Until the beginning of October, discussion points in Trinidad would have centered more on preparations for general elections expected in mid to late 2015, but persistent media reports that local Muslims are flocking to the Middle East to fight with the Islamic State group have not only changed this but has promoted an official state investigation into the developments.
For most of this week, media houses, national security officials and the country’s Islamic community have been obsessed with efforts to identify two Trinidadian men appearing virally in social media sites urging others to travel to the battle grounds and join them and other fighters.
Local media think that one of the men might be a Trinidadian deported for felony crimes in the U.S. several years ago and up to recently had been living in southern Trinidad before disappearing and reappearing in the video.
Neighbors say they think that Shazam Mohammed might be one of the men identified in the video but Islamic Missionaries Guild President Imitiaz Mohammed said that the government should seek the help of Interpol and other international agencies to locate the men, believed to be fighting either in Iraq or Syria.
“Government must keep a check on people who are travelling to the Middle East. They need to try and verify if there are visits there or whether these visits are genuine or not,” Mohammed urged.
But even as local umbrella Muslim groups are readying to meet in emergency session this week to discuss the island’s growing links to radical Islam, a teenager from Illinois nabbed by federal officials in the past week trying to head to the Middle East also has strong links to Trinidad.
Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, remains in U.S. custody. National Security Minister Gary Griffith confirmed his island links, saying he was born in Trinidad even as he announced the formation of a special counter terrorism squad to deal with the situation at home as official worry about locals being lured away to the Middle East.
The young Khan is accused of attempting to provide assistance to ISIS as the worries of officials in Trinidad grow, the Trinidad Guardian newspaper reported.
The latest developments have put pressure and an unwanted spotlight on all island Islamic groups.
For example, Muslim League President Nasser Mustapha said the local community is appalled at increasingly credible reports that some from among its midst have opted to join rebel fighters in Syria and Iraq and want to get a proper handle on the situation before making a more informed statement.
“They are using our religion for their misguided aims. Scholars have written a lot about this but joining ISIS is not the way to paradise. These fighters are taking things out of the proper context and using it for their misguided aims. I am very shocked to know that Trinidadians could be involved in this. It is very unfortunate that we have reached to this stage. I am praying for them to return to sanity, balance and objectivity. People have lost their direction by supporting those who are involved in these barbaric things. I pray for them to regain their sanity,” he said as he prepares for the meeting.
All these developments come as well just days after the administration of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar decided to join with the U.S. and other nations to co-sponsor an anti-terrorism resolution at the United Nations General Assembly, triggering criticisms of authorities and fears in some quarters that the island should have laid low rather than join with the powerful and attract unnecessary attention to itself.
Opposition Leader Keith Rowley was among the most vocal of critics in this regard but both the prime minister and Attorney General Anand Ramlogan have argued that the island is not immune from terrorist activist and actually have a history of deadly attacks that include the July 1990 attempted coup by the Black Muslimeen group.
Twenty four people died, a large chunk of commercial Port of Spain was destroyed by fire, then Prime Minister Ray Robinson and other legislators were held hostage for nearly a week, beaten or shot by rebels and government buildings including the state television station were attack and staff held captive as well.
Persad-Bissessar said that the island remains vulnerable.
“Terrorist activity is borderless and by saying we are opening Trinidad and Tobago, I think we are already open as everybody else has been open in this regard for possible terrorist threat. To not have co-sponsored, to not have been active in our commitment in the fight against terrorists, I think would have opened Trinidad and Tobago to serious international pressure and censure, as well as greater risks and threats,” she said.