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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 April 2019

From Trinidad to Mosul: Why the Caribbean island's young set sail for ISIS territory

Muslim cleric Yasin Abubakr denies island link to ISIS but over 100 youths estimated to have joined group

Yasin Abu Bakr, who led a small army that stormed Trinidad & Tobago’s parliament in 1990, speaks with a fellow member of his group, Jamaat al Muslimeen, at their compound in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. AP
Yasin Abu Bakr, who led a small army that stormed Trinidad & Tobago’s parliament in 1990, speaks with a fellow member of his group, Jamaat al Muslimeen, at their compound in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. AP

To many, it's incredible that Imam Yasin Abubakr has not been jailed, sent to the gallows, or quietly bumped off. A protege of Libya's late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, over the years the Islamist leader has been charged with everything from treason and murder through to overthrowing a government.

Yet the 77-year-old cleric is not some Middle East insurgent who's somehow stayed one step beyond the law. Instead, he preaches openly from a mosque on the Caribbean island of Trinidad – a place more known for reggae and rum than calls to prayer.

The laid-back paradise of the tourist brochures is not one Mr Abubakr recognises, however. A black Muslim convert, he embraced Islam back in the 1960s, convinced that centuries of Christianity had done little for Trinidad's African slave descendants.

In the 1970s, his self-styled religious sect, the Jamaat Al Muslimeen, forged links with Gaddafi's Libya, which was then courting radical movements worldwide. But far from simply reading the late dictator’s Little Green book, he took its revolutionary rhetoric literally – launching an armed coup in which his sect took Trinidad's cabinet hostage for six days.

That was back in 1990, since then he has mellowed somewhat. Today, the only man ever to stage an Islamist coup in the Western hemisphere warns his followers against the politics of the gun – especially if it tempts them to more radical groups like ISIS.

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"The whole ISIS thing is nonsense," he told The National at his mosque in Trinidad's capital, Port-of-Spain. "Why should our young men fight in Iraq or Syria?"

Unfortunately, not every young Muslim on the island has listened to him. Last weekend, a US-backed militia in Syria captured a Trinidadian ISIS suspect named Zaid Abed Al Hamid, who allegedly joined the terror group in 2014.

He is by no means alone. In all, some 130 Trinidadians – mostly black converts – are thought to have joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It gives the island of 1.3 million – of whom just five per cent are Muslim – one of the highest ISIS volunteer rates in the West.

Others include Shane Crawford, an ex-petty criminal who became an ISIS “poster boy” after being interviewed for its Dabiq propaganda website under his nom de guerre of Abu Sa’d Al Trinidadi. While Mr Crawford was killed by a drone strike in 2017, the fate of many of his comrades remains unknown, raising fears of “blow back” attacks should they return.

Mr Abubakr says that only one former Jamaat member has ever embraced ISIS – an elderly cleric later accused of becoming a prolific recruiter for the group. Other volunteers have been drawn from copycat black Muslim sects, which proliferated on Trinidad after the Jamaat first gained a following. Critics say some are sometimes simply fronts for ghetto mafias.

“Unscrupulous people claiming to be Muslims or to belong to our organisation are a problem for us,” admits the Imam.

Two such gangs, "The Muslims" and “Unruly ISIS”, are currently in a bloody turf war in Port-of-Spain with the rival "Rasta City" gang, a feud which has pushed Trinidad’s murder rate close to an all-time high.

Yet both gangsters and Islamic militants, Mr Abubakr argues, feed from the same fertile recruitment pool – Trinidad’s urban ghettos, where drugs and social breakdown are almost the norm, and where police often fear to tread.

"Young people leave school in those areas with no jobs and no opportunities,” he says. "It's those young Africans who are involved in these killings every day."

