Trinidad’s Troubling Islamist Yasin Abu Bakr

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The twin-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago would seem to be the last place to raise alarm bells over the threat of radical Islam.  Trinidad was briefly catapulted into the spotlight in June 2007 when reports surfaced that one of the suspects linked to an alleged plot to attack New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was a Trinidadian national and that the suspects reached out to Yasin Abu Bakr, the leader of Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM, Association of Muslims), for assistance in executing their plan. JAM is an enigmatic Trinidadian Muslim militant group that is implicated in violence, organized crime, and terrorism.  While a JAM link to the alleged JFK plot was later refuted, questions still emerged about Muslim extremism in Trinidad and in the wider Latin American and Caribbean realm (see Terrorism Monitor, June 21, 2007; see Terrorism Monitor, July 30, 2009).

Aside from a few isolated cases over the years, there are no indications of a radical Islamist trend across the broader Americas anywhere near comparable to the situation in Western Europe or the greater Middle East.  Trinidad does, however, hold the dubious distinction of having endured the lone attempt by a Muslim militant group—in this case JAM—to overthrow a sitting government in the Western Hemisphere through a violent coup d’etat on July 27, 1990.  That bloody day in the country’s history continues to weigh heavily on Trinidadian society; legal proceedings against Abu Bakr for his role in leading the armed insurrection are still ongoing, a process that is beset by scandal and political intrigue (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, May 6, 2009; Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, July 11, 2009).

While a shell of its former self, JAM remains an active force in Trinidadian society and politics under Abu Bakr’s leadership.  As a founding member of the group who continues to enjoy a following among a narrow but devoted segment of Trinidad’s Muslim minority, particularly Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts residing in poor urban areas, Abu Bakr continues to astound Trinidad watchers with his ability to elude prosecution and lengthy prison terms.  In spite of his lack of a formal religious education, JAM members refer to their charismatic leader as “the Imam.”  As much as he is admired by his supporters, including those who choose to reside in a commune-like village organized by JAM in Port of Spain’s St. James section, he is both reviled and feared by much of the Trinidadian public and his most bitter rivals, including former JAM members who departed from Bakr’s movement over personal or ideological disputes.  Abu Bakr is also widely regarded by many as a ruthless criminal kingpin who is only out to enrich himself and his followers.  Based on his contacts in Trinidad’s dominant political parities—his ability to mobilize voters has also made him a crucial political ally during contentious election periods—and corrupt segments of the security forces, others see Abu Bakr as a symbol of the entrenched culture of corruption in Trinidad.  Today, Abu Bakr remains one of the most polarizing figures in Trinidadian politics.

Abu Bakr’s foray into militant politics provides crucial insight into the nature of radical Islam in Trinidad and the underlying social and political currents in the Caribbean that gave rise to the group in the 1980s.  Born as Lenox Phillip, Abu Bakr is an Afro-Trinidadian who converted to Islam while living in Canada in the 1970s.  Abu Bakr also served in the Trinidadian military and later as a police officer.  His worldview was shaped largely by the pan-African nationalist Black Power discourse popular in North America, the United Kingdom, and English-speaking Caribbean in the 1960s and 1970s.  Because of the nature of the Muslim experience in the Americas, Islam always had a wide appeal among those who espoused an identity of Black Power.  The first Muslims in the Americas arrived during the slave trade, only to eventually be stripped of their respective Muslim cultures and identities as they adopted the Christianity and customs of their owners.  In this regard, many Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts—and Afro-Muslim converts elsewhere in the Americas—see their conversion to Islam as an assertion of their lost identity.  A consideration of Trinidad’s ethnic and sectarian character is also central to understanding JAM’s emergence on the scene.  Trinidad is roughly divided between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians (known locally as East Indians), the descendants of indentured laborers from South Asia, along with a range of other ethnic and racial minorities.  Bitter rivalries between Afro-Trinidadians and East Indians played out in Trinidadian politics and society engendered a sense of resentment, particularly among poor Afro-Trinidadians residing in impoverished urban centers in and around Port of Spain. Moreover, Muslim converts in Trinidad represent a small fraction of Trinidad’s larger Muslim community, which is dominated by East Indian Muslims. Relations between JAM and the East Indian Muslim establishment have historically been fraught with tension.

