Al-Qaeda’s Inroads into the Caribbean
By Chris Zambelis
Security threats emanating from the Caribbean Basin typically revolve around its position as a key trans-shipment point for South American narcotics to the United States and Europe, as well as illegal immigration, money laundering, and other forms of banking and document fraud. Indeed, organized criminal networks from as far away as Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Asia, in addition to U.S. and South American organizations, have a formidable presence in the region.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, however, many observers began to look at the region’s potential as a base of operations for radical Islamist terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda to stage attacks against the U.S. and its interests in the Western Hemisphere. Upon cursory examination, the region’s geographic proximity to the U.S., porous borders, widespread poverty and endemic corruption, energy reserves, not to mention the tens of thousands of Americans and Europeans who vacation there at any given time of the year, make it an attractive target.
The potential threat of al-Qaeda using the Caribbean Basin as a base of operations came to the fore when allegations circulated that Adnan G. El-Shukrijumah, a known al-Qaeda operative, was reportedly spotted in Honduras in June 2004. Despite a lack of hard evidence, U.S. and regional security officials believe that Shukrijumah’s alleged presence in the region stemmed from an al-Qaeda plot to link up with Central American gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and Mara 18th Street (M18). U.S. Panamanian officials reported that Shukrijumah was in Panama as early as April 2001, possibly surveying high-value targets such as the Panama Canal, after which it is alleged he visited several neighboring countries . Trinidadian sources go a step further and tie Shukrijumah to the Darul Uloom, an Islamic institute in Trinidad, and claim he may have infiltrated Central America via Trinidad and Tobago with a Trinidadian, Guyanese, or Canadian passport .
The July 2004 arrest of Ashraf Ahmad Abdullah, an Egyptian man, at Miami International Airport for running a prolific smuggling ring from his home base in Guatemala for Egyptians and other Arabs seeking entry into the United States, did raise alarm bells for good reason. Although Abdullah has not been tied to al-Qaeda or terrorism, but is instead believed to have been interested solely in profit, the relative ease with which he was able to smuggle illegal migrants originating from countries of “special interest” into the U.S. via Latin America and the Caribbean Basin highlights the vulnerability of the U.S. underbelly . It is difficult to gauge whether terrorist networks deployed operatives to the U.S. through Abdullah’s network without his knowledge.
Islam in the Caribbean Basin
The region’s small Muslim population is comprised mostly of South and Southeast Asians with deep roots stemming back to the Colonial period, as well as Arabs. The region has also experienced an increase of migrants from the Middle East in recent decades. Some of the largest Muslim communities are found in Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. Adherence to Islam varies dramatically from country to country. In general, it reflects the diverse ethnic and cultural traditions that comprise the region and is often infused with distinctly “Caribbean” features. This is best evidenced by the Shi’a Muharram rituals known locally as Hosay, (derived from the regional transliteration of Husayn) performed by East Indian Shi’a Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, and Jamaica, that commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn.
Recent Arab migrants from the Middle East tend to be more pious and traditional relative to their second and third generation Arab and Muslim counterparts. Moreover, there are a growing number of locals converting to Islam, especially among impoverished minorities such as the indigenous peoples of the Mexican state of Chiapas and marginalized populations of African descent in the Caribbean islands.
Most Muslim converts embrace Islam for purely spiritual reasons and do not harbor any inclination towards political or religious extremism. Many see Islam as a rite of empowerment in societies where they are underserved and experience discrimination. Nevertheless, there is a concern that al-Qaeda is targeting these groups for recruitment due to their perceived ability to travel and blend into Western cities more effectively.
Spotlight on Trinidad and Tobago
U.S. and regional security sources point to the activities of a number of obscure organizations based in oil- and natural gas-rich Trinidad and Tobago as evidence of the Caribbean Basin’s potential to spawn homegrown radical Islamist organizations .
The Jammat al-Muslimeen (Muslim Group) is Trinidad and Tobago’s most notorious Muslim organization. Although Trinidad’s ethnically and religiously diverse population, split roughly between descendants of African slaves and indentured servants from India and a sizable “mixed” community, includes Sunni and Shi’a Muslim immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East, the Jammat is known almost exclusively as a Black Sunni Muslim organization comprised mainly of Afro-Trinidadian converts to Islam. The group is led by Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, a former police officer who was born Lenox Philip. The Jammat is best known for its violent 1990 attempt to overthrow the Trinidadian government over grievances related to land ownership, social and economic inequality, and government corruption .
On July 27, 1990, Abu Bakr, along with leading Jammat figures Bilaal Abdullah and Maulana Hasan Anyabwile, led over 100 members of the group in storming Trinidad’s Red House (National Parliament), taking Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson and most of his cabinet captive. The group also took over Trinidad and Tobago Television, then the country’s only television network, and the Trinidad Broadcasting Company, one of two radio stations. The ensuing standoff lasted for five days while rioting and looting gripped the capital, Port of Spain, leading to scores of deaths and the destruction of millions of dollars worth of property. Abu Bakr surrendered to the authorities after a period of negotiations that allowed the group to escape prosecution . Significantly, many of the weapons used in the failed coup were imported from Florida through Louis Haneef, an Afro-Trinidadian Muslim convert based in the U.S. Haneef spent four years in a U.S. federal prison after being convicted for his role in smuggling the weapons to Trinidad .
