“He’s a truly spiritual person,” Fuad Abu Bakr told me. He was referring to his father, Yasin, the notorious Trinidadian militant who led the first and only Islamist insurrection ever attempted in a Western democracy. We were standing in front of the mosque his father built at 1 Murcarapo Road on the outskirts of Trinidad and Tobago’s capital city, Port of Spain.
It was early 2016, and I had gone to Trinidad to report on Trinidadian ISIS foreign fighters for The Atlantic. Between 2013 and 2016, some 240 Trinis travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the caliphate, making Trinidad one of the world’s biggest exporters, per capita, of ISIS foreign fighters. I wanted to know how a country famed for calypso, rum and carnival could incubate something so profoundly unTrinidadian.
As a former resident of the country, I’d heard a lot of things about Yasin Abu Bakr, none of which contained the word “spiritual”. He had led the Jamaat al Muslimeen (JAM), a fringe group of black Muslims, with all the tact of an inebriated pitbull — and it was clear there was a connection, albeit tangled and complex, between the JAM radicals of the Nineties and the ISIS fighters who came later.
It was here, 32 years ago this week, on 27 July 1990, outside the mosque where Fuad and I were standing, that Bakr gathered his men for a group prayer and pep-talk. They were armed to the teeth with AK47s, pump-action shotguns and rifles. According to Fuad, Bakr was seeking guidance from God, a sign that he was on the right path: “He was saying to God, ‘if I’m gonna do the wrong thing, then stop me from leaving here’.” But there was no divine obstruction, and Bakr and his men, all 114 of them, sped off into Port of Spain to overthrow the government.
When Bakr and his men left the compound at 1 Murcarapo Road, one group headed for the nation’s parliament in the Red House, and another to Trinidad’s only TV station, Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT). Within hours of laying siege to the parliament, which was still in session, a senior JAM member had shot Prime Minister Arthur Robinson in the leg. A female clerk was killed, and Leo des Vignes, a government MP, was also shot in the leg: he died from blood loss a couple of days later. Robinson, already wounded, was made to lie on the floor with his trousers pulled down.
In the TTT building, where 27 hostages were being held, Bakr was preparing to address the nation. Like the stars of the present-day global jihad, Bakr instinctively understood the power of the media, both as a tool for attracting attention and for spreading propaganda. At just after 7pm, TTT went on air with the most dramatic newscast in its 28-year-old history: “At 6pm this afternoon, the government of Trinidad and Tobago was overthrown,” Bakr coolly told the nation. “The Prime Minister and members of the cabinet are under arrest. We are asking everybody to remain calm. The revolutionary forces are commanded to control the streets. There shall be no looting.”
Almost immediately, looting began — but there was no uprising. The JAM leadership had made a gamble: that once they took over the parliament and TTT, a groundswell of popular support would propel them forward to a real and durable political takeover. But it didn’t happen, because while many Trinis sympathised with Bakr’s critique of political corruption and social injustice, they were appalled by his violent contempt for democracy. This included the vast majority of Trinidad’s mostly East Indian Muslim population, who were suspicious of Bakr’s group and did not take kindly to Bakr’s inflammatory suggestion, voiced to the Trinidad and Tobago Sunday Express in 1985, that they were not “really practising the true tenets of the religion”.
The coup continues to cast a dark shadow over life and politics in Trinidad. Bakr and his followers were never properly punished for their actions — they were pardoned after serving just two years in prison — and Bakr not only took perverse delight in playing up to the monstrous image that the local media had assigned to him, but remained a vexatious and controversial public figure in Trinidad right up until his death last year aged 80.
Furthermore, many Trinis believe that the spiralling levels of crime in the country since the late Nineties is a legacy of the coup: Trinidad and Tobago currently has one of the highest crime rates in the world. In Freudian terms, Bakr, the big monster, cleared a path for all the little monsters, showing them it was possible to unleash murderous havoc in Trinidad and more or less get away with it. Then in 2013, Trinis began joining ISIS; many were the sons and daughters of original JAM members.
But how could this mainly Christian and Hindu country, with a population evenly divided between descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers, fall victim to an attempted Islamist coup?
The answer doesn’t lie in ideology — although Bakr would have journalists believe that the JAM had sacrificed themselves for “the poor and oppressed”. While it’s true that Bakr’s group attracted many impoverished families, providing them with shelter, food, work and a supportive community, the coup had nothing to do with advancing the interests of Trinidad’s marginal men and women. Nor was it about some grand plan to create an Islamic State in Trinidad.
The primary cause, rather, was far more prosaic: it was to do with a convoluted land dispute between the JAM and the government over the ownership of 1 Murcarapo Road. When the JAM moved there in the late Seventies as guests of the Islamic Missionary Guild (IMG), it was mostly swampland. The IMG left, but the JAM remained: they drained the land and started building on it, putting up a mosque, a medical clinic, housing quarters and a primary school. But they did so without the approval of the local government, and on land that they had no legal right to. And so began the JAM’s conflict with the government.
