The recent allegations of a foiled plot to attack New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport by suspected Islamist extremists with ties to the Caribbean have raised concerns about the spread of radical Islam among the region’s sizeable Muslim community. Early reports link the suspects to Trinidad and Tobago’s Jamaat al-Muslimeen (Muslim Association, JAM), a radical Islamist group with a history of political militancy and violence.
Russell M. Defreitas, 63, a U.S. citizen and resident of New York City who was born in Guyana, was once employed at the airport as an airline cargo handler. He is a Sunni Muslim convert of Afro-Guyanese descent. As the alleged mastermind behind the conspiracy, Defreitas has not held a steady job since 1995 and relied on social security payments and working odd jobs to survive. He had only $50.70 in his name at the time of his arrest (Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, June 7).
His alleged accomplices included Afro-Guyanese Muslim convert Abdel Kadir, 55, born Michael Seaforth. Kadir converted to Sunni and later Shiite Islam and served as an imam in Guyana. A civil engineer by training, he once served as a member of Guyana’s parliament and the mayor of the town of Linden. Kadir also studied theology in Iran in the 1990s, where he met and befriended Muhammed Hassan Abrahemi, an Iranian Shiite cleric who would later head Guyana’s International Islamic College of Advanced Studies. Abrahemi made headlines in Guyana when he was abducted and murdered in 2004 (Terrorism Monitor, July 27, 2006). Kadir was reportedly preparing to attend an Islamic conference in Iran at the time of his arrest (Stabroek, June 3).
Abdel Nur, 57, born Compton Eversley, is a Sunni Muslim convert of Afro-Guyanese descent who worked odd jobs and battled drug addiction. He was deported from Canada in 1982 after serving time for drug trafficking. Nur was also deported from the United States based on similar charges in the late 1980s (Stabroek, June 5; Stabroek, June 8). The fourth suspect, Afro-Trinidadian Kareem Ibrahim, also known as Winston Kingston and Amir Kareem, is a native of Trinidad and Tobago and a Shiite imam. Ibrahim, 56, was initially a convert to Sunni Islam, but later adopted Shiite Islam in the 1970s. He also operated an Islamic bookstore (Trinidad & Tobago Express, June 3). He is reported to suffer from severe claustrophobia, a condition that has prevented him from flying since 1979 (Guyana Chronicle, June 17).
By all accounts, the suspected plotters, whose ages range in the 50s and 60s and include Sunnis and Shiites, do not fit the typical profile of capable terrorist operatives. For example, those who know Defreitas and Nur describe them as “ganja smoking” loners who were often unkempt, unstable and lacked the means to support themselves, let alone create a plot of this magnitude (Trinidad & Tobago Express, June 6). The alleged plan was also nowhere near operational or technically feasible. In ridiculing the suspects, one Trinidadian commentator dubbed them the “jokey foursome” (Trinidad & Tobago Express, June 10).
The Jamaat al-Muslimeen Connection
Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that Defreitas harbored resentment toward the United States stemming from his opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, indicating some intent on his part to act. The suspected plotters did not look to associates in the Middle East or South Asia for support. Instead, they are alleged to have sought financial assistance from the obscure Trinidad-based radical Sunni Islamist group known as Jamaat al-Muslimeen.
Observers who have followed JAM’s activities over the years were surprised to hear that the group was implicated in the plot. Reports that the suspects intended to reach out to JAM’s leadership to include a meeting with the group’s leader, Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, who is currently awaiting the start of his high-profile trial in Port of Spain for charges of sedition, terrorism and other crimes, also baffled regional observers and authorities. Trinidadian Police Commissioner Trevor Paul announced that there was no information linking JAM to the alleged plot, although there is evidence that some of the suspects passed through JAM circles at one point (Trinidad & Tobago Express, June 6).
Despite the recent charges and the group’s track record of political militancy and violence, which includes terrorist attacks in Trinidad, there is no evidence to suggest that JAM has ever attempted an attack outside of Trinidad, let alone an attack against the United States. JAM, however, has been known to maintain a presence outside of Trinidad, including in the United States, in what appears to be an effort to facilitate its criminal activities (Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, June 10). There is also no evidence linking JAM to al-Qaeda or other international terrorist organizations. The involvement of Shiite Muslims among the suspects has raised questions about a possible Iranian link but, again, there is no evidence of an Iranian connection as well.
