Muslim Hate in Trinidad

ISIS in the Caribbean

Trinidad has the highest rate of Islamic State recruitment in the Western hemisphere. How did this happen?


DEC 8, 2016
The Atlantic

This summer, the so-called Islamic State published issue 15 of its online magazine Dabiq. In what has become a standard feature, it ran an interview with an ISIS foreign fighter. “When I was around twenty years old I would come to accept the religion of truth, Islam,” said Abu Sa’d at-Trinidadi, recalling how he had turned away from the Christian faith he was born into.

At-Trinidadi, as his nom de guerre suggests, is from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), a country more readily associated with calypso and carnival than the “caliphate.” Asked if he had a message for “the Muslims of Trinidad,” he condemned his co-religionists at home for remaining in “a place where you have no honor and are forced to live in humiliation, subjugated by the disbelievers.” More chillingly, he urged Muslims in T&T to wage jihad against their fellow citizens: “Terrify the disbelievers in their own homes and make their streets run with their blood.”

For well over a year and a half now, Raqqa, the so-called stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria, has been subjected to sustained aerial bombardment by U.S., French, and Russian war planes. In recent months, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition has reportedly killed more than 10,000 ISIS fighters, including key figures among ISIS’s leadership, most notably its senior strategist and spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. It has also launched an offensive, now in its second month, on the group’s Iraqi capital of Mosul. According to estimates by American officials, ISIS has lost about 45 percent of its territory in Syria and 20 percent in Iraq since it rose to prominence in the summer of 2014. At the same time, the flow of foreign fighters to the caliphate has plummeted, from a peak of 2,000 crossing the Turkey-Syria border each month in late 2014 to as few as 50 today. Yet still there are people making the long and precarious 6,000-mile journey from Trinidad to Syria in an effort to live there. Just three days before the release of Dabiq 15, eight were detained in southern Turkey, attempting to cross into ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. All were female, and they included children.

In a recent paper in the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, John McCoy and W. Andy Knight posit that between 89-125 Trinidadians—or Trinis, to use the standard T&T idiom—have joined ISIS. Roodal Moonilal, an opposition Member of Parliament in T&T, insists that the total number is considerably higher, claiming that, according to a leaked security document passed on to him, over 400 have left since 2013. Even the figure of 125 would easily place Trinidad, with a population of 1.3 million, including 104,000 Muslims, top of the list of Western countries with the highest rates of foreign-fighter radicalization; it’s by far the largest recruitment hub in the Western Hemisphere, about a four and a half hour flight from the U.S. capital.

How did this happen?

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In a 1986 travelogue essay about Saint Lucia, a Caribbean island north of Trinidad, the British novelist Martin Amis described the place, condescendingly, as “both beautiful and innocuous, like its people.” “Even at its most rank and jungly,” he continued, “St Lucia has a kiddybook harmlessness.” This is all very far from Trinidad, where away from the tourist spots at Maracas beach and the Queen’s Park Oval Cricket ground, you can feel an edge and menace on the streets, especially after dark.

On the night I arrived in St. Augustine, a town in the northwest, there was a double murder. The number of murders for the year was already 77, and it was still only February. This was unprecedented, even for Trinidad, where the “overall crime and safety situation” is currently rated by the U.S. State Department as “critical,” with 420 murders in 2015. By late June, when I made a second trip to the island, the number of murders for 2016 had soared to 227, a 15 percent increase on the 196 murders over the same period in 2015. Last month, on November 11, it reached 400.

In 2011, the government declared a state of emergency, in response to a wave of violent crime linked to drug trafficking and intelligence reports warning of an assassination plot against the then-Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and senior members of her cabinet. At-Trinidadi, along with several others, was detained on suspicion of colluding in the alleged plot. In Dabiq, at-Trinidadi, alludes to this, but denies any involvement. “That would have been an honor for us to attempt,” he acknowledged, “but the reality of our operations was much smaller.” He also credited a Muslim scholar named Ashmead Choate as a formative spiritual influence. Choate, a fellow Trini and former principal of the Darul Quran Wal Hadith Islamic School in Freeport, central Trinidad, reportedly left for Syria between 2012 and 2013, taking his family with him. According to at-Trinidadi’s testimony in Dabiq, Choate, who was detained alongside him during the state of emergency, was killed fighting in Ramadi, Iraq.

