Separated by 6,000-odd miles and myriad cultural differences, Syria’s killing fields and the sun and soca-drenched beaches of Trinidad and Tobago seem, on the face of it, to be worlds apart. While Assad’s war-torn country has been crippled by a decade of civil conflict, Trinidad, compared with most of its Caribbean neighbours, is still reaping the benefits of its early-Eighties oil and natural gas boom.
But despite the obvious differences between a failed Arab state of 18 million and a dual-island nation of 1.3 million, the two countries have become strange bedfellows. As unlikely as it may seem, Trinidad has become one of the world’s key recruiting grounds for Isis, a status linked to the country’s other big wheeze: drug trafficking.
I was reminded of the connection between the Caribbean, the caliphate and cocaine last week after hearing of the death of 80-year-old Yasin Abu Bakr, an imposing 6ft 6in former TV producer and ex-cop who, as leader of the Jamaat al Muslimeen movement, in 1990 pulled off an attempted coup in Trinidad. For the better part of a week, Abu Bakr was effectively the head of state, making him the only person to ever lead an Islamic coup in the Western Hemisphere.
I met Abu Bakr in Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital, in 2018 while researching a book on tribalism. Initially, I was drawn to him after more than 100 Trinidadians left home to join Isis and the jihadi cause, lured by a mix of fundamentalist ideology, warped romanticism and, in many cases, money. These young men travelled not just to Syria but also Iraq, often taking with them, and usually against their will, scores of women and children.
Given its small population, Trinidad has provided disproportionate numbers of jihadis to the ISIS cause. The US and Canada, with a combined population of some 350 million, larger Muslim communities and a seemingly more fertile breeding ground for anti-Western sentiment, are believed to have exported just 300 or so men and women to the Levant for jihad.
Yet in Trinidad, just 6% of the population are Muslim, and, of these, an estimated 90% are of Indian descent. While most are arguably “moderate”, a small minority has no strong attachment to their communities — thanks to a combination of atomised families, absent fathers, rampant drug addiction, gang culture and social marginalisation. Such a perfect storm feeds the worst excesses of identity politics, making young, impressionable and often desperate men vulnerable to the chest-beating Isis propaganda machine.
But even before Isis existed as an idea, let alone as an organised terror group, the foundations of Islamic extremism were being laid in Trinidad. In the late Seventies, the island saw a revival of Islam that came off the back of an American black power movement underscored by the teachings of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, as well as the Islamic revolution in Iran and the assertion of a more muscular, global Muslim identity. This Islamic reboot differed from the prevailing, passive Trinidadian Muslim identity and capitalised on endemic corruption, a growing gang problem fuelled by a burgeoning cocaine trade and a sense of alienation felt by many youths who were unable to access a piece of the oil and gas pie being divvied up by foreign capitalists and their government cronies.
Without proper education and lacking job opportunities, those who felt left behind began to turn to Islam as a way out, and a means of clearing the streets of the drugs that went hand in glove with the new money. Located seven miles north of Venezuela, which has an ultra-porous 1,378-mile border with the cocaine capital of the world, Colombia, drugs continue to enter Trinidad by speedboat and leave on container ships, planes and private yachts, as well as in condoms carried inside the stomachs of drug mules.
These narcotics often enter Trinidad with decommissioned Venezuelan military weapons, which explains the tendency of gangs in Port of Spain and elsewhere to have more firepower on the streets than most police forces. Perhaps that’s why an unofficial investigation by the government in 2009 found that up to 90% of cops were involved in illegality, ranging from “running and selling drugs, to colluding with gangs by renting out weapons to criminals, to performing extra-legal killings”.
Throughout the Eighties, the Islamist reboot was seen as a counterpoint to a society that was rapidly turning into a Sodom and Gomorrah for urban youth. Muslim militias took the fight to the dealers, drug lords and gangs on the streets of Port of Spain and beyond, becoming a vigilante force to be reckoned with. Indeed, as the new incarnation of Islam became more and more powerful, its more pernicious fringes — who were more concerned with financial gain than philosophical enlightenment — became enforcers, protection racketeers and, in many cases, out-and-out gangsters themselves.
Already well-developed in the US, Prislam — a brand of prison-based Islam that conferred protection to its adherents and access to criminal networks both inside and outside of jail — soon took hold, causing schism after schism. Initially, these took the form of pseudo-religious “Muslims versus apostates” conflicts aimed at legitimising gang-on-gang assassinations. Then came “Muslims versus non-Muslims” contract killings — until it became expedient for gang members to either align themselves with the Prislamic “Muslim City” faction or their non-Muslim uber-gang rivals, “Rasta City”.
Semantics aside, the names of both organised crime groups soon had little to do with Mecca or Haile Selassie, save for some members who happened to be Muslims or Rastas, as well as drug dealers, hitmen and government stooges. But something had to give. With cocaine and oil came the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, unbridled corruption and gangster politics, which eventually gave rise to an unprecedented rejection of the government.
Enter Abu Bakr.
Over afternoon tea in the Jamaat al Muslimeen compound in Port of Spain, Abu Bakr, a sardonic, charismatic character formerly known as Lennox Phillip, told me how on July 25, 1990, he mounted the coup with some 113 black Muslim foot soldiers, using intelligence sources to determine when key police and military figures were indisposed or out of town. The plotters duly blew up the capital’s main police station, took the local TV news channel and stormed parliament, taking the prime minister, ANR Robinson, and a number of his fellow legislators hostage at gunpoint for several days. Trinidad being Trinidad, chaos ensued. Riots led to several hundred injuries and some 30 deaths.
Having taken the Trinidadian government to task for its complicity in ramping up the country’s drug problems and spiralling violent crime, Abu Bakr’s audacious move, in fairness, was more a citizen’s arrest of the government than a coup d’état, designed to seize control and take the reins of power. Abu Bakr’s power grab came to an end when he and his followers gave themselves up. After being charged with murder and treason, Abu Bakr was released from prison two years later as part of an amnesty deal.
“We were a community outreach organisation,” he told me in his modest office, adding he still believed that he could have reversed Trinidad’s crime epidemic if he had succeeded. “A hundred people would convert at Friday prayers. We got money from Libya. We were cleaning up the drugs on the street — we were doing good work. We had outreach centres, feeding centres, shops, businesses, land, medical centres… The Government feared us.”
That fear, Abu Bakr said, had led to the government violently clamping down on his organisation. With no recourse to the law, Jamaat al Muslimeen’s seizure of power was, he claimed, as much about self-preservation as it was about ending corruption.
“It’s a known fact that many people who said they were Muslims manifested themselves as something else,” he suggested. Certainly Jamaat al Muslimeen struck me more as a sort of Islamic scout movement than an insurgency. But for a few that wasn’t enough; the lure of jihad was too great. “The Trinidad-ISIS connection is not nonsense,” Abu Bakr told me. “Many people left Trinidad to fight for ISIS because of the lack of hope.”
Is there any sign of that hope being restored? If there is, it is hard to spot. Three years after our conversation, the drugs continue to flow into Trinidad — and violence continues to erupt. As Abu Bakr told me at the time: “This is the land of steel pan and carnival. This is supposed to be paradise. Yet for many, it is anything but.”