In spite of his early reliance on an Islamist discourse, Abu Bakr has always seen himself as a revolutionary struggling on behalf of impoverished Afro-Trinidadians and other marginalized communities in Trinidad, including Muslims and non-Muslims—the latter constituting the vast majority of Trinidad’s population. In spite of JAM’s radical Islamist pedigree and allegations by his detractors of links to international terrorism and even al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr’s revolutionary anti-imperialist rhetoric is far more emblematic of his true worldview.  Abu Bakr’s personal friendships with neighboring Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a self-styled champion of the poor in the Americas, and the perpetual Third World agitator Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, a relationship forged during a period when Tripoli actively supported radical revolutionary movements in the Caribbean, are two of myriad examples that showcase the image Abu Bakr seeks to portray among his followers (see Terrorism Monitor, July 30, 3009).

While acknowledging the social and political circumstances in Trinidad that gave rise to JAM, Abu Bakr’s critics paint a different picture of the militant leader that is reminiscent of a mafia don.  Under the guise of his radical idealism and uplifting rhetoric is a man linked to drug trafficking, arms smuggling, extortion, money laundering, kidnapping for ransom, murder, and political corruption reaching the highest echelons of power in Trinidad (see Terrorism Monitor, July 30, 2009).  JAM, in essence, represents an organized crime syndicate operating under the guise of a revolutionary movement.  Many Trinidadians have also not forgiven JAM for its coup attempt two decades ago, which plunged the country in chaos for over five days, leaving scores of dead and injured in its wake, and millions of dollars in property damage in the capital. The events surrounding the coup and Abu Bakr’s role in the violence remain a heated topic of conversation in Trinidadian media to this day.

Notably, the indelible mark Abu Bakr has left on Trinidadian politics also extends through his immediate family.  In Trinidad’s May 24, 2010 general elections, Fuad Abu Bakr, Yasin’s son, who, with the active endorsement of his father accompanying him on the campaign trail, competed for one of the 41 seats that were up for grabs under the banner of the New National Vision (NNV) party established by the senior Abu Bakr in the 1980s (Trinidad Express, April 26).  Dubbed by the younger Abu Bakr as a party “for the people,” the NNV contested 12 seats in some of the country’s poorest areas on a platform that emphasized social justice, poverty reduction, and anti-corruption.  Indrani Maharaj-Abu Bakr, one of Abu Bakr’s four wives, also competed for one of the seats (Trinidad and Tobago Express, May 4).  While the NNV ultimately failed to secure a presence in parliament, NNV’s participation in the election was not without scandal.  Trinidadian authorities arrested 5 people on May 16 in Carenage who they claimed were part of a violent plot to disrupt the 2010 vote.  In addition to reportedly being caught with arms and ammunition, the suspects were also said to be in possession of t-shirts emblazoned with the NNV logo previously distributed by the party during its campaign.  Fuad Abu Bakr scoffed at any suggestion that NNV was involved in a terrorist plot, labeling the affair a distracting ploy by the struggling prime minister Patrick Manning to call off the elections on the account of domestic security concerns (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, May 16; Trinidad and Tobago Express, May 23).  As he approaches septuagenarian status, Abu Bakr does not appear to be slowing down.  At the very least, Abu Bakr appears keen on supporting a new generation of his epigones asserting themselves in Trinidad’s public life.

Notes.

1. Many of the author’s insights into Yasin Abu Bakr and the Jamaat al-Muslimeen were shaped by a visit to Port of Spain, Trinidad between September-October 2007 and interviews conducted with a senior ranking member of JAM, as well as interviews with members of Trinidad’s mainstream Muslim community and other local observers.

2. For more background on JAM’s formative years and the influence of Black Power thought on the group’s worldview, see Selwyn Ryan, The Muslimeen Grab for Power: Race, Religion, and Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago (Port of Spain: Imprint Caribbean Ltd., 1991).

3. Most of the guns used by JAM during the coup attempt were originally purchased by JAM members in south Florida. For more background on JAM’s efforts to procure arms in the United States, see Loren Berger and Dennis Henigan, “Guns and Terror,” Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence,” 2001.