PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad & Tobago – A Caribbean island nation has become an unlikely source of fighters and funding for the Islamic State militant group, prompting an internationally backed effort to stem the flow of money and recruits to Syria and Iraq.
Security officials and terrorism experts believe that as many as 125 fighters and their relatives have traveled from Trinidad and Tobago to Turkey and on to IS-controlled areas over the last four years, making the country of 1.3 million people the largest per-capita source of IS recruits in the Western Hemisphere.
The Islamic State has put out propaganda videos and magazines featuring bearded fighters with lilting Trinidadian accents training in the desert with sniper rifles and encouraging their countrymen to join them.
Alarmed, Trinidadian state security officials have launched intensive surveillance and monitoring of the country's homegrown Islamist movements, which have a history of militancy and crossover with the country's violent criminal gangs. Saying their efforts are bearing fruit, Trinidad and Tobago officials have recently proposed legislation to crack down on the flow of money to Islamic State fighters overseas by establishing criminal penalties for those sending money to the group.
"There's always a concern in terms of money leaving Trinidad and Tobago that could be involved with terrorist activities," National Security Minister Edmund Dillon said. "There is a minority in the Muslim community and there is a minority in the criminal community that is hellbent on committing these types of offenses."
U.S. officials have described themselves as deeply concerned about the combatants and funds heading out of Trinidad and Tobago. They say they are working with the islands' government on intelligence-sharing and new legislation, as well as sponsoring trips for Muslim leaders to the U.S. to meet Islamic leaders working on anti-extremism programs.
"They are certainly not the only ones worried about this phenomenon of self-radicalization and how easy it has become," said U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, who is responsible for Department of Defense operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean. "They 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 with the tragic results we have seen in everyplace from Paris to Brussels to Berlin to Orlando to San Bernardino."
Tidd praised Trinidad and Tobago for adopting anti-terrorism legislation and cooperating with the U.S. and other international partners.
"Trinidad is a serious country and recognizes that there is work to be done," Tidd said.
Some hard-line Muslim leaders have opposed the new efforts, instead blaming the government for failing to improve the lives of poor, largely Afro-Trinidad youth who can find themselves drawn in by IS recruiters.
An oil-rich nation just off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago has long been celebrated for its rich mix of cultural influences, primarily rooted in India and Africa. Its Muslim minority of Indian-descended families and Afro-Trinidadian converts includes dozens of mainstream mosques and more militant strains such as the Jamaat al Muslimeen, an organization responsible for a 1990 coup attempt classified as the Western Hemisphere's only Islamist uprising.
"I think that the indictment is on the government, past and present," said Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of the Jamaat Al Muslimeen, which has seen as least two members travel to Syria. "Why would the young people in a place like Trinidad and Tobago, the land of steel band and calypso, carnival and gaiety, chutney and all the rest of it. Why would a young person take up his family and go to a place where death is almost certain. Why would somebody do that? That is the big question that the state has to answer."
Umar Abdullah, head of the hard-line Islamic Front group in southern Trinidad, said he has actively discouraged members from traveling to Syria to fight. He said he knew several young men who had become IS fighters, although he declined to provide specifics.
"I do feel responsible in some way with some of these brothers that have left and gone to Syria and fight and so on," Abdullah said. "I felt I could have done a lot more, I felt I could have dissuaded them."
At the same time, Abdullah defended IS recruits as legitimate defenders of embattled Muslims in Syria and Iraq, comparing them favorably to Western soldiers involved in military actions in the Middle East.
"Whosoever has left and gone Syria, how can they call them terrorist," Abdullah said. "I would call my guys freedom fighters as well."
The Trump administration attempts to block travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries has raised sensitivities in Trinidad and Tobago about what some call an alarmist focus on the country's problem with IS recruiting.
But some of Trinidad's Islamist leaders say they approve of Trump's attempted crackdown on visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, and admire what they call his bold and decisive leadership style.
"I am in agreement with Donald Trump 110 percent," Abu Bakr said. "More than that, I have a lot of admiration for Donald Trump."
Ben Fox in Miami, Michael Weissenstein in Havana and Tony Fraser in Port of Spain contributed to this report.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein