Jamaat al-Muslimeen on Trial in Trinidad and Tobago

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 5

The ongoing legal case against Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, the founder and leader of Trinidad’s and Tobago’s Jamaat al-Muslimeen (Muslim Group), continues to shed light on the group’s radical and criminal activities.

The 64 year-old Abu Bakr is a former police officer and Afro-Trinidadian Muslim convert born Lenox Philip. He has been a thorn in the side of the Trinidadian authorities and a fixture of Trinidadian politics since the mid-1980s. He is best known for leading over 100 members of the Jamaat in storming the National Parliament and taking the prime minister and the cabinet hostage in 1990 to protest a land ownership dispute with the government, poverty in the Afro-Trinidadian community, and state corruption. The ensuing siege set off rioting and violence in the capital of Port of Spain that resulted in scores of deaths and injuries and heavy damages. It also left an indelible mark on Trinidadian politics that is still felt today.

He and others involved in the coup attempt escaped prosecution and subsequent imprisonment after negotiations to end the hostage standoff resulted in a general amnesty for him and his organization.

Abu Bakr’s latest antics have led to his arrest and incarceration since November 2005 on terrorism and weapons charges. The latest charges implicate Abu Bakr in a string of bombings that hit Port of Spain and St. James in 2005. He is also accused of ordering the murder of former members of the Jamaat that were expelled or split from the group because of ideological differences or shifts in allegiance to rival Afro-Trinidadian Muslim groups (Tobago Express, January 20; Trinidad Guardian, January 28, 2005).

Over the years, the Jamaat has been tied to extensive criminal activity that includes narcotics and weapons trafficking, kidnapping for ransom—a growing problem in Trinidad and a favorite tactic of urban street gangs—money laundering, and extortion. In fact, many observers count the Jamaat alongside Trinidad’s most notorious street gangs in terms of criminal prowess. The Jamaat is also known to wage turf battles with rival groups for influence over territory.

In a February 2006 incident, the son of Hasan Ali, an imam associated with Jamaat al-Muslimeen, was murdered by members of the “G-Unit,” a street gang (Trinidad & Tobago Express, February 19). Local sources think the targeting of the imam’s son by the G-Unit was part of the larger turf war between it and the Jamaat for influence in poor Afro-Trinidadian neighborhoods, namely control over lucrative criminal networks.

Until now, Abu Bakr’s influence among a narrow, albeit vocal segment of the Afro-Trinidadian population, and his willingness to resort to violence and other radical measures, made him virtually untouchable. His reach extends from corrupt elements of the police and security services all the way to the upper echelons of political power, including Trinidad’s major political parties. This influence insulated him from prosecution. Abu Bakr sees himself as a “Kingmaker” of sorts in Trinidad’s volatile political scene, especially but not exclusively among political parties that count Afro-Trinidadians as a base of support.

Abu Bakr’s ability to mobilize voters prior to elections is marginal and is often exaggerated; it is his ability to pressure the government in vulnerable areas that makes him influential. In a testament to that influence, Abu Bakr convinced the state in 2002 to grant him the authority over lucrative state-owned land in Valencia. He later mined the land, only to resell the extracted materials back to the government (Trinidad Guardian, October 23, 2005). In doing so, Abu Bakr’s Jamaat was able to earn vital revenue and provide jobs and social services to its members and supporters.

Beginning of the End?

Abu Bakr’s videotaped statements during his November 4, 2005 Eid al-Fitr sermon at his Mucurapo Road, St. James Mosque, calling on all Trinidadian Muslims, wealthy Muslims in particular, to donate zakat (“charity”) to his mosque or face “bloodshed in 2006,” combined with the growing crime spree gripping Trinidad’s cities that is often tied to him, may ultimately lead to his downfall (Trinidad Guardian, November 8, 2005). Many observers interpreted Abu Bakr’s singling out of “wealthy Muslims” as a direct threat against Trinidad’s East Indian Muslim community, a frequent target of the Jamaat.

These statements, coupled with escalating incidents of violent crime in Trinidad’s cities, have the potential to destabilize the country. Although going after the Jamaat will by no means end Trinidad’s crime problem, it is seen by many as the ideal place to start.

Abu Bakr is no stranger to Trinidad’s legal system. He and many of his followers have faced serious jail time on numerous occasions, only to be released in the end for political reasons after serving modest sentences or no time at all (Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, August 7, 2005). Due to his impressive track record, many local sources think that he may even escape the latest charges as well.

