Caliphate of the Caribbean: The story of Trinidad’s ISIS recruits

Caliphate of the Carribean

By William Leah

The stories and demographics of ISIS recruits from a Caribbean Island shed light on the variety of people who travelled to Syria to establish an Islamic State.

When Europeans think of those who joined Daesh, otherwise known as Islamic State, we often imagine young, single men seeking violent adventure and teenage girls lured by faith and romance. While these stereotypes apply to many of those known to have travelled to the Middle East, they do not tell the full story. Those who have left the caribbean island of Trinidad certainly challenge the preconceptions many have about those who have abandoned their country of origin to join Islamic State.

For example, the average age of those leaving Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) for the Levant was 34, over a decade older on average than European recruits. Most travelled as a family, with 80% of the men being married and 43% being minors. In addition to this, 40% of those who made the journey were female – the highest proportion for any Western country. These demographics are the primary reason why these people are referred to as ISIS “recruits” rather than “fighters”, for while all joined Islamic State, many did not take up arms to defend it.

There are many other ways in which the individuals from Trinidad challenge the preconceptions we tend to have about those who joined Daesh. Almost all the men who travelled were employed, with 90% being considered middle class – a fact that is not surprising considering the cost of relocating your family over ten thousand kilometres away to live in a warzone. The difficulty for Trinis to relocate to the Middle East certainly leaves open discussion as to whether more would have migrated had it been more financially viable. The socioeconomic situation of these individuals is reflected in the variety of their occupations; recruits included a secondary school teacher, a marine safety technician, a building contractor, a professional footballer, a car salesman and even a Commonwealth Games silver medallist. These are not the usual suspects who felt unable to succeed in their home countries, and in fact many took up senior positions within the Caliphate thanks to their expertise and knowledge of English.

While these statistics suggest Trinidad and Tobago’s contributions to the Caliphate were an outlier, it is important not to dismiss the 130+ Trinis who travelled to Syria between 2013 and 2016 as an aberration. Of Western country’s T&T contributed the most individuals to Daesh for population size, at 96 per million of the population. This is over double the rate of Belgium (around 40 per million), the primary source of European recruits. While T&T has a smaller populace, this high rate is still surprising as its Muslim population is of a similar size to that of Western European countries. 6% of T&T’s population identify as Muslim, while in the UK they accounted for 5% of the population in 2018, 5.6% in France, Belgium 6% in 2020 and Germany 6.1% in 2017

The Muslim community in Trinidad and Tobago

Before we go further it is important to discuss how T&T’s ISIS recruits relate to the wider Islamic population. It’s essential to understand that those who left the Carribean for the Levant do not reflect the wider Islamic population of the islands.

The vast majority of Trinis who joined Daesh attended Salafi mosques, of which there are only five in T&T, out of a total of eighty-five. Salafism is a conservative strain of Islam strongly associated with Saudi Arabia and modern jihadist movements, though not all Salafi-adherents support or are connected to jihadist groups. Of those Trinis who travelled, 43% were converts, comparable again to rates amongst European recruits. Simon Cotte believes that the high rate of converts within T&T and its high rate of travellers to join Daesh are strongly connected, and has cited that it is understood that

converts are particularly vulnerable to radicalization, either because of their lack of grounding in Islam, or because, owing to their marginality from both the new faith community into which they have converted and the former community out of which they moved, they are susceptible to the recruitment”.

Many of those who travelled from Trinidad were connected to Imam Nazim Mohammed, a former member of imfamous “radical Afro-Trinidadian Islamist organization Jamaat al Muslimeen. They are best known locally for a coup attempt in 1990 that saw the President, the Parliament building and a television station taken hostage for five days by a group of eccentric radicals. Mohammed rules over his own insular community, from which many of the ISIS recruits originated. As a result, it is best to recognise those who joined Daesh as a product of a particular community, disconnected largely from the country’s wider Muslim population.

So why did these families leave a comfortable life in the caribbean?

Simon Cottee has written a book on Trinidad’s ISIS recruits, and from his research is convinced that those Trinis who joined Islamic State did so because they saw the Caliphate as a true paradise, unlike their Caribbean home. Many were disillusioned with the immorality and corruption of T&T and decided it best to leave with their children and start afresh. Their affinity with Daesh’s vision of an ultra-radical caliphate and their close connections to extremists willing to make the leap meant they were particularly vulnerable to the allure of ISIS.

Where are they now?

Following the collapse of Islamic State in 2019, the majority of male recruits have been killed, while the women and their children (both those born in T&T and under Daesh) are predominantly being held in detention camps. As in other countries, there has been heated debates as to whether T&T should extradite them back to the Caribbean. The indifference of the T&T government to its Jihadist problem, driven in part by a willingness to let these people leave the islands, meant legislation criminalising the funding of terrorists or travelling to join Islamic State was not passed until August 2018, long after these individuals had left. As with many other governments, the great cost of retrieving these civilians, assessing the threat they pose to T&T society, and funding any programmes to deradicalise their children further discourages politicians from taking action.

Regardless, the stories of those families who left Trinidad to live under the slave-owning and genocidal Islamic State challenge the narrative that it was just a collective of sadistic murders, and ignorant teenagers. Daesh gained from Trinidad and Tobago not only senior officials and capable posterboys, but children and families that would have provided it a future.