Is the U.S. Prepared for a Resurgent Al Qaeda?

The terror group appears poised to turn its attention back to Western targets. But counter-terrorism expert Ali Soufan says Washington has been too slow to understand the threat.

As a resurgent Al Qaeda threatens to turn its attention away from violent sectarian conflicts in the Middle East and target the West again, a leading counter-terrorism expert questions whether Washington can devise an effective strategy when “we still don’t have deep knowledge of the enemy.”

According to Ali Soufan, a former FBI supervisory special agent and current member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, even the most aggressively planned and executed military tactics against Islamic terror groups are doomed without psychological insight and appreciation of centuries of Middle East history.

“We need to have a vision going forward,” he told a recent seminar sponsored by the John Jay College Center on Terrorism.

“Why do you have individuals willing to blow themselves up for an evil ideology?” said Soufan, himself a Muslim—and he noted that answering that question has never been so critical.

Ali Soufan

Ali Soufan. Photo by Nancy Bilyeau/TCR

“The most potent weapon is not a gun, a knife, or a bomb; it’s an ideology.”

Soufran was expanding on points raised in his new book “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State,” which describes the history of Al Qaeda before and after 9/11, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), and the waning threat of ISIS just as a rejuvenated Al Qaeda presents itself to the West—possibly with Osama Bin Laden’s son Hazma as its new leader.

Soufan said understanding the enemy requires what he defined as “clinical empathy.”

When asked about his repeated use of the word “evil” in descriptions of the individuals and groups written about in Anatomy of Terror, Soufan said the word choice is deliberate.

He dislikes the phrase “radical Islam,” saying, “It’s not radical and it’s not Islam.”

He also disagrees with the theory of economic forces forging the leaders of these terrorist groups.

“Most of these people are not poor,” he pointed out.

Soufan was largely dismissive of claims of a “dwindling” ISIS, and ridiculed its taking credit for the mass shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month that killed 58 people.

“If I were to fall down the stairs, they would take credit for it,” he said.

Anatomy of TerrorNevertheless, for Soufan, who was the FBI’s lead investigator of Al Qaeda after the 9/11 terror attacks, the group founded by Osama bin Laden is definitely now the greater threat.

Ironically, America’s $2 trillion war on terror has turned a core of some 400 committed members of Al Qaeda pre-9/11 into a far larger group, even after Osama Bin Laden was shot to death and Khalid Sheik Mohammed was captured.

“Sixteen years after 9/11, we have thousands and thousands of followers adhering to Bin Laden’s ideas,” Soufan said.

The West’s lack of political engagement with the leaders in the Middle East after the Arab Spring was a missed opportunity, Soufan said.

Now, he added, the U.S. urgently needs to pursue full political and diplomatic engagement with those leaders.

“We need to use all the tools in our toolbox to fight the extremist narrative and create a counter- narrative,” Soufan told the October 6 seminar.

One of those tools is discrediting Al Qaeda whenever possible with sophisticated public relations efforts, utilizing social media, to discourage recruitment.

But the U.S. also needs to form local alliances, and demanding more of the nation’s existing allies in the region is critical, argued Soufan.

“We talk about democracy and human rights, but when it comes down to it, we don’t care about those things,” he said.

“We must have the courage to force our allies to do what they need to do.”

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital) at The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Benghazi Attack Trial Begins Five Years Later

Prosecutors say Ahmed Abu Khattala was the mastermind of the 2012 attacks in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. A defense attorney says Abu Khattala did not plan the incident, which prompted criticism for the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers gave starkly different portrayals of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged mastermind of the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, the Associated Press reports. Prosecutor John Crabb said that when Abu Khattala’s hatred of America boiled over, he orchestrated the attacks and then triumphantly strode around the attack site carrying an AK-47. John Crabb said the defendant was heard saying “I attacked the American embassy” and would have killed more Americans that night if others had not intervened. A defense attorney called Abu Khattala a “Libyan patriot” who fought on the U.S. side in the war against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He said Abu Khattala didn’t mastermind the attack and went to the attack site because he heard there was a protest and wanted to see what was happening.

Opening statements unfolded Monday in one of the most significant terrorism prosecutions in recent years, in U.S. District Court in Washington, D..C.  An 18-count indictment against Abu Khattala arises from a burst of violence that began the night of Sept. 11, 2012, at a State Department compound, a rampage prosecutors say was aimed at killing American personnel and plundering maps, documents and other property from the post. The trial, which is expected to last several weeks, is likely to resurrect the political controversy over the attack. Republicans accused the Obama administration of intentionally misleading the public about what transpired at the U.S. outposts and stonewalling congressional investigators. Some lawmakers criticized then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of the episode.


