidimensional engagement against its challenges, with the eye to applying those lessons in other parts of the English-Speaking Caribbean, and the region more broadly;
  • Significantly expand funds allocated to Trinidad and Tobago for security cooperation programs, through both the Department of State and Department of Defense, including but not limited to CBSI programs;
  • In conjunction with such increases, allocate additional staff to the Security Cooperation Office to accommodate the effective administration of those programs; and
  • Make a priority the naming and confirmation of a new full-time ambassador to the country.

The strategic location of Trinidad and Tobago vis-à-vis Venezuela, the Caribbean, and regional oil reserves make the country of strategic importance to the United States. It is important that the U.S. not overlook the very serious problems occurring in its not-so-distant partner.

By Evan Ellis



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