The last state of emergency in T & T was declared in 1990, when, on July 27, a group of black Muslims, the Jamaat al Muslimeen, stormed into the nation’s Parliament in the capital city of Port of Spain and tried to overthrow the government, shooting then-Prime Minister Arthur Robinson and taking members of his cabinet hostage. Around the same time, another group of Muslimeen gunmen forced their way into the studio of the nation’s only TV station. At 6:30 p.m. the Muslimeen’s leader Yasin Abu Bakr came on television and announced that the government was overthrown. This was premature: Six days later, the Muslimeen surrendered, and the government regained control. But history was made. As Harold Trinkunas of the Brookings Institution remarked to The Miami Herald, Trinidad is “the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has had an actual Islamic insurrection.”

In a telling comment his Dabiq interview, at-Trinidadi references this cataclysm in T&T’s recent history, alluding to “a faction of Muslims in Trinidad,” who “attempted to overthrow the disbelieving government but quickly surrendered, apostatized, and participated in the religion of democracy, demonstrating that they weren’t upon the correct methodology of jihad.” In Trinidad, the Muslimeen is widely excoriated as a “militant” group, yet it is instructive that at-Trinidadi condemns it for not being militant enough, and for not practicing the right kind of Islam.

The Islamic scene on the island is divided: There is the Indo Islam of the East Indians, who first came to Trinidad in the mid-19th century as indentured slaves, and there is the Islam of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, whose members, many of whom were formerly Christians, are almost exclusively black. These two groups do not tend to mix, still less intermarry. But both, in their different ways, are far from the Salafi Islam that the Trinidadian criminologist Daurius Figueira believes has infiltrated T&T. Figueira, who is Muslim, has written widely on drug trafficking in the Caribbean and, more recently, on the jihadist ideologues Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi and Anwar al-Awlaki.

He attributes the growth of Salafism on the island to Saudi proselytizing. “They’ve spent money and brought in all these Wahhabi scholars from Mecca,” he told me when I visited him. “They’ve passed on the doctrine, then they’ve started to take the young males and send them to Mecca, and then they come back to Mecca and they continue, so now you don’t even need to send missionaries again.” The most visible sign of this infiltration, he said, is the full hijab: Before the Saudis’ missionaries came, Muslim women in Trinidad didn’t wear it, but now he said it’s relatively commonplace. Figueira was keen to dissociate the Jamaat al Muslimeen from the militant Salafis whom he believes are sympathetic to ISIS. “If you have any understanding of the Jamaat al Muslimeen,” Figueira said, “you’ll understand that Islamic State will have nothing to do with them because the Muslimeen does not pass the test by Islamic State to be a Salafi jihadi organization.”

In a research paper on the Jamaat al Muslimeen, published in the British Journal of Criminology, the sociologist Cynthia Mahabir describes how the Muslimeen, after 1990, transformed itself from an idealistic social movement—“a fraternity of ‘revolutionary men of Allah’”—into an criminal enterprise, or “Allah’s outlaws,” to use the title of Mahabir’s paper. Figueira puts it like this: “Yasin [Abu Bakr] would never get involved with Islamic State and recruit [people] and send them to Syria, because it’s bad for business! They [are] on a hustle, they’re hustlers, they looking for a living.” According to the analyst Chris Zambelis, this hustle has allegedly involved “gangland-style slayings, narcotics and arms trafficking, money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, and political corruption.”

On the two occasions when I was in Trinidad earlier this year I tried to meet Yasin Abu Bakr, but he was unable to see me. However, I did meet his urbane and charming son, Fuad, who leads a political party called New National Vision. Fuad, who has inherited his father’s height and striking looks, showed me around the Muslimeen compound on the outskirts of Port of Spain. He spoke of his father with great warmth and affection, describing him as “a genuinely good person” who has spent his life defending the underdog and fighting injustice.

From what I’d read about the compound, I had expected to see Abu Bakr’s scowling security detail policing the joint, but they were nowhere to be seen. Instead, while I was waiting outside in the carpark with my noticeably nervous East Indian cab-driver, who remained inside his locked and glacially air-conditioned car, I was surveilled by a group of giggling girls, no more than 7 or 8 years old, from an Islamic school on the site. The compound was quiet, and has clearly seen better days. “This place was full, it was a community, people lived here, people were coming in droves,” Fuad said, referring to the period just before the attempted coup in 1990. (Afterward, the group declined due to internal feuds and law enforcement’s massive curtailing of their activities.) He also spoke wistfully of a period of “communal living, even community justice.” “If you had an issue, you came to the imam, and he would send his guys and they would sort it out.”

