Trinidad & Tobago Faces Terrorist Threat
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
It came as no surprise when news broke that U.S. intelligence services had warned the Government of Trinidad & Tobago (Trinidad) of plots to carry out terrorist attacks during Trinidad’s Carnival 2018 celebrations. Trinidad has been vulnerable for years and successive governments have failed to undertake necessary and timely action to ensure that the country has in place appropriate laws, and administrative and operational capacities to deal with the terrorist phenomenon.
According to recent media reports, the U.S. Southern Command and the FBI had shared intelligence with, and advised the Trinidad and Tobago Police Services (TTPS) on the capture of four Islamic extremists – “high value targets” – on Thursday (08 February). TTPS spokesman Michael Jackman said no U.S. military personnel participated in the actual operation. Jackman said the TTPS had “unearthed credible information of a threat to disrupt Carnival activities.” It appears from available reports that the intelligence suggested the suspects were targeting foreigners, Carnival revelers, and diplomatic posts. The reports also said the information was gathered from intercepted communications of Islamic State sympathizers and individuals being closely monitored and flagged by other countries.
The TTPS announced that the plot has been thwarted but that investigations are continuing and other arrests are possible. The U.S. and the U.K. governments seemed to have joined in that conclusion. The U.S. embassy in Port of Spain issued a security alert (Thursday 08) warning U.S. Government personnel “to exercise additional caution and increased situational awareness if they participate in Carnival events.” The U.K. Foreign Office (UKFO) also warned British citizens that an attack is still possible. The UKFO had warned that “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Trinidad and Tobago. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in crowded spaces and places visited by foreigners.”
There have been concerns that successive Trinidad governments’ inaction had contributed to the problems now facing the country. While there is no guaranteed fix to the terrorist phenomenon, and no country has in place a security framework that ensures a hundred percent protection from terrorist attacks, most countries around the world have taken significant steps to increase their capacities to suppress and prevent acts of terrorism within their borders.
For many years, successive Trinidadian parliaments have struggled to enact and operationalize anti-terrorism legislation and to implement international anti-terrorism instruments. And, inasmuch as Trinidad has been warned about the threat posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) to the country from Syria, including by The Ward Post, the government has been slow to act. Successive governments have failed to enact laws mandated by UN Security Council resolutions (UNSCRs) that make recruitment to violent extremism and support for terrorism criminal act, and impose penalties commensurate with the crimes. Trinidad does not have appropriate laws to prosecute returning FTFs even where there is proof such individuals were part of the Islamic State forces.
Most countries have acted to implement the anti-terrorism measures mandated by UNSCRs since 9/11. Most countries now have the requisite capacities to cooperate with other countries in the sharing of intelligence and on other counter-terrorism measures. Most countries have long adopted comprehensive counter-terrorism strategies. The Trinidad Government is now trying to catch up.
Recent actions by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago suggest a more realistic and comprehensive approach. On November 01, 2017, the Government announced that it had approved a national counter-terrorism strategy. It also announced that it had drafted an action plan to address violent extremism. Acts of terrorism or terrorist threats are not a new phenomenon for Trinidad. Thus the lack of action by successive governments to enact and operationalize anti-terrorism laws is difficult to rationalize. Trinidad has lagged behind most countries in the Caribbean despite its history with terrorism dating as far back as 1990 with the invasion of the country’s Parliament by Islamic radicals. The ensuing hostage taking resulted in the death of four people and many more injured, as well as significant property damage in Port of Spain.
The amnesty granted to the perpetrators of the 1990 hostage taking, an international crime under UN convention, is forerunner of the current situation with radicalization and recruitment to terrorism now finding fertile ground in Trinidad. The acts of terrorism of the violent extremist Islamist group Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, which began on 27 July 1990; the ensuing deaths; the taking of hostages, including then Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson who was also beaten; and the destruction of property, went basically unpunished. These acts were carried out with impunity because of deals made with the perpetrators to release the hostages.
Now, Trinidad is trying to control the spread of radicalization and violent extremism which resulted in over 100 Trinidadians traveling to Syria and Iraq to fight as part of the Islamic State – Daesh (ISIS) terrorist forces. Despite warnings ignored by successive governments in the past, measures finally being pursued now will ameliorate the problem but will not have an immediate effect on the current situation. The processes of de-radicalization and preventing violent extremism will take some time, and programs now in the development stage will take years to have any appreciable effect.
There is now demand for greater efforts, including law enforcement and intelligence capacity building, and significant government and civil society interventions to prevent and counter violent extremism. Perhaps now, with the threat to Trinidad’s most revered annual event – Carnival – the Government and political opposition will join forces to ensure the law enforcement services and security force have the necessary legal and operational capacities to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism.
© 2018 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post