A young Trinidadian man appears in an ISIS recruitment video. The extremist movement has exploited Trinidad and Tobago's history of insurrection and radicalization to gain recruits among vulnerable young men, argue political scientists Andy Knight and John McCoy.
It’s not the kind of invitation you receive every day.
University of Alberta political scientist Andy Knight was on secondment five years ago as director of the Institute of International Relations at the University of West Indies in Trinidad when a Muslim scholar asked if he’d like to visit an al-Qaida sleeper cell.
After retrieving his jaw from the floor, Knight accepted his colleague’s offer, and was taken to a self-sustaining “gated Muslim community” near the Trinidad airport. To all appearances, the commune seemed a peaceful place, with mosques, a school and a grocery store. There was even an area reserved for chickens and rabbits.
"It looked like a normal little Trinidadian village,” said Knight. “I didn't see anything all that unusual, except that there were many women in hijab.”
But under the surface there was something more sinister going on, he was told, such as weapons stored under the floorboards for military training.
Knight had also noticed an influx of visitors from Saudi Arabia on very short visas—two or three months. “There was a constant flow of people. This is what got me to thinking we need to examine this,” he said.
So with his former graduate student John McCoy, now an adjunct professor at the U of A, he did just that. The two began taking a deeper look at radicalization in Trinidad and Tobago, discovering that it was a hotbed for recruitment to al-Qaida and its offshoot, ISIS.
Exploiting political insecurity
They found that recruiters were exploiting existing fissures in Trinidadian society. The country has a recent history of political insurrection, most notably an Islamic coup attempt in 1990—the only one in the western world.
Al-Qaida and its global offshoots have “demonstrated a clear ability to draw on the inherent insecurity and anomie of some Muslims in western states for their own strategic purposes,” argue Knight and McCoy in their study. “And through their adaptive propaganda they have attracted a new generation of vulnerable young people to the cause.”
After publishing the study earlier this year in the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Knight and McCoy caught the attention of a United Nations task force charged with countering violent extremism, which is now using their findings to develop a strategy.
"Trinidad has a unique history,” said McCoy. “There’s the Islamic insurrection, a history of prior radicalization in terms of buying into black-power narratives like the Nation of Islam and pan-Africanism.”
There has also long been a tension between Indo-Muslim communities and recent Afro-Muslim converts who can feel like outsiders. “But they could find a sense of belonging in this utopian ideal of a multicultural Islamic state (caliphate) where everyone is welcome," said McCoy.
“There are even guys who went off to train with (former Libyan leader Moammar) Gadhafi, and came back and produced the 1990 coup. So when the Islamic State interjected their narrative of the legitimate caliphate, there was a ready-made group that could be recruited."
Promises of wealth and glory
The researchers spoke to “a wide array of individuals” last year, said McCoy, in security, the police, prisons and the Muslim community. They discovered recruiters had been targeting vulnerable young men aged 16 to 25, looking for a cause and drawn by the promise of glory and financial gain.
Some 200 freedom fighters from Trinidad and Tobago have so far gone overseas seeking the caliphate in Syria, says Knight.
"You have everything from Commonwealth Games medal winners to high-profile lawyers, but the bulk were converts from the Afro-Trinidadian community who grew up impoverished,” said McCoy.
"Some go for the adventure as well,” noted Knight, “or the sense of larger purpose, doing something bigger than yourself. One guy told me he went because he was able to freely walk around with a gun. There is also a sexual side—they think they'll get a wife."
Knight says he and McCoy would like to design a series of workshops to help Trinidadian youth resist recruitment. But so far the Trinidadian government has been either embarrassed by this latest rash of extremism, or is simply overwhelmed with more pressing concerns. What’s clear is the country simply doesn’t have the security and intelligence apparatus to confront the threat head on, said McCoy.
“It's a very violent country with one of the highest murder rates in the world,” he said. “So even though the foreign fighter movements had been pretty substantial from 2013 on, the government didn't have a good handle on it at all."
That is of major concern to U.S. Homeland Security, especially considering the close proximity of the Caribbean to Miami. At the moment access is easy, said Knight, “and most Trinidadians can get in without a visa." America’s worst fear, he said, is that Trinidad and Tobago could become a transit point for moving radicals into North America and beyond.
Knight and McCoy now have their eye on what they suspect will be the next trouble spot for ISIS recruitment—Kosovo. It has similar deeply entrenched historical rifts, and the highest per capita rate of foreign fighters, said McCoy.
"Wherever you're from, there will be some impetus to recreate the conflict within your home state,” he said, adding that when it comes to violent extremism, the global spread may be just beginning.
“The fallout from Syria is going to be bad."