The outspoken JAM Social and Welfare Officer Kala Akii Bua strongly denied any links to the alleged terror plan, calling it an international conspiracy hatched by the FBI and the Trinidadian government to tarnish the image of his organization. In an apparent reference to the group’s violent reputation, he stated that “Japan and America were enemies…We have moved on. We turned a new corner.” Akii Bua acknowledged that suspect Abdel Nur prayed at a JAM-led mosque and stayed at the home of a JAM member (Trinidad Guardian, June 7). He denied, however, that Nur ever met with senior JAM leaders: “Some people will say they meet Santa Claus.” He added that JAM does not “believe it is proper to strike at the United States” (Trinidad & Tobago Express, June 7). Akii Bua additionally acknowledged knowing Kareem Ibrahim, who previously associated with JAM before adopting Shiite Islam (Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, June 7).
In another curious twist in the case, Kadir and Abu Bakr are reported to know each other from their time studying together at the University of the West Indies. They have been accused of being business associates, but no further evidence has surfaced confirming this claim (Trinidad & Tobago Express, June 6).
JAM was founded in the 1980s by Yasin Abu Bakr, an Afro-Trinidadian Muslim convert born Lenox Philip and a former police officer. The organization has traditionally been comprised primarily of Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts to Sunni Islam. Its ideology and discourse combine a mix of the most extreme fringes of pan-African nationalism and black identity politics with Islamist rhetoric and symbolism. JAM has portrayed itself through the years as an advocate for all Afro-Trinidadians, including non-Muslims. Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts in Trinidad represent only a tiny fraction of the larger Muslim minority community, which is dominated by East Indians, a frequent target of JAM’s ire over the years. Understanding the nuances of Trinidad’s complex ethnic and racially-divided society and political arena is crucial to understanding the emergence of JAM and its allure among its narrow following (Terrorism Monitor, March 9, 2006).
In 1990, the 65 year-old Abu Bakr ordered more than 100 of his followers to raid Trinidad’s Red House (National Parliament) in an attempt to overthrow the government in a violent coup over grievances related to a property dispute, social justice, poverty and state corruption. JAM took hostage Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson, who was shot and wounded amid the ensuing chaos, and most of his cabinet. The group also took over Trinidad’s then sole national television station and one of two radio stations. The crisis lasted for five days, plunging the capital Port of Spain into violence and disarray. The coup attempt led to scores of deaths and casualties and tens of millions of dollars in damages. JAM surrendered to authorities after a period of negotiations led to a settlement that resulted in an amnesty for the organization. The details of the amnesty remain a point of contention to this day, as subsequent governments have pursued legal action against Abu Bakr and JAM members for their role in committing violence and destroying public property.
Since the coup attempt, Abu Bakr and other prominent JAM members have been implicated in an array of crimes, including narcotics and arms smuggling, extortion, murder and kidnapping for ransom. JAM has also been linked to crime in the United States. JAM member Louis Akhtab Haneef, a former resident of Pompano Beach, Florida who is also known as Louis Sinclair Coleman, purchased most of the weapons used by his associates during the 1990 coup attempt at gun shows and shops in southern Florida and exported them to Trinidad . JAM member Olive Enyahooma El, also known as Clive Lancelot Small, was convicted in Miami in 2004 on charges that he attempted to smuggle automatic weapons and silencers from Florida to Trinidad in 2001. JAM member Keith Andre Glaude was arrested during a sting operation in Fort Lauderdale in 2001 for attempting to purchase automatic weapons and silencers for export to JAM in Trinidad (Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, June 10).
Although JAM has maintained a lower profile during the last few years due to increased government pressure and a series of high-profile arrests of its members, the group has remained a vocal player in Trinidadian politics. Trinidadians, however, continue to characterize JAM as a criminal organization more than a religious or political one.
Authorities in the United States and Caribbean need to remain vigilant regarding the threat of terrorism in the region. There is, however, little evidence to indicate that radical Islamist ideologies are resonating among Muslims in the Caribbean. The alleged JFK plot appears to be an isolated incident concocted by a group of aging amateurs who may have harbored some aspirations to act out their grievances through violence, but boasted little in terms of operational capabilities and resources. While many observers point to the presence of JAM in Trinidad as proof of an emerging terrorist threat to the United States in the region, these assessments fail to take into account JAM’s history of acting almost exclusively in the Trinidadian context.
To date, the most pressing security concerns in the Caribbean remain drug and arms smuggling, organized and financial crime and human trafficking, not radical Islam. Nevertheless, the institutional weakness, endemic corruption, poverty and lawlessness characteristic of much of the Caribbean can, in theory, make the region susceptible to terrorist infiltration.
1. Loren Berger and Denis Henigan, “Guns and Terror,” Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2001.