The threat of radical Islamism in Latin America and the Caribbean remains a vital concern for U.S. and regional security officials, particularly in light of allegations that al-Qaeda nuclear terrorist Adnan Shukrijumah lived in Suriname at one point. The region’s reputation for porous borders, political and economic instability, endemic corruption and poverty make it a center of transnational organized crime involving the smuggling of drugs, arms and people, money laundering, document fraud, counterfeiting and other illicit activities. While currently there is not a tangible threat to U.S. national security emanating from this region, many observers believe that al-Qaeda is poised to exploit these factors to strike a future blow against the United States or its interests in the region.
Based on these assumptions, it is no surprise that the region’s modest, albeit dynamic and diverse Muslim community is receiving increased attention from security analysts. Many observers believe that al-Qaeda’s proven track record of inspiring sympathizers with no past ties to terrorism to its cause to take the initiative and act in Western Europe and elsewhere is a warning sign of developments to come. Al-Qaeda’s success in attracting some Muslim converts to its violent program is also raising alarm bells about growing Muslim conversion trends in the region.
Given this context, it is worth considering the position and outlook of the Muslim community in Suriname, subjects that have received little academic and media attention. The former British and later Dutch colony is renowned for its ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. It is the country with the largest percentage of Muslims out of its total population in the Western Hemisphere. Suriname is also a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Instability and Radicalism
Although there is no current credible evidence pointing to a burgeoning radical Islamist current in Suriname, the country has experienced an alarming surge in violent crime in recent years. Suriname’s small population, dense rainforest and network of rivers that traverse its widely uninhabited territory, strategic position on the northern ridge of South America and direct air and sea connections to Europe and the Caribbean islands, have made it an attractive trans-shipment point for drug and arms traffickers. The country was mired in a bloody insurgency in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Suriname also made U.S. and regional headlines when some sources alleged that Shukrijumah might be hiding there. These reports have not been confirmed (Trinidad Guardian, November 20, 2004).
In December 2004, the U.S. Embassy in Paramaribo closed its consular services section after receiving what diplomats described as a credible threat of a possible terrorist attack. No further details were made available. According to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, however, the embassy received threats about an impending strike against the facility or another location in Suriname affiliated with the United States (Caribbean Net News, December 3, 2004). The U.S. Embassy is located on a busy one-way street. Fearing a possible car bombing, embassy officials requested that Surinamese officials close the street and extend the grounds of the facility in order to create a more secure buffer from possible attacks (Caribbean Net News, December 3, 2004).
Reports that Jamaat al-Fuqra (JF), an obscure Muslim group with branches in Pakistan and North America that has been linked to terrorism and crime, is making inroads into the Caribbean, especially among Afro-Caribbean Muslim converts and East Indian Muslims in nearby English-speaking Trinidad and Tobago and neighboring Guyana, raise concerns about Suriname (The Trinidad Guardian, April 8). Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, JF’s founder and leader, is believed to have spearheaded the movement in Pakistan in the early 1980s. Gilani also heads the International Quranic Open University (IQOU), which is affiliated with the Muslims of the Americas (http://www.iqou-moa.org). JF has been implicated in a series of murders and bomb plots targeting religious and ideological rivals in the United States and Canada. In the United States, JF is comprised primarily of African-American Muslim converts. The group is best known for establishing a number of isolated rural communities across the United States for its members (Terrorism Monitor, August 10).
Organized Crime and Corruption
In June, Shaheed “Roger” Khan, also known as “Short Man,” a Guyanese national of East Indian descent and reputed narcotics and arms kingpin wanted by U.S. authorities on an outstanding warrant for crimes committed while residing in the United States, was arrested in the Surinamese capital of Paramaribo; three Guyanese associates and eight Surinamese nationals were also apprehended. Khan is believed to have fled his native Guyana after being implicated in the theft of arms from the Guyanese armed forces. He is known locally as a key player in the drugs and arms trade between Guyana and Suriname. Both countries are experiencing an alarming increase in organized criminal and violent street gang activity (Guyana Chronicle, June 18).
Surinamese sources claim that Khan was planning to assassinate Surinamese government and judicial officials, including cabinet members (Guyana Chronicle, June 19). The sting operation that led to Khan’s arrest yielded over 200 kilos of cocaine and an assortment of arms. Paramaribo expelled Khan to nearby Trinidad for entering the country illegally. Trinidad denied Khan entry into the country because he lacked valid travel documents. He was subsequently handed over to U.S. officials and is currently awaiting trial in a U.S. jail on drug trafficking charges (Caribbean Net News, June 19).