Statement of IACP President Donald W. De Lucca on Weekend’s Deadly Attacks

Yet again, this weekend brought devastation, tragedy, and fear to our communities. Our deepest sympathies are with the victims, their families, and the communities of Marseille, France; Edmonton, Canada; and Las Vegas, United States. Whether a knife, vehicle, or gun, … Continue reading

Yet again, this weekend brought devastation, tragedy, and fear to our communities. Our deepest sympathies are with the victims, their families, and the communities of Marseille, France; Edmonton, Canada; and Las Vegas, United States.

Whether a knife, vehicle, or gun, the work of a lone wolf or coordinated attack, these horrific events have all brought tragedy on a global scale. We must all stand together in support for the victims and communities affected.
Law enforcement agencies and officers will continue to make every effort to protect all those who live, work in, and visit our communities around the world and to ease fears.

We applaud the bravery and dedication of all the first responders who acted swiftly to aid the injured and to keep the public safe from further harm. Our thoughts and prayers are with the law enforcement officers who were injured or lost their life in each of these tragic instances.


Trump Calls Las Vegas Shooting ‘Act of Pure Evil’

The president announced he would visit Las Vegas Wednesday, after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Alleged gunman Stephen Paddock opened fire late Sunday on an outdoor country music concert near the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, killing at least 50 people and injuring more than 400. Paddock took his own life as officers stormed his hotel room.

A gunman opened fire on an outdoor country music concert near Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino late Sunday, killing at least 50 people, injuring more than 400 and sending the Las Vegas Strip into chaos, reports the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. An off-duty Las Vegas police officer attending the concert was among the victims. Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said officers determined the gunshots were coming from a room on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay complex.

As officers stormed the room, Stephen Paddock, 64, of Mesquite, Nv., shot and killed himself. Officers found 10 firearms in the room. Police believed that Marilou Danley, 62, described as Paddock’s “companion,” was not involved in the shooting. Paddock’s brother, Eric, who lives near Orlando, Fl., told the Orlando Sentinel, “We are completely dumbfounded. We can’t understand what happened.” Paddock told the Review-Journal that his brother lived a quiet life in retirement in Las Vegas, frequently playing slot machines and video poker on the Strip. “It’s like an asteroid just fell on top of our family,” he said.

The attack came during the last performances on the final night of the three-day Route 91 country music festival, which has been held for the past four years on a 15-acre lot across from Mandalay Bay. Gunfire from an automatic weapon rang out while Jason Aldean was onstage. Concertgoer Ivetta Saldana, who was there with a friend, said the shots sounded like fireworks. She hid in a sewer. “It was a horror show,” she said. “People were standing around, then they hit the floor.” One responding officer was critically injured, and another had minor injuries, police said. At one point police were investigating reports of active shooters at other Strip properties. Those reports turned out to be false.

President Trump called the shooting an “act of pure evil” and praised the first responders, the Associated Press reports. The president will visit Las Vegas on Wednesday to meet with first responders and families of victims.

Randy Sutton, a former Las Vegas police officer, told CBS that, “The shooting went on for somewhere in the area of 15, 20 minutes, so that interfered with getting the first responders into the area.” He said the gunman planned the “horrific shooting immaculately,” adding that, “When you look at what his field of fire was, the way that he prepared himself by having multiple firearms, by having the ability to have enough ammunition to rain down hell on those poor innocent people that were doing nothing except enjoying themselves,” The Hill reports.


FBI Involved in 1,000 Domestic Terrorism Probes

New FBI director Christopher Wray, in his first congressional testimony, says the bureau is involved in roughly the same number of domestic terror cases as the total of probes involving suspects who may be inspired by the Islamic State.

The FBI is conducting 1,000 investigations of suspected white supremacists or other types of domestic terrorists who might be planning violence, reports the Washington Post. Christopher Wray, in his first congressional testimony as FBI director, confirmed that his office has about 1,000 inquiries that people generally categorize as “domestic terrorism’’ — a catchall term often used to describe those motivated to commit violence in furtherance of racist causes. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, prompted Wray to confirm the number. FBI officials have said they had 1,000 ongoing investigations of suspects who may be inspired by the Islamic State terrorist group to commit violence. This was the first public indication that the FBI is dealing with a similar number of domestic terrorism cases.

Federal law makes it a crime to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group. There is no corresponding law regarding support for a violent white supremacist group. “In most ways they’re similar, probably the biggest difference is there’s not a domestic terrorism offense as such,’’ Wray said. He added that investigations of foreign-inspired suspects also may use foreign intelligence court orders to gather intelligence — a tool that is not available in an investigation of a white supremacist group. The debate about the lack of such a law intensified after a suspected white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville this summer, killing a woman. He is awaiting trial in state court on murder charges.


