Authorities in Trinidad and Tobago are taking steps to stop young Muslims from leaving the country to join terrorist groups, highlighting the ongoing struggle the country faces in preventing its youth from joining organizations dedicated to violence.
Officials from the Caribbean country believe as many as 125 fighters have traveled to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State (ISIS) over the past four years, reported The New York Times. The figure makes Trinidad and Tobago, a country of 1.3 million people, the largest per-capita hub of ISIS recruits in the Western Hemisphere.
American authorities are concerned that the country may turn into a hotbed for extremists, who could return from the Middle East and attack American citizens in Trinidad, or even possibly reach the United States via Miami, only a three-and-a-half-hour flight away.
US President Donald Trump recently spoke with Trinidadian Prime Minister Keith Rowley about terrorism and security threats, a White House spokesperson told The New York Times.
In contrast to the laws of many other countries, ISIS is not legally proscribed in Trinidad and Tobago. This means Trinidadians can travel and train with ISIS fighters and then return to Trinidad and still enjoy the rights and privileges of any other fellow citizen.
Yet the government is reportedly implementing tougher anti-terrorism measures. Authorities have increased surveillance and monitoring of the country's Islamist movements, while officials have proposed a law to prosecute those sending money to ISIS fighters overseas. At the same time, US authorities have been sharing intelligence with Trinidad's government, hoping to crack down on potential new recruits.
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The fact that ISIS is allegedly recruiting young Trinidadians raises questions as to why so many of the country's youth are willing to join illicit organizations.
To be sure, the Islamic State is not the only violent actor looking to recruit young Trinidadians. The country is home to a plethora of criminal gangs, which have thrived as a result of increased contraband and drug trafficking operations across the Caribbean and the deteriorating economic and social conditions of neighboring Venezuela, which allegedly led to an increase in the flow of weapons in the island nation.
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Furthermore, ISIS is not the first Islamic movement that tried to lure Trinidadians. The country has historically been a breeding ground for radical Islamist movements, the most famous of which, the Jamaat al Muslimeen, tried to overthrow the government in 1990, making Trinidad the only country in the Western Hemisphere that suffered an Islamic insurgency.
Islamist cells and criminal gangs have both tried to recruit young Trinidadians, who are often unemployed males from poor backgrounds who see few opportunities in an oil-rich country whose economy has suffered as a result of declining oil prices.
Today, ISIS appears to be employing the similar tactics. The group has crafted a discourse that draws from the structural conditions that have historically ostracized young Trinidadian Muslims, and speaks to the very same demographics that other criminal organizations have preyed on in the past.
Trinidadian authorities "need to be able to understand what are the conditions that might predispose individuals to become radicalized and then to be able to take steps to try to stop that from occurring before people go down that path," Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, Commander of U.S. Southern Command, told the New York Times.