It used to be that the mention of the Caribbean twin-island paradise of Trinidad and Tobago, just off the coast of Venezuela, would conjure up images of calypso music, carnival celebrations and curry chickpea delicacies.
T&T — the out-of-the-way birthplace of the steel-drum band and home to some of the most diverse wildlife and geography in the Antilles — has long been under the radar of most international tourists, attracting just a handful of adventurous vacationers and birdwatchers each year, who are drawn to its colorful pre-Lenten masquerade revelries and spectacular hummingbird populations.
(In fact, while most Caribbean island nations depend on tourism for the lion’s share of their foreign revenues, the sector represents less than 8 percent of Trinidad and Tobago’s gross domestic product.)
But in the last few years, the oil- and natural gas-rich tropical Shangri-La, once renowned for its secluded seaside resorts and spectacular Hindu temples (thanks to a historic South Asian connection), has assumed a much more ominous distinction.
According to a report released in April by the U.S. Congressional Homeland Security Committee, tiny Trinidad and Tobago, with a total population of just 1.3 million (including more than 100,000 Muslims), is now the largest per capita source of Islamic State (I.S.) jihadist recruits in the Western Hemisphere.
In the last four years, the report states, at least 400 radicalized Trinidadians have made the 6,000-mile trek to Iraq and Syria to join I.S. and become voluntary foot soldiers for the Caliphate.
In contrast, the comparable number of recruits from the United States (a country with 240 times the population of T&T), was about 600 during the same period.
And it is not just young Trinidadian men who are answering the adhan call to take up arms for the Islamic State.
Last month alone, at least eight T&T women and children were detained in southern Turkey trying to cross into I.S.-controlled Syria.
So what is it that makes the archipelago republic — the wealthiest nation in the Caribbean and the third-richest country in the Americas based on GDP per capita income — a key recruitment hub for the Middle Eastern-based terrorist organization?
To begin with, Trinidad has a long and sorted history of jihadist extremism, albeit not very well covered by the international media.
As far back a July 1990, Jamaat al Muslimeen (JAM), a local radicalized black Sunni organization financed largely through the illicit sales of drugs and other criminal activities, staged a failed six-day coup against the government of Trinidad and Tobago, storming the capital city’s Red House seat of parliament and taking then-Prime Minister Arthur Napoleon Raymond and his staff hostage.
In 2005, JAM jihadists were linked to a series of bombings in the capital city of Port-a-Spain and a group member was arrested in the United States for attempting to ship 70 assault rifles from Fort Lauderdale to Trinidad.
Two years later, JAM was also tied to an attempted bombing attempt at John F.
Kennedy Airport in New York, where one of the perpetrators turned out to be a Trinidadian national.
In 2014, a dozen JAM members allegedly participated in the assassination of T&T Senator Dana Seetahal, and while the responsible parties were later arrested and charged with murder, the next year they launched an armed jailbreak that resulted in the death of at least one police officer.
Membership in groups like JAM and I.S. is not illegal in Trinidad and Tobago, which means that the recruitment of new young and aspiring jihadists can be carried out openly through Islamic cultural centers and mosques.
And it is worth noting that once the 114 alleged JAM instigators responsible for the botched 1990 coup were apprehended by government forces, they were universally granted presidential pardons and not one of them ever spent time in jail in connection to the attack.
This pervasive lackadaisical approach to dealing with Islamic terrorism is still present in Trinidad and Tobago, and makes it an attractive operational and recruitment center for international terror networks.
Moreover, the Caribbean offers a handy location for terror groups to set up shop, thanks in part to its proximity to the United States, permeable borders and high unemployment rates, particularly among the impoverished Muslim communities.
In order to stop the flow of jihadist recruits out of Trinidad and Tobago, the government is going to have to crack down on suspected terror organizations, such as JAM and I.S., and seriously concentrate on providing viable social and economic opportunities for T&T’s often-marginalized and disenfranchised Muslim youths.
Otherwise, Trinidad will soon be much better known for its Caliphate incubation centers than for its sun-kissed beaches and calypso music.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].