Expect the unexpected: Trinidad one of the largest sources per capita of ISIS fighters

Trinidad may not be at the top of anyone’s list when it comes to terrorism: you might want to think again.

The more I write about and think about terrorism the more I learn. There is – alas! – far too much terrorism out there that bedevils us but also lots to use to gain an understanding about this violent phenomenon.

And despite the gazillions of articles, books, conferences, tweets and interviews, especially over the past 20 years, there are still surprises to be discovered. One of them is the feature of today’s perspective.

Simon Cottee is a friend of mine from the UK. He is a criminologist at the University of Kent, having previously spent time at the University of the West Indies. So he knows a lot about that area of the world and his opinion should matter.

Screen capture from ISIS’ Dabiq magazine showing Trini jihadis

Simon has just put out a piece in the Lawfare blog entitled “Trinidad’s Islamic State Problem” which is worth a read. This is probably a shorter version of his forthcoming book with I. B. Tauris: Jihadists of the Caribbean: How Trinidad Became an ISIS Hot Spot. Here are some important highlights from the article:

  • 130 Trinis (is that what they call the residents of Trinidad?) left the country between 2013 and 2015 to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which puts it at the top of the list of Western countries with the highest rates of Islamic State recruitment (twice the per capita rate of Belgium, the previous record holder);
  • 130 is almost certainly a gross underestimate: the true figure is likely to be in the region of 240;
  • Nearly all the adult men were employed at the time they departed to join ISIS: the vast majority—90 percent—can be categorized as middle class;
  • 43 % are converts, which, though high, doesn’t deviate from the pattern in other Western Islamic State mobilizations, where converts are also over-represented;
  • 30 % had a criminal record or had been involved in criminal activities prior to their departure, which is also broadly in line with research on European foreign fighters;
  • Many attended Salafi mosques.

What Simon wrote next is very, very crucial so read carefully:

The Trinis who left to join the Islamic State were not pushed by frustration over poverty or social exclusion, because they were neither poor nor socially excluded; they were not pushed by anger over anti-Islamic bigotry, because in Trinidad they were blessed with a highly tolerant culture that is broadly favorable to Islam; they were not pushed by the pains of exile or migration, because they were very much of the society they grew up in; and they were not pushed by charismatic others who exploited their so-called vulnerability, since most were bright and mature individuals.

And this:

Just as important a question as why they radicalized and joined the Islamic State is how they radicalized and joined. This is really a question about recruiters, facilitators and networks. One of the most striking features about the entire cohort of Trini Islamic State travelers is just how networked it was. Everyone in it was connected to everyone else. They all knew each other, either because they were friends or because they were related.

 Tariq Abdul Haqq of Trinidad and Tobago (red) competes at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010. He later died fighting for Isis. (Photo: Matt King/Getty Images)
Tariq Abdul Haqq of Trinidad and Tobago (red) competes at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010. He later died fighting for Isis. (Photo: Matt King/Getty Images)

He ends by noting that Trinidad, like just about every other country on the planet, is struggling to develop a policy on what to do with potential returnees. His views are completely consistent with mine and he and I had a long chat about this a few weeks ago.

What Simon has written underscores just about everything I have been saying about terrorism and radicalisation to violence for the last 20 years. So of course I agree with him.

What is different here, however, is that as an academic he is one of the rare scholars whose work jives with that done by (ex)practitioners like me. He has examined data close up and seen what is really going on here. I commend him for that. No theories, no paradigms, no models: just a tonne of data and what it means.

ISIS fighter Zaid Abed al-Hamid, a US citizen, is believed to originally be from Trinidad (Photo: SDF)

He also notes that Islamist extremism has a history in Trinidad: there was a coup attempt in 1990 by Jamaat al Muslimeen, a jihadi bunch led by Yasin Abu Bakr. I find this interesting as there is a link to a foiled plot in Toronto in 1992 to blow up a Hindu temple in which one of the planners was a ‘Trini’.

Congrats Simon on a great piece of analysis! I cannot wait to read your new book!


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

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Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.