After last month’s fall of Raqqa in Syria, in which US-backed forces declared that major military operations against the so-called Islamic State have ended, the broader Middle East and the international community is asking themselves what happens next? It marks the end of a self-declared Islamic “Caliphate” in which its supporters and recruits converged on the geographical location of parts of Syria and Iraq and controlled territory, influence and power. Now disbanded into a network of a ragtag insurgency movement, with remnants still in the region and on the online space; it was once a location converging various ethnicities, nationalities and groups of people from all walks of life going after one agenda: a utopian Islamist Ummah. In those ranks included individuals from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, a small nation off the coast of Venezuela.
Trinidad and Tobago came on the radar in most recent years both inside and outside of Western state security services eyes in that per capita, it once had the largest number of foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State in the Western Hemisphere. Most notably in 2016, Shane Crawford, also known as Abu Sa’d al-Trinidadi was featured in an article in the English language publication of Dabiq, an Islamic State propaganda magazine. Al-Trinidadi isn’t the only person from the island nation, and statistics vary and range from under a couple hundred to close to 300 using government figures. Whatever the exact numbers are is not the point as one individual is too many. For many, the idea, the memory and the movement of the Islamic State both with former recruits, their families and the online space is the big question mark, and how they plan to utilize these new skills upon their return home is the greatest concern.
As a former US government counterterrorism analyst and specialist on violent extremism for over a decade, this issue isn’t new. In 2011, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) an offshoot of one of the major al-Qa’ida franchises, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb was created because local black Africans wanted to carry out attacks inside their own countries of birth including the countries of Senegal, Niger, Mali and Chad, and expressed that with their new found technical skills and new Islamist ideology, they were best prepared to case and carry out attacks in their homeland. In addition, in their creation they placed special emphasis on historical figures of Islamic West Africa, suggesting 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 find effective strategies to respond appropriately. This past month, I travelled to the Caribbean island nation to engage with local communities, civil society and government officials. Firstly, to understand the complexities of what has happened and what measures can be put in place to receive individuals who likely will return home; secondly, what measures are put into place within government structures to rehabilitate and lastly, how communities at the grassroots level can aid in ensuring and encouraging the resilience. The answers are not easy, but having an opportunity to engage with local actors, these are just a few recommendations to consider for Caribbean governmental actors and international actors alike:
Establish a Counter-Extremism Rehabilitation Center: Trinidad and Tobago have decades of experience working with criminal gang and drug violence prevention. These include leading organizations like Roots Foundation and Vision on Mission whose experiences comprising of members, who themselves were former’s in this drug and gang space, can serve as a model to work alongside other counter extremist organizations and networks, who can share good practices as they engage with the emerging Islamist extremist ideology space. Finding a tailored and focused Trinidad and Tobago appropriate response will allow for long-term sustainability to combat the problem.
Support Arts and Culture: Working in collaboration with existing US Embassy efforts including their International Visitors Leadership Program in dialoguing at the grassroots level between faith-based communities in Trinidad and Tobago and the United States on good practices against extremism on strategies that can be effective. 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 instituted some positive and robust efforts to address this rising threat, both internally and regionally. However, the issue of violent extremism is a bipartisan issue in the island nation and is a public safety issue. By working in concert with one another across political divides, governmental officials have the opportunity to create a focused and effective policy that is both government supported and consists of an all of society approach including civil society, inter-generational and religious communities with representations from Afro-Trinidadian and East Indian Muslim communities, whose voices and diverse views are critical to long-term success.
Muhammad Fraser-Rahim is the Executive Director, North America for the world’s first counter extremist organization, Quilliam International with offices in London and Washington, DC. He worked as a former US Government Counterterrorism Analyst for over a decade, studying extremist ideology and Africa-specific security issues.