Full Measure, October 14, 2018:
President Trump frequently says the US and its allies, have turned the tide in the battle against ISIS… especially, in the Middle East. But there’s another concern, much closer to home. In the last few weeks, the U-S government announced sanctions against two men for providing support to ISIS… both, were from a small Caribbean island near America’s shores. And to the surprise of many, it’s become a hotbed of support and recruitment, for the terror group.
From the battlefields of Syria to Iraq, in the fog of war, it can be difficult for American forces to know exactly who they’re up against–since foreign fighters supporting ISIS, have come from all over the world. Here, on this tiny Caribbean island, a not so small secret. In relation to its size, Trinidad and Tobago has sent more foreign fighters overseas, than any other western country. We went to this tourist destination just off the coast of Venezuela, to find out why.
Scott: Are there those who have gone, that you’re aware of as foreign fighters?
Abdullah: There are those who have gone and joined the battle of course. All right. Those individuals, I know some of them.
Umar Abdullah is a self-proclaimed Muslim leader in Trinidad…Accused of once helping to radicalize young men.
Scott: Do you believe it’s okay for them to go overseas and take up arms against American interests?
Abdullah: If, in the case where America is fighting our Muslim brothers and sisters in different countries, and individuals decide to leave and go there to fight against the American soldiers, that’s their call, right?
Scott: A lot of people hearing that, especially back in the United States, would find that a detestable comment. They wouldn’t be okay with any of what you just said.
Abdullah: So does the American people, the American government wish that when they go into a country and invade a country and starts fighting the people there, the people should just lay down and kneel before them and surrender? That’s what they expect what’s gonna happen? That’s not gonna happen. Let us be real. People are going to fight back.
And doing so, in alarming numbers. According to multiple reports, 135 Trinidadians have made their way to the Middle East. They’ve been documented taking up arms against Americans… and even dying in the fight. One of the first, was Shane Crawford. The 28 year old joined ISIS in Syria. Where the terror group used him in propaganda videos because of his English and his origin, even featuring his Trinidadian home in their online recruiting magazine. Imam Morland Lynch says he knows half a dozen men like Shane, who have since joined ISIS overseas.
Morland Lynch: He was quiet, but you never know when a man quiet what they’re planning, or what they’re thinking, or who’s giving them their school of thought, who’s teaching them or who’s training them.
Lynch preaches a different message. One of peace. He is critical of ISIS and its followers on the island. One of them, he says, retaliated, shooting and killing his 22 year old son Ackmal. That was three years ago. The problem, he says, has only grown.
Scott: Some people have reported, 135 Trinidadians have left and gone overseas as foreign fighters, do you think that number is high, low, accurate?
Lynch: I feel more than that.
Scott: You feel it’s more than 135?
Lynch: Yeah, I feel more than that.
Scott: Because the attorney general and the government seems to think it’s a relatively low number. Lynch: No, it’s huge. I don’t know where you’re getting your statistics from, it’s huge.
Al-rawi: That of course is on a population bed of 1.4 million citizens, but sometimes statistics don’t really let you know the phenomenon. You can say 100% of a teacup, or you can say 100% of the ocean.
While Trinidad’s attorney general, Faris Al-rawi, downplays the numbers, he doesn’t trivialize the threat, and under his watch, the government has passed stricter new anti-terrorism laws and frozen the assets of 356 individuals and entities.
Al-rawi: I can tell you that we have put it on steroids. We really ramped up the production. I think we’re headed in the right direction. Terrorism mutates, you must be always nimble and always prepared. We will not stick our heads into the sand and pretend that the phenomenon is one that can avoid us simply because we’re a beautiful people and wonderful Caribbean island.
The danger, isn’t just abroad. This February, Trinidad’s law enforcement, with U.S. Support, thwarted a plot to attack the island’s biggest annual festival, it’s carnival. The American embassy, was also a target. Police and security specialist Paul Nahous has long been monitoring the spread and actions of ISIS sympathizers here. He claims, they’re gearing up.
Nahous: What I observe in Trinidad is that the gangs now are starting look less like gangs and more like terrorists cells or insurgent cells because these type of weapons they have, the amount of ammunition they have stockpiled. They’ve been finding grenades all around. They’ve been finding AK-47 rounds, AR-15 is the new pistol now. All gangs have a stockpile of automatic weapons. So, the street violence now is beginning to resemble insurgency.
Scott: Does the government have a grip on what’s happening here?
Nahous: No, not at all. The government doesn’t have a grip and the police services don’t have a grip.
Just how severe the problem is and how prevalent recruitment may be differs depending on who you ask. But one consensus found among people we talked to, is that more U.S. Involvement is welcome. Earlier this year, the U.S. Military’s southern command, which helps oversee threats in the Caribbean, held a joint exercise with Trinidad’s forces to prepare for terror incidents.
Al-rawi: Can we happily say that we accept more? We’re always willing to accept more from our international friends Scott: Though solutions here seem outnumbered by the challenges. Despite the island’s lucrative oil reserves, wealth isn’t well spread. Unemployment is high, street crime too. And the tiny Muslim population, just about 5 percent, feels shut out. One gang even named itself Unruly ISIS. Online sermons from terror groups thousands of miles away, still prove persuasive here.
Abdullah: I’m fearful when that time comes, the government who is already showing indications that they’re unable to address the issue of crime, petty crime, they’ll be unable to address this issue.” Scott: Talk to me about that anti-American sentiment.
Nahous: There are those who don’t sympathize with terrorist cells, but at the same time have an anti-American sentiment and anti-Israeli sentiment and because we see what’s going on in the world, we see certain injustices done by first world nations.
Scott: And that’s what’s driving some of this recruitment?
Nahous: Yup, I think so. And I think it’s two sides of the same coin. They have that sentiment and anti-western sentiment, and then they have a lack of real knowledge in terms of the Middle East, in terms of what goes on there, in terms of culture there. So, what they know is what they read, what they see on tv. So they use that to formulate their opinions and I find in this nation that people are very hardened by their opinions.
Scott: An opinion both posing a threat to U.S. Soldiers overseas… and formulating, not far, from American shores.
President Trump’s new ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, Joseph Mondello, is due to take up his post next week. At his confirmation hearing in the summer, he said radicalization and ISIS recruitment of Trinidadians is the most important issue he’ll face.