Three months before the coup attempt, the army and police entered the Murcarapo premises and set up positions. This was to prevent the JAM from continuing to build on the land. Bakr not only saw this as an intolerable challenge to his moral authority; he also came to believe that the authorities wanted to kill him and destroy his group. When asked, in 1993, by criminologist Ramesh Deosaran what “really sparked” the 1990 insurrection, Bakr said: “It was a military solution to a military problem.”
Last year, I made a 12-minute documentary: Diary of a Jihadi: The 1990 Coup in Trinidad and Tobago, supported by the Airey Neave Trust, on how the coup unfolded over the course of six days. The opening scene features the late Raoul Pantin, a prodigiously talented journalist who was working at TTT when Bakr’s men came calling and was taken hostage alongside his other male colleagues. In his personal account of the coup, Days of Wrath, he sharply conveys the sheer ridiculousness of Bakr and the strangeness of the events he unleashed. In one telling passage, he recalls that three days into the coup Bakr and his men broke into song:
There was Bakr, using the mouth of an AK47 rifle as a microphone, singing along with a popular calypso playing on the radio. It was the old legendary calypsonian, Sniper, crooning, “Trinidad is my land and to love it I’m proud and glad”… Two or three other gunmen had joined in, one of them using his rifle butt as a drum, and the other strumming an imaginary guitar on his AK47.
Just days earlier, these militants had aimed those very same weapons at the heads of the hostages in TTT, and had already put them to vigorous use. Now they resembled the kind of moronic extremists that Chris Morris would go on to satirise with such verve in Four Lions.
In an observation that cuts to the very psychological core of Bakr, Pantin speculates that it was “not wholly implausible that Bakr had staged a bloody coup merely to appear on television and harangue the nation… In his two earlier appearances on TTT that Friday night, Bakr had been the star of his own show, relishing every moment of it, switching from the angry Leader of the Revolution, to the humble Imam who was merely carrying out ‘the will of Allah’”.
Toward the end of Days of Wrath, Pantin wonders if Bakr is crazy. On the last day of the coup, after he had successfully negotiated a deal with the government and agreed to surrender, Bakr invited all the hostages at TTT to dinner at his Murcarapo compound once the coup was over. “A shuddering thought went through my mind,” Pantin wrote. “He’s insane. He’s probably been insane for years.”
Political violence is such a horrible and serious business that there’s a strong temptation to think that violent extremists must be deeply serious people. Pantin’s book calls this into question. A good number of the JAM militants were very young, Pantin observes, and clearly didn’t know what they were doing. But did Bakr and the other senior leaders of the JAM know any better? Despite their rhetoric about martyrdom, they clearly did not want to die. Indeed, they eventually surrendered. And the idea that 114 self-styled jihadis could overthrow a democratically-elected government in a majority Christian-Hindu country was utterly insane. Pantin teaches us to prick the self-glorifying rhetoric of extremists and to recognise their fundamental lack of seriousness.
Of all of Bakr’s critics, perhaps the most trenchant were the Trini ISIS jihadists, whose parents were once part of Bakr’s orbit. In July 2016, Dabiq, ISIS’s glossy propaganda magazine, published an interview with Shane Crawford, one of the first Trinis to join ISIS. He would have been five years old in 1990: “There was a faction of Muslims in Trinidad that was known for ‘militancy’,” he told the magazine, referring to the JAM. “Its members attempted to overthrow the disbelieving government but quickly surrendered, apostatised, and participated in the religion of democracy, demonstrating that they weren’t upon the correct methodology of jihad.” This was no idle reminiscence on Crawford’s part: according to many classical interpretations of the Islamic faith, the punishment for apostasy is death. Crawford was, in effect, saying that the blood of the JAM was halal and could be shed. In February 2017, Crawford’s own blood was shed: he was severely injured in a US airstrike in Raqqa and died.
The irony is that without Bakr and the JAM, Crawford would probably still be selling fish along the Southern Main Road in Enterprise, central Trinidad, for it was from the JAM that an ISIS-supporting faction emerged. Nazim Mohammed, who fought in the coup and is now in his late seventies, split from Bakr and set up his own radical Islamic community in the south. At least 15 members of his family left Trinidad to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq — but he denies any association with ISIS.
No one in Trinidad has yet been charged for joining or supporting ISIS, and there are reportedly around 100 Trinis in detention in camps in Syria, while Nazim Mohammed’s daughter and three granddaughters are currently locked up in an Iraqi prison. At some point, they will return.
Whether the jihadi spirit will be rekindled in Trinidad is yet to be seen. But Bakr’s coup shows just how easy it is for a small group of marginal men, radicalised by grievance and inflamed with ideological zeal, to inflict a tremendous amount chaos and suffering on a democratic society. It also serves as a salutary reminder that, while we should resist the temptations of apocalyptic alarmism, we should never take for granted the resilience of democratic institutions.