Tentatively, I asked Fuad about ISIS and whether there were recruiters in T&T working for the group. According to local news reports, the recruitment hubs are located in Rio Claro in the southeast and Chaguanas in central Trinidad. “Listen,” he said, “there are facilitators, people who are there [in Syria], they communicate to friends. Trinidad is small and the Muslim community is even smaller, so it’s basically friends, people you know, who are saying to you, ‘you know, do you want to come?’ No big, bad recruiter.” Yet this not quite the picture I received from one source within the Ministry of National Security, who said there was one particular imam playing the role of “big, bad recruiter.”

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Trinis who had gone to Syria since the outbreak of the civil war included an entire community of Muslims from Diego Martin, a small town north of Port of Spain. “An entire community,” he repeated. He also claimed that some leavers had received military training in Trinidad before they left. “There is mujahideen training, or there has been mujahideen training going on in T&T, since about 2007. I was made aware of that in 2009.” He received this information, he said, from a trusted confidant from within the Muslim community, and added that it wasn’t the Muslimeen, but a more radical faction of Salafis that had splintered from them. I had heard this rumor many times when I was in Trinidad, but this was the first time I’d heard it from a source within the security services. Mark Bassant, an investigative TV journalist in Trinidad, also suspects that some of those who have gone to Syria have undergone weapons training in Trinidad.

When, in the summer of 1498, Christopher Columbus approached the shores of Trinidad, he would have been struck by the richness of the island, with its tropical climate, flowering vegetation, flashing birds, rivers and waterfalls. For more recent visitors, who reach the island by air, it is the richness of Trini culture, vividly exemplified in its annual carnival in February. To outsiders, Trinidad can look like a paradise. But for those many Trinis who are blighted by its high crime rate, rising unemployment, pockets of abject poverty and endemic corruption this proposition is routinely put to the test. This may explain why Islam, with its call to end corruption and oppression and to return to a simpler, more just society, appeals to so many of those from whom Trinidad’s myriad blessings are withheld. But this doesn’t get us any closer to understanding why so many Trinis have been captivated by the brutal and hallucinatory Islam of ISIS.

A more immediate question, and one that’s easier to answer, is how so many were able to leave Trinidad to join ISIS. The answer to this is that they were allowed to. Nobody was stopping them. In fact, this was state policy. It was state policy when the conflict first started in Syria, in 2011, and it is still state policy in late 2016. As Roodal Moonilal flatly explained to me, over a drink in the Hyatt in downtown Port of Spain, “ISIS is not proscribed in T&T, meaning that you can go and train with ISIS for 2-3 years and come back here with all the rights and privileges of a citizen of T&T.”

Gary Griffith, who served as Minister of National Security between September 2013 and February 2015, told me, when we met earlier this year, that his “concern as Minster of National Security was not them [fighters from T&T] going across—they were free to go across, if they wanted—my concern was to ensure that they do not come back.” Griffith is particularly critical of his successor and political opponent Edmund Dillon, for what he sees as Dillon’s evasiveness in dealing with the issue of returnees from Syria. Griffith, by contrast, is emphatic: “They should not be allowed re-entry. … If they know that it’s a one-way ticket to hell, that is the ultimate deterrent.” He also expressed indignation that his own proposal to create “a counter-terrorism intelligence unit” for monitoring terrorist threats, launched when he was minister, was blocked by the current government. Dillon, he said, has “a good heart and means well.” But “he’s burying his head in the sand. He thinks God is a Trini.” Dillon did not respond to my numerous requests for comment.

In addition to turning a blind eye to ISIS recruitment, the current government has done little to challenge the spread of Salafi Islam in in the country. Moonilal believes that this, more than derailing ISIS recruitment networks, is the greatest security challenge facing T&T. Yet there are few signs that it will be taken up any time soon.