Men pray at the ASJA Jammah Masjid Mosque of Iman Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of the Jamaat al Muslimeen in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. AP
Men pray at the ASJA Jammah Masjid Mosque of Iman Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of the Jamaat al Muslimeen in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. AP

It was that same anger at the plight of Trinidad’s black underclass that first drove Mr Abubakr to convert to Islam back in 1969, when an Egyptian preacher visited Trinidad. "It was the first time I learned that there were black Africans who were Muslims, and that everyone was equal," he says.

At the time, pan-Africanist movements inspired by the likes of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X were already spreading in black communities round the world. The Jamaat, though, also got funding from Gaddafi, whose emissaries Mr Abubakr met while studying in Canada. He spent several years in Libya, and still describes Gaddafi as "the best leader ever."

In Trinidad, Mr Abubakr soon won street-level followers in the slums, including tough ex-criminals keen to mend their ways. But while he and his "generals" gained respect for stamping out drug dealing, they fell foul of the authorities, who thought the Jamaat was straying into vigilante activity and becoming another street gang. Mr Abubakr says this was because many policemen were themselves involved in narcotics. He also began to fear for his life after a woman police constable who came to him with evidence of government collusion in drug dealing was killed in mysterious circumstances.

Fearing the government was planning to assassinate him next, he decided to strike first. In July 1990 he sent 40 followers, armed with weapons smuggled from the US, to storm the parliament. A further 70 seized the state TV building – Mr Abubakr announced the coup live on air and promised new elections in 30 days.

The group laid down their weapons six days later, and were charged with treason and murder. They were freed two years later after Trinidad's courts upheld the terms of an amnesty used to negotiate their surrender.

Since then, the Jamaat has focused on peaceful politics and community work – much to the disgust of ISIS followers like Crawford. In his Dabiq interview, he said the movement "attempted to overthrow the disbelieving government, but quickly surrendered, apostatised, and participated in the religion of democracy.”

Yasin Abu Bakr in 2013, the head of the Jamaat al Muslimeen group that attempted a coup in Trinidad & Tobago in 1990, pose for a picture at the group's compound in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. AP
Yasin Abu Bakr in 2013, the head of the Jamaat al Muslimeen group that attempted a coup in Trinidad & Tobago in 1990, pose for a picture at the group's compound in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. AP

Yet since the coup, Jamaat members have continued to have run-ins with the law, even though few have been convicted. In 2006, Mr Abubakr himself was acquitted of charges of conspiracy to murder two former members of his organisation. In 2007, ex-worshippers at his mosque were linked to a plot to blow up fuel depots at New York’s JFK International Airport.

According to one police source, the reason charges have seldom stuck against the Jamaat is proof that the group is still "too strong" to take on. It still has thousands of followers, and is said to have connections to politicians on the island who covet the influence the Jamaat enjoys in the ghettos. According to Mr Abubakr, the failure to ever make charges stick is because they are always fabricated.

Still, he and his "generals" retain a certain street-cred, offering "alternative dispute resolution" in neighbourhoods where the police command little respect. After prayers every Friday, supplicants call at Mr Abubakr’s office, seeking help not just with spiritual matters but with problems like debt recollection and the recovery of stolen goods. The week before The National's visit, he had mediated in a gang feud.

"Generally, the gangs respect us," he said. "They don't step out of line with us because they know they will get stamped on, although we advise people to use the courts where possible."

Indeed, many of the Jamaat's remedies for the ghettos' ills are far from radical. While they accept that poverty is part of the problem, they also blame lack of self-discipline and violent rap music.

"Because of the poverty, people fall under bad influences," says Mr Abubakr's son Fuad, who has started his own political party. "A lot of lost young men gravitate to us for help, but we get the blame if they can't hack the discipline here and carry on committing crimes."

On which note, Mr Abubakr insists that were he to take charge of the country – as he tried briefly to do in 1990 – his own robust justice would clean the ghettos up straightaway.

There is, however, no likelihood of him staging another coup. "If we get too involved in things these days, the state will come down on us like a ton of bricks," he added. "So what do we have instead? Two or three murders daily."

Updated: January 9, 2019 07:25 PM

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