Many observers attribute the origins of the coup attempt to Trinidad’s history of racially inspired riots and revolutionary social protest movements. Between six and eight percent of Trinidad and Tobago’s population is Muslim, with the Jammat representing a tiny fringe of the community.
U.S. and Trinidadian authorities have kept a close eye on the Jammat’s activities since the 9/11 attacks, but there is no hard evidence tying the group to international terrorism, let alone al-Qaeda. However, Abu Bakr did maintain links with Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi in the 1980s and 90s and considers him a close friend to this day. The Jammat reportedly received funds through Libya’s World Islamic Call Society (WICS) to finance the construction of its main mosque, schools, and a medical center, but there is no evidence linking Tripoli with the failed 1990 coup attempt. Abu Bakr’s most recent publicized links with controversial international figures include Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
In many respects, the Jammat al-Muslimeen’s ideology and rhetoric mirror that of militant Black ethno-nationalist movements, including the most radical fringes of the Nation of Islam. Abu Bakr’s supporters see him as a hero fighting for social justice. Interestingly, although most Trinidadians did not support his 1990 coup attempt, many at the time agreed with the issues raised by the Jammat during the crisis, especially impoverished Afro-Trinidadians. At the same time, the Jammat is seen by many locally as a well organized criminal empire involved in everything from drug smuggling, money laundering, kidnapping for ransom, and extortion, with Abu Bakr running the show . Abu Bakr has since been the target of a series of criminal investigations and indictments for his alleged role in ordering the murders of former Jammat members.
The Waajihatul Islaamiyyah (Islamic Front), headed by Omar Abdullah, himself a Black Muslim convert, has also been identified as a potential threat by U.S. intelligence and Trinidadian authorities. Like the Jammat al-Muslimeen, the Wajithatul Islamiyyah is comprised mostly of Afro-Trinidadian converts to Islam. Local sources allege that Abdullah harbors extremist leanings. The Waajihatul has been accused of publishing material expressing support for al-Qaeda, but Trinidadian authorities have not provided conclusive evidence of any direct links with the group. He is often outspoken in his criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the Trinidadian government’s policy towards Muslims. Trinidadian authorities also tie Abdullah to local crime and other illicit dealings .
The Jamaat al-Murabiteen (Almoravids, after the African Muslim dynasty that ruled Morocco and Spain in the 11th and 12th Century) and the related Jammat al-Islami al-Karibi (Caribbean Islamic Group) are associated with one time Jamaat al-Muslimeen chief of security Maulana Hasan Anyabwile, formerly Beville Marshall. He split with Abu Bakr in 2001 over what Trinidadian sources allege was a personal rift with the group’s leader. Anyabwile hosted a radio show where he was known to criticize Trinidadian Hindus, Indian Muslims, and his former Jamaat al-Muslimeen associates for their purported failure in improving the lot of Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago. Local sources also allege that he is an extremist .
Anyabwile was shot and critically wounded in 2002 by an unknown attacker in what many believe was part of a larger turf war between rival Muslim activists, most likely the Jammat al-Muslimeen. Now a paraplegic, Anyabwile continues to fear for his life, but remains an outspoken critic of Abu Bakr .
The Caribbean Basin will remain a region of concern in the war on terrorism. Despite a lack of hard evidence to date, international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda in theory can potentially feed off of the institutional weakness, political and economic instability, poverty, and lawlessness that characterize the Caribbean Basin to further their aims. But as the case of Trinidad and Tobago demonstrates, the mere presence of Islamist activist groups (or Muslims in general) does not necessarily equate to links to al-Qaeda. Therefore, in addressing the threat (or perceived threat) of radical Islam in the region effectively, it is imperative that policymakers consider the nexus between deep-seated social, political, and economic grievances and international terrorism, and not simply settle for shortsighted solutions.
1. Mario D. Courteous Camarillo, “Al Qaeda busca reclutas entre polleros de México y Maras entroamericanos,” La Cronica de Hoy (Mexico), September 9, 2004 and “Sospechoso de terrorismo estuvo de paso en Panamá, La Prensa (Nicaragua), May 27, 2004.
2. Curtis Williams, “Special Branch in Terrorist Hunt,” Trinidad & Tobago Express, May 28, 2004.
3. See “ICE Gets Special Interest Smuggler,” Inside ICE, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Volume 1, Issue 7, July 19, 2004.
4. Ucill Cambridge, “Muslim Watch,” Trinidad & Tobago Express, March 9, 2004.
5. Walter C. Soderlund, “The Jamaat al-Muslimeen Coup in Trinidad and Tobago, 1990,” in Mass Media and Foreign Policy : Post-Cold War Crises in the Caribbean (Connecticut: Praeger, 2003).
6. Ibid. For a recent interview with Bilal Abdullah, see B.C. Pires, “The Saudis are Islam’s Amish,” Trinidad & Tobago Express, November 14, 2004.
7. Camini Marajh, “U.S. on Jammat Trail,” Trinidad & Tobago Express, August 15, 2004.
8. Camini Marajh, “Bakr’s Empire: Muslimeen Leader’s Million-Dollar Properties,” Trinidad & Tobago Express, August 8, 2004.
9. Darryl Hertaal, “Abdullah Unmasked,” Trinidad & Tobago Express, December 2, 2002.
10. S. Edwards, “Ex-Muslimeen Hasan Anyabwile shot four times,” TriniView, July 22, 2002.
11. Gail Alexander, “Ex-Jamaat Seeks Asylum in U.K.,” The Trinidad Guardian, July 27, 2004.