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Jihadism and the Twin Islands: Why Securing Maritime Space in Trinidad & Tobago Requires Attention

Post by Meghan Curran

Trinidad and Tobago, with their white-sand beaches and aquamarine waters, might not be the first place that comes to mind as a battlefield in the Global War on Terror. And yet the twin-island country, a mere three-and-a-half-hour plane ride from Miami, sits at the center of a perfect storm.

A history of Islamist radicalization, widespread crime, close proximity to the crisis in Venezuela, and the Western Hemisphere’s highest per capita recruitment rate into the ranks of the Islamic State demand the attention of both regional and global actors. These factors make securing Trinidad’s maritime space crucial to the fight against transnational organized crime and terror in the Caribbean and beyond.

This underappreciated threat materialized as recently as February 2018, when members of the US military’s Southern Command, in conjunction with Trinidadian security forces, thwarted a planned terror attack days before the island’s annual Carnival celebration. Broader geopolitical trends, including the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria and transnational security threats emanating from nearby Venezuela, threaten to empower radicals and increase the risk of future attacks in and around Trinidad and Tobago.


While some were surprised by reports of the planned terror attack in 2018, members of the US military and intelligence community have long been concerned with a lingering jihadist sentiment that dates back to the 1980s. In 1990, 42 members of Jamaat al Muslimeen (JAM), an Afro-Trinidadian Muslim movement, stormed parliament in an apparent coup attempt that lasted four days and resulted in the deaths of 24 people. In the decades following the incident, JAM transformed from an “idealist social movement” into a criminal enterprise involved in arms trafficking, money laundering, extortion, and kidnapping. On the surface, it appeared that Islamist ideology in the island nation was relatively dormant, but during the Islamic State’s caliphate years, Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) boasted the highest rate of foreign-fighter radicalization in the Western Hemisphere per capita.

While the number of Trinidadian citizens who have traveled to Iraq and Syria in support of the Islamic State is disputed, sources agree that the figure relative to the island nation’s population of 1.2 million is disproportionately large. According to former US Ambassador John L. Estrada, Trinidad and Tobago’s nationals are well-regarded members of the Islamic State. Because of their English-language skills, they have been known to achieve high ranks within the organization, and have been tasked with spreading the Islamic State’s message throughout the Caribbean. Several experts agree that fighters returning from the caliphate may be inspired to conduct localized attacks, and maritime-centric criminal networks will provide an environment conducive to these activities. Because political Islam is largely unknown in Latin America, this threat is easily overlooked.


While political Islam had been dormant in Trinidad and Tobago, widespread organized crime, including maritime terrorism, has facilitated its return to the country. In 2015 the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service estimated that there were 147 active gangs in the island nation. Many of these gangs are Afro-Muslim spinoffs of groups like JAM dating back to the early 1990s. Most Trinidadian ISIS fighters were recruited from these groups, and returning foreign fighters benefiting from legacy group relationships can assimilate back into these organized criminal enterprises, which crisscross the islands and take advantage of porous sea borders and low maritime domain awareness.

This presence at sea has played a crucial role in the history of violence in T&T. The majority of the weapons used in the 1990 coup attempt were purchased in Florida and imported by sea. At least three additional incidents in the early 2000s illustrate JAM’s prolonged involvement in maritime arms smuggling from the United States. Experts in Trinidad believe that illicit weapons enter the country largely through commercial ports, hidden in commercial cargo. In recent years, a number of illicit weapons have also entered the country via the narrow sea border between Venezuela and Trinidad, where desperate Venezuelans sell weapons in exchange for food and medicine.

Trinidad and Tobago's Maritime Security Capabilities

Trinidad and Tobago’s Coast Guard (TTCG) is the arm of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force responsible for securing the archipelagic state’s maritime domain. Among other things, the TTCG is responsible for underwater surveillance, logistical support to T&T’s land forces, port security, aid to civil law enforcement, anti-smuggling and counter-narcotics operations, shipping safety, and fisheries protections and enforcement. With a wide range of operational roles, TTCG’s ability to respond to the increasingly complex maritime security environment in the Caribbean is limited.

However, in 2015, following a four-year acquisition program, the government of Trinidad and Tobago agreed to purchase 12 vessels from the Damen international shipyard group for the T&T Defence Force. The order included four coastal patrol vessels, two utility vessels, and six interceptor vessels intended to improve the TTCG’s ability to support interception, disaster relief, search and rescue, and coastal patrol operations.


