Perspective: Islamic StateTrinidad’s Islamic State Problem

Published 18 November 2019

One of the most alarming aspects of the Islamic State has been its ability to draw recruits and sympathizers from around the world, but not only from countries known as hotbeds of radicalism. It may come as a surprise to many that, on a per-capita basis, Trinidad was one of the largest providers of volunteers for the caliphate. How did Trinidad get to this point in the first place?

In November 2013 Shane Crawford and two other men killed two people in a busy town in central Trinidad. In December 2013 all three were in Syria fighting for the Islamic State. They were the first Trinidadians — or Trinis, as fellow IS fighters called them — to do so.

Simon Cottee writes in Lawfare that by the time Crawford was added to the U.S.Global Terrorists” watch list in 2017, more than 240 Trini nationals had migrated to the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. “This makes Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), a small twin-island republic in the Caribbean, one of the world’s biggest recruiting grounds, per capita, of the Islamic State,” Cottee writes, adding:

Trinidad has still yet to come to terms with this unenviable record, and there remains a widespread sense of incomprehension in the county that any of its nationals could have traded the paradise on their shores for a world of sectarian slaughter and chaos in Syria and Iraq. Now, more than six months after the fall of the territorial caliphate, the country faces the mother of all returnee problems: what to do about the scores of its nationals who are currently in detention in Syria and Iraq. This problem is all the more urgent given the uncertainty in northeastern Syria following President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and support from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). At the time of writing, the Ain Issa camp, which houses hundreds of foreign Islamic State-affiliated women and children, has fallen.

But how did Trinidad get to this point in the first place? Cottee, who was a lecturer in criminology at the University of the West Indies, says she first became aware of the issue of Trinis joining the Islamic State in mid-2014 through the reporting Mark Bassant, a local reporter. She returned to Trinidad in early 2016 in order better to understand of what was going on.

She writes that the Trinis who joined the Islamic State “were not pushed by frustration over poverty or social exclusion… [or] by the pains of exile or migration.” Rather, “What seems to have ‘pulled’ them to the Islamic State was a conviction that it was the true paradise that Trinidad claimed to be but was not: a pristine society of faith free of corruption, deviance and worldly temptation.”