At the same time, the prosecution’s strong case against him and the government’s efforts to go after his organization have taken on a greater sense of urgency. For example, Abu Bakr continues to be denied bail, which was unheard of in the past, despite Jamaat assurances that they will do everything in their power to topple the current government if their leader is not freed on bond (Trinidad & Tobago Express, January 31). The state is also moving to confiscate his properties and to evict his four wives from his numerous homes. It is also pressing the Jamaat to pay back over $30 million to the state for property damaged during the coup attempt.

In addition, Abu Bakr is facing separate conspiracy charges alleging that he instructed two of his lieutenants to kill expelled Jamaat members Salim Rasheed and Zaki Aubaidah. Aubaidah happens to be Abu Bakr’s son-in-law. The high profile botched murder attempt left an innocent woman dead and other bystanders seriously injured.

The Nature of Afro-Trinidadian Radical Islam

A key aspect of radical Islam in Trinidad is the Afro-Trinidadian character of organizations such as the Jamaat al-Muslimeen and its numerous offshoots, which include the Wajihatul Islamiyyah (Islamic Front), Jamaat al-Murabiteen (The Almoravids), and Jammat al-Islami al-Karibi (Caribbean Islamic Group).

Abu Bakr’s worldview was influenced strongly by the “Black Power” movements that emerged in the U.S. and the Caribbean in the 1960s and 70s. He claims to be inspired by what is known in Trinidad as the 1970 “Black Power Revolt,” which entailed bloody race riots between Blacks and East Indians (see Lennox Grant, “The Way We Were,” in Trinidad Under Siege, The Muslimeen Uprising: 6 Days of Terror). The discourse of groups such as the Jamaat al-Muslimeen and its offshoots borrows heavily from the militant fringes of pan-African nationalist movements such as the Nation of Islam. Like the Nation of Islam, Afro-Trinidadian Islamists claim to advocate for all Afro-Trinidadians, and not solely for the tiny Black Muslim minority.

Radical Afro-Trinidadian Muslim organizations are led by and comprised almost exclusively of Black converts to Sunni Islam. Afro-Trinidadian Muslims make up a tiny fraction of Trinidad’s overall Muslim minority, which is dominated by East Indian Sunni and Shiite Muslims. For many Afro-Trinidadians, conversion to Islam signifies their assertion of identity in a society in which they are underserved and face discrimination. It is important to emphasize that because most of Trinidad’s radical Islamist groups are dominated by Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts, not all Black Muslim converts can be labeled as radical.

Significantly, the above-mentioned groups are led by former protégés of Abu Bakr who parted ways or were expelled from his Jamaat. Abu Bakr’s prosecution is unlikely to lead to the end of the Jamaat al-Muslimeen, or the radical current among Afro-Trinidadian Muslim groups in Trinidad more generally, at least in the near-term.

Due to Abu Bakr’s overriding influence over the Jamaat, however, his departure would certainly land a massive blow to the group’s viability. Although many of his followers continue to see him as a hero that stands up for social justice, in reality Abu Bakr is seen more as a criminal kingpin than anything else.

Dedicated followers of Abu Bakr are likely to carry on their efforts under the leadership of Kala Aki Bua, the Jamaat’s welfare officer and second in command (Trinidad & Tobago Express, February 7). He assumed a leadership role after Abu Bakr’s latest arrest, but it is unclear whether he would be able to carry on much longer as the group’s leader. Instead, many may look to other groups for guidance. Others may choose to start their own movements.

Al-Qaeda in Trinidad?

Trinidadian and international sources often point to the presence of al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations in Trinidad and Tobago with the potential to threaten U.S. interests in the Caribbean Basin and Latin America. Due to its lucrative energy reserves and its strategic placement in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela, and Muslim minority, part of which has a history of resorting to political violence, many observers believe that Trinidad represents an attractive target for groups such as al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s documented successes recruiting Muslim converts elsewhere, including Afro-Caribbean converts, is also a point of concern.

The tendency of groups such as Jamaat al-Muslimeen to resort to violence against the state and its rivals and to engage in criminal activities has also led some to worry about the influence of radicals such as Abu Bakr and their potential to collaborate with international terrorist organizations with broader agendas.

In reality, the brand of Islamist radicalism found in Trinidad has so far remained a strictly Trinidadian phenomenon stemming from a narrow fringe of the Muslim community, essentially an outgrowth of the fractured body politic that characterizes Trinidadian politics. The ethnic divide between Trinidad’s African and East Indian communities that transcends sectarian affiliation, in addition to the rivalry between the tiny Afro-Trinidadian Muslim minority and Trinidad’s influential East Indian Muslim community in particular, goes far in explaining the trajectory of the movement.

Given this background, there is little evidence to suggest that groups such as Jamaat al-Muslimeen or its offshoots in Trinidad represent ideal allies for al-Qaeda, although their documented role in extensive crime should be of concern.