FAA Uses ‘Honor System’ for Criminals, Terrorists

A year-long Boston Globe investigation released this week shows how the Federal Aviation Administration’s lax system of registering airplanes and pilot’s licenses is being exploited by drug runners– and even terrorists.

After a year-long investigation, two Boston Globe reporters found that a lax Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] system of registering airplanes and pilot’s licenses is being exploited by drug runners– and even terrorists.

“People can use layers of secrecy to register their aircraft,” Spotlight investigative reporter Jaimi Dowdell told CBS on Monday. All you need is a bill of sale and a $5 bill– a system far less secure than applying for a driver’s license, which requires multiple forms of ID.

“The FAA doesn’t see itself as an active policeman of the registry,” said Spotlight co-reporter Kelly Carr. “They don’t vet the information. So they’re really working on the honor system” to tell the truth about their citizenship and residency in the U.S.

“They can lie, and the FAA says that they’re not checking.”

FAA acknowledges it does not vet or track registration, and says it lacks the resources to determine accuracy.

The Spotlight investigation found that two of the planes used in the 9/11 attacks were listed by the FAA as active until 2005; another plane’s registration was active for 57 years after it was destroyed in a crash. Carr and Dowdell also found 5 people with suspected ties to terrorism– one currently serving time for attempting to aid ISIS– all holding active licenses, according to the FAA database.

“If those aren’t being caught, imagine what else is slipping through the cracks?” said Carr.

Eight years after the 9/11 terror attacks,”the FAA still operates more like a file clerk than a reliable tool for law enforcement, enabling secrecy in the skies here and abroad,” concludes the Spotlight story.

An investigation by The Crime Report published last week revealed the FAA had failed to thoroughly address a whistleblower’s report of defective airline parts manufactured in China for U.S. aircraft. The whistleblower case, reported by TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie, underlined additional concerns by aviation specialists and former FAA inspectors about FAA oversight. They charged that the FAA has shunted the job of policing the emerging global trade in counterfeit airplane parts to the commercial airline industry.


Drugs, Gangs & Radical Islam in a Caribbean Paradise

U.S. policymakers have begun to focus on the security threats from Trinidad and Tobago, just off South America’s north coast. According to a new study, the island nation of 1.2 million is emerging as a narcotics shipping hub; and on a per capita basis, it has sent more foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria than anywhere else in the region.

Trinidad and Tobago, just off the north coast of South America, has the dubious distinction of being the country which has sent the greatest number of foreign terrorist fighters in the region to Iraq and Syria on a per capita basis.

And as the U.S. fights against narcotics flows, Trinidad and Tobago is playing an increasing role in transit routes for smuggling drugs to the U.S. and Europe through the Caribbean.

Trinidad and Tobago. Illustration by Rick McCharles via Flickr

Trinidad and Tobago, a tiny nation of 1.2 million people, straddles two islands: Trinidad, by far the larger of the two, is an industrial powerhouse and a financial center for the Eastern Caribbean, having leveraged significant offshore and onshore natural gas resources to build a major petrochemical industry, including a petroleum services sector that supports numerous projects in the surrounding region.

Tobago, often forgotten, including when people abbreviate the name of the country (to just “Trinidad”), is a beautiful island with an economy based on tourism and enjoys a degree of self-government.

Despite its small size, Trinidad and Tobago is one of the wealthiest, most economically developed, and most ethnically diverse countries in the region, with populations of African, Indian, Lebanese, Chinese, and European descent. Its diversity is both reinforced and complicated by its relatively open borders and its tradition of being a nation of immigrants, with significant recently arrived communities from Venezuela, China, Syria, and Africa.

Despite its high per capita GDP, Trinidad and Tobago has the highest incidence of violent crime in the Eastern Caribbean, with 463 homicides in 2016, approximately 35 per 100,000 residents. The country also has a significant gang problem and was the subject of an attempted coup in 1990 by the local radical Islamic group Jamaat al Muslimeen (JAM).

It also has the dubious fame of being the largest contributor in the region on a per capita basis of Islamic fighters to Iraq and Syria. Only diverse and quirky Trinidad and Tobago could have a group calling itself “Unruly Isis.”

Beyond the headline-capturing problem of the radicalized youth who have left Trinidad and Tobago to fight for ISIS, the principal symptoms of the malaise affecting the country are gangs, guns and drugs.

Yet endemic corruption is arguably the underlying problem that allows the cancer to spread. Indeed, in August 2017, Prime Minister Keith Rowley acknowledged corruption as the principal challenge facing his government.

Islam, Gangs and Youth

The present foreign-fighter problem must be understood in the context of the 1990 coup attempt by the JAM, and the convoluted interaction between Islam and gangs in giving purpose to a portion of the country’s alienated youth.