In addition to maritime arms smuggling, Trinidad’s gangs have also been heavily involved in the illicit maritime drug trade. As nearby Venezuela has descended into chaos, narcotraffickers have been viewing routes through Trinidad as an attractive alternative to better-known routes out of Venezuela, and Trinidad’s 12 dispersed ports of entry and low port security only increase the appeal. In May 2019,Trinidadian authorities arrested a leader of the notorious Venezuelan gang “Evander” in Point Fortin, Trinidad. The gang has slowly been making its way south from Venezuela, taking control of canals that connect to the Caribbean Sea and allow access to Trinidad and Tobago. Here, they have been known to ferry drugs and arms as well as extort boats carrying desperate migrants across the sea.

The combination of Trinidad’s low port security and Venezuela’s economic and political turmoil has encouraged an increase in maritime human smuggling and trafficking between the two countries. Just seven miles off the west coast of Venezuela, Trinidad is an attractive destination for those fleeing violence, and some 40,000 Venezuelans have found their way to Trinidad, mostly via sea routes, where many become both targets and recruits for the islands’ gangs. In April 2019, reports of a boat capsizing in the strait between Trinidad and Venezuela resulting in the deaths of 38 women onboard exposed a human smuggling ring and implicated members of Venezuela’s National Guard for their role in the disaster. Then the following month, in May 2019, another smuggling boat sank with 33 passengers onboard, including three minors. The current environment is not just dangerous from a human security perspective, but has also created additional opportunities for illicit groups to profit.

The Emerging Crime-Terror Nexus in Latin America

The term narcoterrorism is often associated with Latin America, and more specifically with Colombia’s FARC. But other violent nonstate actors in Latin America have also benefited greatly from the region’s lucrative illicit drug trade. These organizations include the National Liberation Army (ELN), also in Colombia, and Peru’s Shining Path (SL). These groups have been known to engage in widespread kidnapping, and have carried out attacks on infrastructure and civilian populations. But terrorism in Latin America is generally more grassroots, and therefore not as exportable as Islamist terrorism, which is transnational in nature.

However, the precedent for Islamist terrorism in Latin America is not unfounded. Iran’s Hezbollah has maintained a presence in the region for several decades and has increasingly cooperated with violent drug cartels, often with the assistance of corrupt political elites. In much the same way that local guerrilla groups have financed their activities, Hezbollah has benefited greatly from the maritime distribution of illicit drugs to US and European markets. Profits from these activities fund Hezbollah’s arms procurement and terrorist activities overseas, fuel global jihadism, and provide safe havens for terrorists which a fresh wave of radicalized fighters could benefit greatly from.

In 2015, a US official estimated that more than half of the cocaine leaving Colombia first passed through Venezuela before entering the international market. Now these groups are increasingly pushing their product through Trinidad and Tobago. In addition to an increase in drugs smuggled into T&T, fishermen in the country’s southern port of Cedros have also reported an increase in Venezuelan boats smuggling guns, people, and exotic animals.

There has also been an increase in piracy and armed robbery in the region over the course of the last year. In 2018, 85 incidents of robbery at sea were recorded in Latin America and the Caribbean, a 20 percent increase over 2017. In 2018 a total of 16 suspects were arrested for robberies on fishing vessels in Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad, but it is likely that incidents of robbery in the region are also heavily underreported. With the uptick in incidents of robbery, there has also been an increase in attacks against smaller vessels such as fishing vessels, and involving both Venezuelans and Trinidadians. This uptick can be attributed largely to opportunism, with an increasing number of vessels transiting the waters between Venezuela and Trinidad . due to changes in illicit drug routes and a rising number of migrants using the sea to flee Venezuela.


In the face of the mounting jihadist threat in the Caribbean, what can Trinidad and Tobago and its regional partners do? Here are a few suggestions:

1. T&T’s countering the financing of terrorism policies should be amended and made more preventative in nature by focusing on stemming maritime-centric criminal networks.

Trinidad and Tobago has cooperated with the United States broadly on counterterrorism, including information-sharing. In November 2017, its National Security Council approved a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, which was amended in August 2018, requiring citizens of T&T to give notice of travel to conflict areas and allowing the government to freeze the assets of those who commit terrorist acts. These amendments were likely passed in response to a Caribbean Financial Action Task Force report that placed T&T on a list of countries with strategic deficiencies in anti-money-laundering and countering the financing of terrorism programs.

