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Leaving Trinidad to join Islamic State, part 1

DEVOTION: Worshippers leave Friday prayers at a mosque in Trinidad

IT IS December 2013 and Joan Crawford from Cunupia, Trinidad and Tobago, has not heard from her son Shane in days.

She enjoys a good relationship with her youngest son. They play Scrabble and watch movies together. Crawford has noticed that he was spending more and more time with her before he suddenly disappeared. She then received a phone call over Skype. It was Shane – but he is not coming home any time soon. He has travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State.

“I started to cry because I said I would never see him again, and he said, ‘Mum, we will meet inshallah in jannah (paradise)’,” she said.

Shane Crawford is one of more than 100 Trinidadians believed to have swapped the twin-island nation famed for its carnival and calypso for the battlefield of Syria.

With a population of just 1.3 million, Trinidad and Tobago ranks among the leading countries per capita whose citizens have travelled there to fight for Islamic State (IS). As IS’s group capital in Mosul, Iraq implodes, Trinidad and Tobago – an oil-rich country which also has one of the highest murder rates in the world – has been scrambling to beef-up its terror laws to deal with the threat of returning fighters.

ATTRACTION: The Jamaat al-Muslimeen mosque and compound is one among many mosques that cater to black Trinidadians

Its Attorney General, Faris al-Rawi has said that detention, forfeiture of travel documents and citizenship removal are all on the table. His proposals appear to enjoy wide parliamentary support.

Gary Griffiths, an opposition former Minister of National Security, said:

“What we should be telling militants is that if you leave the country, it will be more difficult for you to return.”

However, these proposals have been met with opposition in the Muslim community, not least by a group known as the Jamaat al Muslimeen, who have accused the Attorney General of “moving like Trump”.

Its leader, Yasin Abu Bakr rose to prominence in 1990 when he led an overthrow of Trinidad and Tobago’s government that lasted six days and led to widespread looting and more than 40 deaths. It is seen as the only attempted overthrow of a Caribbean government led by Muslims, despite Muslims making up only five per cent of the population.


The Jamaat, as they are known, see themselves as a socio-religious group that was inspired by the Black Power revolution and deny that their radicalism has anything to do with the stream of people – many of them young black men and their families – who have now left for Syria.

INFLUENCE: Yasir Al-Bakr in 1990 shortly after the governmental coup

Instead, Bakr has long claimed that the coup’s goal was to improve the living conditions of so called Afro-Trinidadians who have remained disempowered since they came to the twin island nation as slaves. He said:

“The Africans are going to a pool of unemployment. They just sit in the ghetto and do nothing. And then drugs come in and it is a haven for them.

“And now the guns are in and so the murder rate is just spiralling out of control.”

Professor Andy Knight, an academic who has conducted research into home-grown violent extremism in Trinidad and Tobago, said that many of those who had left for Syria and Iraq “feel marginalised from the society”. He added:

“Some of them have been engaged in criminal activity on the island. Some have spent a long time in remand. The justice system in Trinidad and Tobago is woefully inadequate,” he said.

Shane Crawford appears to fit this picture. In 2011 he was among a group – made up mostly of Muslims – who were arrested and held for an alleged assassination attempt on the Prime Minister. The charges have been widely seen as bogus and a crude attempt by the Prime Minister of the day to extend emergency powers.

After his release, Crawford struggled to find work with the stigma now attached to him. He did a few odd jobs, such as selling furniture, while he was forced to close a fish stall he had briefly opened on a busy main road after the delivery truck broke down. His mother said to him:

“And after what happened, remember, you are branded a terrorist.”

Her son also revealed in an interview in Dabiq, an Islamic State magazine, that he had carried out a revenge shooting and had escaped to Syria to avoid prosecution.

Despite Shane Crawford's experiences, crime and marginalisation does not explain away the fact that so many Trinidadians from all walks of life have gone to settle in Iraq and Syria with IS.

Tauriq Abdul-Haqq, for example, had just qualified as a barrister when he left for Syria with his wife. A nephew of a senior judge, he was also a Commonwealth boxing Silver medallist.

To read part 2 of this piece, check back at 11am GMT tomorrow.

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