Trinidad and Tobago’s original Muslim population was of East Indian descent and lived fairly harmoniously with other parts of the population. The JAM, by contrast, had its origins in the marginalized afro-Trinidadian youth of slums such as Laventille.

Its leader, former police officer Lennox Philip (who converted to Islam and assumed the name Yasin Abu Bakr), built his movement on the alienation of such youth and the perceived widespread corruption that permeates Trini government and society.

Following the unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the state in 1990, and the government’s decision under duress to pardon the JAM leadership, the movement metastasized into multiple afro-Trinidadian youth gangs, ever more loosely connected with JAM founder Abu Bakr. Those groups interacted with numerous other small and medium-sized gangs concentrated in the urban East-West corridor in the north that extends to the western coast.

With respect to the approximately 150-175 persons who have left Trinidad to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the majority have not come directly from the JAM, nor do they attend its principal mosque in the Port of Spain suburb of St. James. Rather, most have their origins in the afro-Muslim gangs which have spun off from the JAM since 1990.

They attend or have been influenced by mosques with more extremist teachings, and in particular, mosques in Rio Claro, Carapo, and the Enterprise area. There is, nonetheless, still a connection between the JAM and the foreign fighters insofar as the leaders of the more radical mosques, including Nazim Muhammed of the Rio Claro mosque (from which the greatest number of presumed ISIS recruits have come), and Hassan Ali, head of the Carapo mosque, were part of the movement that led to the 1990 JAM coup attempt, and still maintain ties to the JAM and its leader Abu Bakr.

In another case, a JAM-affiliated leader from the Rio Claro mosque has left the mosque with a group of followers, and has reportedly set up a new temporary facility for prayer services and other activities more consistent with the group’s radical beliefs in a compound of makeshift tents in Diego Martin.

Despite some connections, in the context of Trinidad and Tobago as a democratic society with freedom of expression, the public discourse of Imams in radical mosques during prayer service does not necessarily violate the law. Similarly, at least one of the JAM mosque compounds has an obstacle course that could be used for paramilitary training. Yet such a facility is no more inherently threatening on paper than a rock climbing wall in a U.S. community center.

The state has, however, taken action when the activities of those mosques have violated the law. A case in point is the 2015 trial and conviction on murder charges of Rajaee Ali, the son of the leader of the Rio Claro mosque.

With respect to the foreign fighters, very few are known to have returned, yet little is known about those who have left. Trinidad and Tobago has a relatively strong anti-terrorism law, passed by parliament in 2005 and strengthened on three separate occasions since (2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014).

As with the rhetoric of Imams and the facilities in radical mosques, taking legal action against foreign fighters under Trinidad and Tobago’s 2005 terrorism act has been challenging because of the difficulty of proving, at the level required to achieve a criminal conviction, that an Islamic citizen traveling from Trinidad and Tobago to another Islamic country such as Turkey, is necessarily doing so with the intention to fight for ISIS.

Not only has the movement of foreign terrorist fighters from Trinidad and Tobago to the Middle East contributed to the problem of ISIS there, but their return presents risks of terrorist incidents in, or from, Trinidad and Tobago, and the rest of the region, with implications for the United States.

The recruitment of foreign fighters from the portion of Trinidad and Tobago’s gangs identifying themselves as “Islamic” is only one part of the corrosive situation of gangs in the country.

While the previously noted shared ancestry of the Islamic gangs always gave them a greater level of organizational cohesion than the others in the society, particularly after 1990, the interactions between the gangs, both in urban slums such as Laventille, and within the country’s prisons, forced the diverse universe of gangs into three groupings:

  • Islamic criminal gangs;
  • A more atomized set of non-Islamic groups sharing the same neighborhoods, referred to as “Rasta City;” and
  • “Independent” gangs, often away from the urban centers, or occupying territory around key logistics sites such as ports.

The latter grouping, sometimes because of their separation from the struggle between the Muslim gangs and other gangs in poor urban areas, tend to work with both in order to make money moving and selling drugs, or facilitating other types of illicit activities.

Sources of Revenue

By the end of 2015, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service estimated there were 147 gangs, with 1,698 members, responsible for approximately 34% of all murders in the country.

The growth of the gangs, particularly in the north and west-urban corridor of the country, concentrated on the greater Port of Spain area, has been fueled in part by the role of the gangs in a range of revenue-producing activities.

One counter-intuitive source of activity for both Islamic and other gangs has been obtaining construction contracts, or otherwise obtaining employment in government infrastructure and social services programs.

Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley. Photo by Jim Mattis via Flickr

In response to the government’s efforts to provide economic opportunity in marginalized areas through the Unemployment Relief Program (URP) and Community Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Program (CEPEP), the gangs have organized their own small businesses to win the contracts, and obliged outside companies to employ their members and others that they designate.

The ability of the gang leaders—either as the heads of the construction firms or neighborhood points of access for contractors—has allowed them to expand their hold over the communities by effectively determining who works, and by doling out the resources that come from the execution of the contracts. Instead of helping to reduce gang power and violence in marginalized neighborhoods, URP contracts for projects like box drains have arguably fueled bloody struggles between gangs to win them.

Beyond government projects, drug trafficking and local sales have been an important source of gang revenues. Although involvement in drugs theoretically violates the precepts of the Islamic faith, both the Rasta City gangs and those identifying themselves as “Islamic” have been involved in trafficking activities to some extent.

Nonetheless the nature of that involvement appears to differ among gangs, with some groups actively engaging in moving, selling and using drugs, and others “taxing” the trade through the area they control.

As with other powerful gangs in the region, gangs in Trinidad supply a degree of alternative governance in the area that they control. Through the previously noted exploitation of the URP and CPEP programs, the gangs have become de facto providers of employment.

Similarly, by making it too dangerous for representatives of the public utility services companies from entering the neighborhoods to cut off electricity and cable service to customers who don’t pay their bills, the gangs are perceived by some as helping community members maintain access to such services for free.

In the context of the perceived corruption and non-responsiveness of the legitimate authorities, gangs have imposed their own codes of justice on the neighborhood (in some cases in writing), and have become involved in resolving domestic disputes such as spousal abuse or helping parents deal with unruly children.

Gang leaders have also become involved in providing resources for community members on an individual basis, such as providing money for poor children to buy food or school books. In at least one case, the local gang boss in Beetham Estate Gardens reportedly throws a local Carnival (Mardi Gras) party for the neighborhood, so that its residents do not have to leave their neighborhood to celebrate.

For Trinidad and Tobago, the region and the U.S., the presence of criminal gangs decreases the areas over which the state has positive control, as well as indirectly weakens governance by depressing economic activity and advancing a culture of violence, which ultimately creates a space in which narcotrafficking and illicit networks impacting the United States can flourish.

As seen in this section, the gang culture is also directly tied to the foreign fighter threat, and thus the U.S. fight against terrorism.


Although Trinidad has always been the major commercial airline and shipping hub for the Eastern and Southern Caribbean, its emergence as a major narcotrafficking hub is recent.

The increasing isolation of Venezuela and attention given to commercial and other vessels leaving it, have made it more attractive for narcotraffickers to move their product into Trinidad and launch it toward the United States from there. In addition, the ability to move drugs from Trinidad toward the United States by advancing island-to-island offers an alternative to taking a more direct route with more expensive and higher-profile boats. Trinidad has twelve widely dispersed small ports of entry, relatively unguarded, that facilitate the traffic.

Trinidad and Tobago’s relatively open borders, high levels of corruption and status as a regional center of finance and industry has facilitated its emerging role as a hub for drugs and other illicit activity. A small number of the numerous yachts which famously are moored in Chaguaramas to wait out the hurricane season are believed to be used to smuggle drugs to Europe and the U.S., leaving the Gulf of Paria free of drugs, then rendezvousing with narcotraffickers near the coast of Venezuela to load illicit cargo before continuing on to their final destination.

To some degree, drugs are hidden in Trinidad and Tobago’s commercial cargo as well, as illustrated by the January 2014 seizure in Norfolk, Virginia of 332 kilograms of liquid cocaine from Trinidad, concealed in cans labeled as orange juice, and the seizure by Canadian authorities in December 2015 of a similar shipment.

Yet either because of the lack of shipments, or the success of corruption in protecting drug shipments, authorities have yet to bring a case against a major narcotrafficking organization within Trinidad and Tobago itself. The last takedown of a great narco-boss in Trinidad and Tobago was the 1996 arrest of Nankissoon Boodram (“Dole Chadee”), and even then he was initially detained on a minor offense and convicted for murder, not drugs. The Trini government executed Chadee and eight other members of the gang during a four-day period in June 1999.

However, authorities have not yet even resolved the previously mentioned three-and-a-half year old case of the shipment of cocaine to the U.S. disguised as orange juice.

Experts consulted for this work make a loose distinction between a small number of actors who appear to be major transporters of cocaine through the region, and others more focused on the retail trade.

The former category includes Vaughn Mieres (“Sandman”) who is believed to control drug trafficking through the north coast, and Phillip Boodram (“The Boss,”), who is now in custody. They argue, however, that even such local facilitators are relatively minor actors in the movement of cocaine from source countries like Colombia through Venezuela to the United States and Europe.