While T&T has made great strides with regards to counterterrorism, its countering the financing of terrorism policies are mostly reactionary in nature, outlining penalties for those who engage in or support terror financing. Moving forward, an increased emphasis on stemming illicit maritime activities is crucial. Visa-free travel throughout the Caribbean has encouraged porous sea borders and inadequate port security, inviting illicit actors to move freely within the region. Decreasing illicit flows to T&T, which are likely to fund the growth of Islamist sentiments in the country, is impossible without increasing maritime domain awareness and providing appropriate funding and other resources to weaken maritime-centric criminal networks. Therefore, programs countering the financing of terrorism should include maritime-specific components involving a range of stakeholders.

2. Regional collaboration and information-sharing initiatives should be expanded, particularly in the wake of the Venezuela crisis.

Essential components of tackling transnational crime as well as the movement of illicit actors throughout the Caribbean are regional partnerships and information-sharing initiatives. While more support for these initiatives is needed, there are encouraging developments on this front as well. As a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Trinidad-based Implementation Agency for Crime and Security led the development of a regional counterterrorism strategy in February 2018. The strategy focuses heavily on countering regional crime, with specific recommendations for member states to enact legislation related to the implementation of systems like the Advance Cargo Information System, which would enable them to share information on crime more consistently. While these developments are noteworthy, the concept of a regional counterterrorism strategy is still in its infancy in the Caribbean, and its implementation requires continued collaboration, training, and cost-sharing, particularly in the midst of Venezuela’s current crisis.

3. Increased port security measures should be pursued to decrease the flow of contraband goods and illicit actors into T&T and throughout the region.

In January 2018, T&T Prime Minister Keith Rowley responded to reports that the United States had raised concerns about the level of security at the Port of Spain. In an effort to gain support for new electronic scanners being used at ports to identify contraband entering T&T, the PM publicly lashed out at the Public Services Association, who had opposed the operation of the machines citing health concerns from port authority officials. Although the PM claimed that the devices had resulted in the removal of over 1,000 illegal firearms from the streets in under a year, he expressed his frustration that the T&T government had little authority to enforce or increase their employment.

In April 2017, Trinidad and Tobago agreed to install Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES) at certain points of entry to the islands. This biometrics-based system has helped dozens of countries improve their watch-listing capabilities by providing a mainframe computer system to facilitate the processing of individuals at state borders, and is used to detect when inbound watch-listed or wanted terrorist suspects board a flight or appear at a border. Initial installation of the systems in late 2017 was planned for the Piarco International Airport, the ANR Robinson Airport, and the Cedros Port. While there has been little reported on the implementation of these specific systems, more emphasis on these types of systems at ports should be prioritized to stop the flow of illicit actors into T&T.


T&T’s relative proximity to the United States, coupled with its status as a major supplier of liquified natural gas to the eastern seaboard, will ensure it remains an area of concern for US policymakers, yet preventing the growth of Islamist sentiments in T&T is impossible while turning a blind eye to the sea. Over a quarter of US energy comes from natural gas, which is transported by ship from offshore production platforms. T&T is also the world’s largest exporter of ammonia, which is distributed worldwide via large ocean tankers. Together these valuable cargoes provide an attractive target set for illicit actors.

In March 2019 the Islamic State ceded its final portion of territory in Iraq and Syria, and the deaths of thousands of its leaders have badly damaged the group’s command and control infrastructures. A recent United Nations Security Council report highlighted how these changes might impact the organization, creating a flatter hierarchy with cells and affiliates increasingly acting autonomously. In the future these affiliates will likely be more financially strained, as well as increasingly motivated to conduct attacks to illustrate their relevance. These organizations going “global” means that efforts to counter the threats they pose will rely even more heavily on local-level government, military, and law enforcement professionals working together to comprehensively address factors that encourage and facilitate their activities. In Trinidad and Tobago, returning fighters will benefit from well-established maritime-centric criminal enterprises, nearby chaos in Venezuela, and national and regional counterterrorism strategies still in their infancy. As stakeholders wrestle with the complex operating environment in the twin islands, they must realize that future counterterrorism strategies will be incomplete without considering the wide range of activities, both politically and financially motivated, that play out on the world’s oceans.

This content was created when Stable Seas was a program of One Earth Future.


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