There is no evidence that implicates Khan in terrorism. Nevertheless, the relative ease in which Guyana’s most wanted man fled to Suriname along with a cadre of trusted cohorts to continue his lucrative criminal enterprise underscores Suriname’s vulnerability in the eyes of security officials. In fact, both Suriname and neighboring Guyana have served as sanctuaries for high-profile criminals on the run. David “Buffy” Millard, a member of Trinidad’s Jamaat al-Muslimeen, was arrested in Guyana recently and extradited to his native Trinidad to face murder charges (Trinidad Guardian, May 6). In another case, Brazilian authorities implicated Surinamese security officials in an illicit arms trading network that allegedly smuggled weapons to criminal gangs in Brazil, including violent groups such as the Red Command and the First Capital Command. Both organizations are involved in a lucrative drug and arms trade based out of Brazil’s impoverished favelas (urban slums) and prisons (Caribbean Net News, February 3).
Islam in Suriname
Although accurate demographic figures are difficult to pinpoint, Muslims comprise between 15-20% of Suriname’s total population of approximately 500,000. Suriname’s Muslim heritage stems back to the slave trade, when colonial authorities imported African Muslim slaves from West Africa. Today, most Surinamese Muslims trace their origins to South Asia, especially India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and are known locally as East Indians, Indo-Surinamese or Hindustanis. An overwhelming majority of East Indian Muslims are Sunnis, while a small minority adheres to the Shiite branch of the faith. Suriname is also home to followers of the Ahmadiyya movement. Like their kin in Guyana and Trinidad, most East Indians are Hindu and, to a lesser extent, Christian. Suriname is home to a small Arab Muslim community with roots in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. There are also reports of a growing Muslim conversion movement in the Afro-Surinamese community, a trend that mirrors other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean .
Suriname’s East Indians were brought as indentured laborers to what was then known as Dutch Guyana by colonial authorities in different waves following the abolition of slavery in the late 1800s in order to satisfy demands for labor in the local plantation economy. Despite their sectarian differences, Suriname’s complex demographic makeup and ethnic rivalries have instilled a sense of East Indian solidarity. Their common plight as indentured laborers also fosters a sense of collective identity that transcends religious differences. The community experienced a substantial decline in its overall population due to migration to the Netherlands after Suriname gained its independence in 1975.
Despite their linguistic differences, Surinamese Muslim associations maintain close links with their Guyanese, Trinidadian and regional counterparts. They maintain ties to organizations based in South Asia, especially Pakistan . Tablighi Jamaat and other influential Muslim missionary organizations originating in South Asia have a presence and a following in Suriname . Suriname’s Dutch legacy also has had a profound effect on society, including on the Muslim community. Surinamese Muslims maintain close links with their kin and Muslim associations in the Netherlands.
Suriname is home to a sizeable ethnic Javanese Muslim community that traces its origins to present day Indonesia, which was once under Dutch colonial rule. Like East Indians, Javanese migrated to Suriname beginning in the late 1800s and ending in the 1930s as indentured laborers in order to compensate for local demands for labor following the abolition of indentured labor practices in South Asia . The Javanese maintain close cultural links to their kin in Indonesia and to the ethnic Javanese community in the Netherlands.
The Javanese community came under scrutiny when Suriname’s Defense Minister Ronald Assen announced that Ali Imron, an Indonesian of Javanese descent linked to Jemaah Islamiya in Southeast Asia and currently serving a life sentence in Indonesia for his role in orchestrating the October 2002 attacks in Bali, spent a year in Suriname prior to the attack, teaching and studying at a mosque in the town of Moengo. Dutch and Indonesian sources, however, refute these allegations, declaring them a case of mistaken identity. Assen’s claims evoked a strong condemnation from Surinamese Muslims, including Dr. Issac Jamaludin, a local Muslim leader, who denied any links to al-Qaeda or the existence of a radical trend (Nieuws.nl, November 11, 2003). No further evidence has surfaced supporting the defense minister’s claims.
Although no hard evidence points to an emerging threat of Islamist extremism in Suriname, security officials should remain wary of attempts by radical groups to exploit vulnerabilities already in use by criminal organizations to great effect. In this regard, Suriname is by no means a unique case in Latin America or the Caribbean. Policymakers and security officials should take these factors into careful consideration in order to better gauge potential threats to U.S. security interests in a region that is becoming a growing concern in the war on terrorism.
1. Raymond Chickrie, “The Lalla Rookh: Arrival of the First Hindustani Muslims to Suriname 1873,” http://www.guyana.org/features/LallaRukh.pdf.
2. Raymond Chickrie, “History of Politicking of Islamic Organizations in Guyana,” http://www.guyana.org/features/Guyana_Islam_org.May2006.pdf.
3. Yoginder Sikand, The Origins and Development of the Tablighi-Jama’at (1920-2000): A Cross-Country Comparative Study (India: Orient Longman, 2002).
4. Rosemarijn Hoefte, In Place of Slavery: A Social History of British Indian and Javanese Laborers in Suriname (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998).