From a U.S. perspective, narcotrafficking through Trinidad and Tobago not only directly contributes to the drug problem (although U.S. demand is still the major problem); like the gang threat, it also contributes to corruption and weak governance that facilitate the operation of illicit networks in the region, and the recruitment of foreign fighters.

The relatively high level of violence in Trinidad and Tobago and the relative power of the gangs to rob and intimidate have arguably been magnified by the large number of firearms in the country, with some three-quarters of murders involving the use of firearms, and gang members twice as likely as non-gang members to use firearms.

In the matter-of-fact words of one Trini security expert, “there is an oversupply of guns in the country relative to normal criminal needs.”

Trinidad security experts believe that firearms enter the country through the country’s commercial ports, Port of Spain and Port Point Lisas, hidden in commercial cargo, as well as from Venezuela.

Not only do Venezuelans cross the narrow stretch of water that separate the two nations to sell guns for needed food, medicine and other merchandise, but merchants from Trinidad reportedly travel to Venezuela to buy guns there. Although very few guns have been seized entering the country, 1,456 illegal arms of all types were collected by police in 2015 and 2016, due in part to a financial incentive program that the police have for such seizures.

While guns have generally been captured in small numbers, there have been a handful of larger seizures. In August 2010, for example, police found 18 high-powered rifles and other gear in the compound of Indian businessman and narcotrafficker Hafeez Karamath.

By contributing to the culture of violence in Trinidad and Tobago, the ready availability of firearms contributes to refugee flows and weakened governance throughout the region and threatens U.S. interests.

Decline in Kidnapping

If there is one bright spot in the Trinidad criminal landscape, it is the drastic reduction in kidnappings, which have fallen from over 100 per year seven years ago, to less than ten per year today.

While part of the credit goes to the police anti-kidnapping unit, security experts from the country also credit the strong reaction of powerful interests, citing the case of the July 2002 kidnapping of the grandson of Lebanese businessman Anthony Sabga, after which a number of the people questioned by the police turned up dead.

Subsequently there were no further kidnappings of prominent Lebanese families.

Trinidad and Tobago’s social composition has also shifted from the arrival of a significant number of Venezuelans, Syrians and Chinese.

….With respect to Syrian immigrants, a large but ultimately unknown quantity of Syrians has arrived in the country as a result of the ongoing civil war, with their incorporation into Trinidadian society facilitated by the wealthy and close-knit community of Lebanese and Syrians who migrated in the 1940’s and whose numbers have increased since the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s.

While very little is known about them, the introduction of some potentially radicalized Syrian Muslims into an established community of 5,000, and into an environment with a radicalized afro-Muslim community, could raise uncertainties and risks.

Finally, Trinidad’s Chinese community has grown significantly in recent years, partly as a product of Chinese coming into the country via work visas associated with the boom in construction projects by PRC-based companies in the late 2000s.

….Some interviewed for this study also worry that recent incidents of violence against Chinese businesses reflects the entrance of a new Chinese mafia (triad) group into the country, or worry that the large number of perennially empty Chinese restaurants and shops, as well as gambling machines installed by Chinese businessmen in restaurants and shops across the country, are a vehicle for money laundering.

Experts noted the cash-intensive nature of the restaurants themselves, the gambling machines installed in both Chinese and other restaurants and stores across the country, a lottery run out of such stores based on the national lotto “Play Whe,” and the informal role of such establishments as informal money changing houses, buying U.S. dollars at a premium rate.

Trini security experts interviewed suggested that local narcotraffickers may use the gambling in such establishments to launder their own earnings. Yet those experts also unanimously acknowledged that authorities have almost no visibility into the Chinese community.

Overall, the flow of Venezuela, Chinese, and Syrian refugees through Trinidad and Tobago negatively impacts U.S. interests because it both strains the socioeconomic fiber of the countries involved and potentially facilitates illicit networks.

The difficulties in Trinidad and Tobago described in the preceding paragraphs have further has been compounded by the sustained contraction of the economy since 2014, caused in part by depressed oil prices.

The closure of the Arcelor Mittal plant in March 2016, with the layoff of 650 workers, although occurring for a complex array of reasons, is a high-profile example of the job losses that have occurred during the recession. While the evaporation of jobs in the formal sector has contributed to crime and violence, the government’s loss of tax revenues and royalty payments from the oil sector has reduced its resources to sustain police presence in troubled neighborhoods, and otherwise respond to the security challenge.

What Is To Be Done?

While the issue of foreign fighters from Trinidad and Tobago has drawn greater U.S. attention to the country, outside of the U.S. embassy team and other experts whose job is to follow and engage with the country, the scant attention paid to the country at the policy level has been focused primarily on the “foreign fighter” issue, and not the broader interrelated problems of narcotrafficking flows, gangs, migrants, guns and corruption that influence U.S. security in the region.

