Are Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters a Threat to Caribbean Security?
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(29 October 2017) — In previous writings, including in The Ward Post, and presentations I have made in a number of fora in the past year, I raised the possibility of returning foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) whose origins are the Caribbean posing risks and dangers to the region. It’s time for Caribbean governments to pay attention and coordinate plans to deal with this imminent danger. There were several reasons why individuals that have left the region to fight with ISIS (IS) in Iraq and Syria might wish to, or forced to return. With ISIS decimated as an army and the idea of the promised caliphate no longer a reality, the FTFs are being scattered around the world. Those who can will return to their countries of origin.
According to the most recent available data available in a report this week by The Soufan Center (Beyond The Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees (October 2017)), over 130 FTFs from Trinidad and Tobago went to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS. Those FTFs that were not killed were fleeing the fighting in Syria and Iraq and were likely to attempt to return to their home country. Let’s be clear who they are and what they represent! These are terrorists! These are individuals who have been trained in the use of weapons of war and explosive devices to kill innocent people. These are individuals who were inspired by an extremist violent ideology, and who pursued a violent jihad which failed to achieve the intended results, but which will not end for many FTFs upon their return. ISIS leaders have told them to carry out their violent jihad wherever they are.
According to The Soufan Center (TSC), as well as intelligence and law enforcement sources, thousands of FTFs have already returned to their countries of origins and have carried out terrorist acts, especially in Europe. The number of returnees to date is just a fraction of the more than 40,000 known FTFs from some 110 countries that had gone to Syria and Iraq. The TSC report states that Turkish authorities had recorded the names of 53,781 individuals provided by 146 countries which suspected their nationals had, or had attempted to travel to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. It is also estimated that several thousand FTFs are on the Turkish border seeking ways to return to their countries of origin. According to TSC, the names and identifying particulars of as many as 19,000 FTFs who were confirmed as joining ISIS has been collected by Interpol. Many will have access to fraudulent travel documents if their original passports have been lost or destroyed.
In a paper I prepared for the Caribbean Research & Policy Center and submitted to the U.S. State Department and the office of the Ranking Member of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, June 2017, “Security Imperatives & Cooperative Partnerships In U.S.–Caribbean Relations”, I raised an alarm about the negative effect the proposed U.S. budget cuts would have on security assistance to Caribbean countries to deal with returning FTFs and transnational crime. I suggested that the security of the region and its ability to monitor returning FTFs to the region serve the mutual security interests of the Caribbean and the United States. That aside, there is much the region can do to deal with returning FTFs and to prevent them from carrying out acts of terrorism in the region. The problem is not only for the government of Trinidad and Tobago and the United States which is cooperating with T&T on this urgent matter. It is a problem for the entire region and Caribbean governments must take immediate action to coordinate and improve on their information gathering and intelligence sharing capacities.
Back in November 2002, in my capacity as Expert Adviser to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee, I addressed a meeting of CARICOM Attorneys General (AGs) in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. My mission was to urge Caribbean governments, and in particular the AGs to ensure that each Caribbean country enacted laws and established administrative and operational capabilities mandated by UN Security Council resolution 1373 (2001). The resolution requires every country in the world to enact appropriate laws to prohibit and suppress the financing of terrorism, the movement of terrorists, and all forms of support for terrorism, and to cooperate with other countries to do so. Subsequent UN Security Council resolutions also required criminalizing recruitment to terrorism and incitement to terrorism.
A few Caribbean governments acted expeditiously to enact comprehensive counterterrorism legislation and amend their criminal codes in response, as appropriate and required to fulfill their international counter-terrorism obligations. Unfortunately, a few dragged their feet, and after more than 16 years since adoption of resolution 1373 not all countries in the region have enacted and operationalized all of the laws necessary to suppress, prevent, and prosecute terrorists. Many still lack the requisite intelligence and operational capacities to prevent terrorist acts from occurring in their territories; and many lack the capacity to cooperate effectively with other countries in the investigation and prosecution of terrorists.
The dangers to the region are as great today as they were in the immediate 9/11 period. My concern for the Caribbean region and it’s vulnerability was heightened by a visit I made to Bali, Indonesia in December 2002 to participate in a conference on the suppression and prevention of terrorist financing, a mere two months after the bombing of the Bali nightclub which killed over 150 Australian tourists. This terrorist act was a severe blow to Bali’s famous tourism sector. I saw no visible signs of tourists on Bali’s beaches or in the tourist shops. More than a year later the tourists had not returned to Bali in any significant numbers.
I warned the CARICOM AGs that any act of terrorism carried out anywhere in the Caribbean would have significant effect on tourism sectors across the region. The economies of the countries of the entire Caribbean region would be severely impacted. The danger has risen significantly with returning FTFs. Now with travel between CARICOM states made easy, the ease with which FTFs to the region may pursue targets in any country of choice within the region should be a major concern. Immigration and border control officials of each CARICOM member state must now be vigilant without being discriminatory, not just looking out for FTFs from the region, but they must have access to Interpol’s Watch List in real time as they vet all travelers at points of entry and departure.
Given the visa-free entry accorded by Caribbean countries to several countries outside of the region, it is an imperative for the intelligence services of the United States, Trinidad & Tobago, the U.K., and others to increase the sharing of intelligence on returning FTFs from the region, as well as possible returning FTFs from those countries that may be targeted from Caribbean countries, or use the region as re-entry points. It is equally important for Caribbean countries to increase information gathering and intelligence sharing capacities; not later, but now!
© 2017 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post