The interdependent problems in the country are not exclusive to Trinidad and Tobago, but are found to different degrees throughout the Caribbean and the region.

Understanding how to successfully work with the partner government of Trinidad and Tobago to tackle the interrelated challenges of foreign terrorist fighters, gangs, guns, drugs, and corruption is fundamental to strengthening governance across the region and, in the process, advancing U.S. strategic and security interests.

Reciprocally, the solutions that the U.S. finds in its engagement with Trinidad and Tobago may help to advance more effective engagement across the region.

The U.S. embassy team in the country has done a laudable job in the country with limited resources available. But the position of U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago has been vacant since Ambassador John Estrada left in January 2017. While the U.S. Security Cooperation Organization, operating from the embassy, has managed helpful training engagements and technical assistance programs, and has conducted important exercises such as Tradewinds, the U.S. Senior Defense Official in the country is operating with almost no support staff.

It also appears likely that security cooperation and other institution-building programs administered through the Department of State through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, could be cut significantly in the coming years.

To address the challenges outlined in this paper, the U.S. should consider the following:

  • Incorporate into a future version of the U.S. National Military Strategy and National Security Strategy, the strategic importance of stability and strong governance in the Caribbean, with respect to the vulnerability to the United States presented by violence, narcotrafficking, refugees, illicit networks, and the presence of adversarial extra hemispheric actors permitted by weak governance in the region;
  • Increase attention to U.S. engagement with Trinidad and Tobago, explicitly reflecting lessons learned regarding what works and does not work in the cooperative, multidimensional engagement against its challenges, with the eye to applying those lessons in other parts of the English-Speaking Caribbean, and the region more broadly;
  • Significantly expand funds allocated to Trinidad and Tobago for security cooperation programs, through both the Department of State and Department of Defense, including but not limited to CBSI programs;
  • In conjunction with such increases, allocate additional staff to the Security Cooperation Office to accommodate the effective administration of those programs; and
  • Make a priority the naming and confirmation of a new full-time ambassador to the country.

The strategic location of Trinidad and Tobago vis-à-vis Venezuela, the Caribbean, and regional oil reserves make the country of strategic importance to the United States.

Evan Ellis/courtesy GlobalAmericans

It is important that the U.S. not overlook the very serious problems occurring in its not-so-distant partner.

Evan Ellis, PhD, is Senior Non-Resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a research professor of Latin American Studies. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a paper published earlier this month in Global Americans. Click here for a complete copy of the paper. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Research on What Motivates ISIS — and Other — Fighters

Interesting research from Nature Human Behaviour: "The devoted actor’s will to fight and the spiritual dimension of human conflict": Abstract: Frontline investigations with fighters against the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS), combined with multiple online studies, address willingness to fight and die in intergroup conflict. The general focus is on non-utilitarian aspects of human conflict, which combatants themselves deem ‘sacred’…

Interesting research from Nature Human Behaviour: "The devoted actor's will to fight and the spiritual dimension of human conflict":

Abstract: Frontline investigations with fighters against the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS), combined with multiple online studies, address willingness to fight and die in intergroup conflict. The general focus is on non-utilitarian aspects of human conflict, which combatants themselves deem 'sacred' or 'spiritual', whether secular or religious. Here we investigate two key components of a theoretical framework we call 'the devoted actor' -- sacred values and identity fusion with a group­ -- to better understand people's willingness to make costly sacrifices. We reveal three crucial factors: commitment to non-negotiable sacred values and the groups that the actors are wholly fused with; readiness to forsake kin for those values; and perceived spiritual strength of ingroup versus foes as more important than relative material strength. We directly relate expressed willingness for action to behaviour as a check on claims that decisions in extreme conflicts are driven by cost-benefit calculations, which may help to inform policy decisions for the common defense.


The U.S. Needs Better Strategies to Fight Domestic Terrorism: Study

Since the 9/11 attacks, federal authorities have focused most of their attention on foreign “Jihadi terrorism.” That’s left policymakers poorly equipped to understand the threat posed by non-Jihadi American extremist groups and individuals, says a Congressional Research Service study.

What constitutes domestic terrorism?  How serious are the threats posed by domestic extremists to the lives and safety of Americans?

Federal authorities can’t definitively answer either question, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

The troubling lack of clarity about domestic terrorism has complicated investigations into incidents like the August 12 rally involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA, the study notes, citing as an example the Department of Justice inquiry into the incident involving a man who drove his car into a group of protesters, killing one person and wounding 19 others, as a possible “hate crime,” —although Attorney General Jeff Sessions has since declared terrorism investigators are now also involved.

The CRS study, written by Jerome P. Bjelopera, who is described as a “specialist in organized crime and terrorism,” traces the problem to a shift in federal counterterrorism efforts to foreign-sourced terrorists since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

The shift left Justice officials and the FBI with insufficient tools to monitor and intervene in “non-Jihadi” threats posed by American extremists, according to the study, which was released last month.

That wasn’t the case before 9/11, wrote Bjelopera, noting that the FBI as late as 1999 was able to report that the “vast majority” of deadly terror incidents in the U.S. in the previous 30 years were “perpetrated by domestic extremists.”

But the shift in focus now means “the federal government lacks a process for publicly designating domestic terrorist organizations,” said the study, adding that as a result, it is “especially difficult to determine the scope of this diverse threat.”

The CRS report said policymakers and investigators at all levels would benefit from having a federally compiled list of organizations that can be defined as domestic terror threats, and a federal database of domestic terror incidents.

“The lack of such an accounting makes it difficult for policymakers to exercise oversight by comparing the levels of domestic terrorist activity against items such as homegrown violent jihadist activity and other threats to the homeland,” the study said.

“A regular public accounting could also help policymakers assess the effectiveness of the government’s response to the domestic terrorist threat.”

The 62-page study provided an overview of the broad range of terrorist activities and groups operating in the U.S., including white supremacists, neo-nazis, the Sovereign Citizen movement, eco-terrorists, black separatists and animal liberationists—derived from unclassified sources and advocacy groups.

It cited for example statistics published by the New America Foundation last month suggesting that domestic terrorists have killed 75 people in the U.S. since 9/11—compared to a death toll of 95 at the hands of jihadi terrorists. According to an unclassified FBI intelligence bulletin, 53 acts of violence were committed by “white supremacist extremists” between 2007 and 2009.

But the lack of a comprehensive government database, along with the fact that many domestic terrorists act on their own and use the internet as their principal form of communication, make it difficult for authorities at state, municipal and local levels to develop effective approaches to track and monitor threats.

One particular challenge noted in the study was the activity of so-called “Lone Wolves” who provide few footprints for law enforcement to detect ahead of their actions. The study quoted one FBI official as saying the agency doesn’t have the “capability to know when a person gets up in middle America and decides, ‘I’m taking my protest poster to Washington or I’m taking my gun.’”

The lack of clear guidelines for designating domestic terror groups may be the result of “First Amendment concerns” about discouraging free speech and expression, the study conceded—while pointing out that this was in “stark contrast” to international counterterrorism tradecraft followed by the U.S. government, which maintains a detailed list of emerging Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).

The lack of a consistent process for designating domestic terrorist groups and identifying potentially violent extremist individuals “makes it harder for the federal government to discredit such groups and simultaneously strengthen public understanding of the domestic terrorist threat,” the study argued.

Such a designation might also enable authorities to press charges against those who provide “material support” for domestic terrorists, similar to current practices against foreign-sourced groups.

The CRS study is available here.


U.S. Needs Law Against Domestic Terrorism: Expert

No terrorism charges can be filed in the Charlottesville, Va., violence. Expert David Schanzer says, “These crimes do more in terms of the impact on the community, creation of fear, intimidation, than other crimes. That should be acknowledged.”

The criminal charges in Charlottesville, Va., last month include murder, discharging a firearm, and malicious wounding. Terrorism is not mentioned. The U.S. doesn’t have a domestic terrorism charge that can be lodged against individuals or organizations that operate wholly within the country, McClatchy Newspapers reports. The FBI doesn’t have a unit dedicated to tracking the violent extreme right. This month, the Justice Department’s State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training (SLATT) program, which has trained 142,000 law enforcement officers in how to deal with domestic terrorists, will run out of funding. Congress could pass a law against domestic terrorism. David Schanzer of Duke University, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, says, “These crimes do more in terms of the impact on the community, creation of fear, intimidation, than other crimes. That should be acknowledged.”

After the Charlottesville attack, the House Homeland Security Committee said it planned hearings “on the threat of domestic terrorism.” President Trump has made a point of defining terrorism in terms of “radical Islamic terror.” Law enforcement can use the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 in some domestic terror attacks. The law, which covers the rights of victims to seek reparations from foreign nations and has a section on bomb materials, applies only to the most deadly attacks. It leaves law enforcement with far fewer options than they have in domestic terrorism cases with international ties. It is impossible to treat domestic terrorism in the same way U.S. law enforcement treats international terrorism. “If an American gives money to the Islamic State, that’s a crime,” Schanzer said. “If a violent neo-Nazi gives money to a violent neo-Nazi organization in the United States, that’s constitutionally protected free speech. That won’t change, and it shouldn’t.”