“We have beautiful sunshine, we have oil and other natural resources, arable land, we have a blessed country,” Fuad Abu Bakr told me. But it evidently wasn’t enough for at-Trinidadi. A woman identifying herself as his mother told the Trinidad Express that, since he left, “His life is better. He has purpose.

Jailhouse licks

by Nalini Thursday, June 18 2015
Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

FIVE prison officers and seven inmates at the Remand Section of Maximum Security Prison in Golden Grove were injured in a violent confrontation during a routine search of cells by prison officers.

Four of the injured prisoners have been identified as Christopher Lewis, Ijah Braithwaite, Hakeem Brathwaite, Ryan Stephen and Jason Raymond. Newsday was told that at about 7.30 pm on Tuesday, officers of the Special Operations Group from within the prison began searching cells at the North Wing Remand and the North Deep Wings.

According to sources, prisoners began to resist the searching of their cells and began retaliating claiming religious victimisation because they were Muslims. Shouting, Allah u Akbar (God is Great) the defiant prisoners — some brandishing improvised weapons — attacked officers leading to one being stabbed, another officer being cuffed in the eye while three other officers were beaten. Other officers went to the rescue of their colleagues and during attempts to subdue the fighting prisoners, seven of the inmates sustained injuries. During the brawl, the wing was placed under lockdown and officers called for backup from the police and the National Operations Centre (NOC).

Medical personnel were also alerted and the five injured prison officers as well as seven prisoners were taken in ambulances to the Arima hospital where they were being treated up until yesterday amid heavy, armed police presence.

A decision was later taken to lockdown the entire prison and this continued all of Tuesday night. By 10 am yesterday the lockdown was lifted and prisoners were served meals, allowed to be taken to court while some were allowed airing out. Remand prisoners who were identified as the main instigators of the violent clashes remain in isolation.

Several prisoners telephoned Newsday claiming the prison officers unfairly targeted them for being involved in illegal activities behind bars. The prisoners claim they are being persecuted because they are Muslims. They further alleged that real trouble makers who are not Muslims are allowed free rein in the prisons by officers.

“This is not the first time we have been targeted and no one seems to want to know the truth, so we have to do what we have to do to defend ourselves from this unfair practice from within prison walls,” said a prisoner who claimed he witnessed the confrontation. One prisoner identified as Christopher Lewis who was injured in the fracas was able to alert relatives of his plight and photos of his injuries were sent to friends and relatives. The photos are now believed to be in the hands of the prisoner’s attorney.

Newsday understands that officers seized a quantity of marijuana, cellphones and improvised weapons during the searches.

Contacted yesterday for comment, Prisons Commissioner Sterling Stewart confirmed the incident but said that all systems have been put in place to protect the lives of prison officers as well as inmates.

“As Commissioner of Prisons I take cognizance of the fact that my officers’ lives are always at risk. We are in a volatile environment, but we have an objective.” The searches have to continue, he added, because at the end of the day, “we are responsible for all shareholders and stakeholders, inmates, officers and servants of the prison, and we cannot allow any group or persons to take control of the nation Trinidad and Tobago prison.”

He said that operations at the prison had returned to normalcy and prisoners were taken to court a bit late.

Trinidad Muslims travel to Venezuela for jihadist training

Published on May 13, 2014   
By Caribbean News Now contributor

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- Cellphone images seized by SEBIN, Venezuela’s intelligence service, allegedly show Trinidadian Muslims arrested in Venezuela engaging in what SEBIN described as “pre-jihad training” on a firing range using high-powered weapons, the Trinidad Express reported.

The images were reportedly extracted from the cellphones seized from some of the Muslims in a group that travelled to Venezuela from Trinidad and were later arrested in a raid at the Plaza Hotel in Caracas on March 19, together with women and children, who were later released.

The training resembled what takes place in the Middle East as Muslims prepare for what they term jihad, or holy war, an important religious duty for Muslims that includes armed struggle against persecution and oppression.

Intense military, arms and ammunition training is part and parcel of their routine and some of this kind of training, SEBIN alleged, was taking place in Venezuela by some of the Trinidadian Muslims.

In a top secret document prepared by SEBIN and sent to the Trinidad and Tobago government, the pictures in question were taken by three Venezuelan police officers who were later arrested. There are at least six photographs showing the men.

Eight Trinidadian Muslims are currently detained by Venezuelan authorities on suspicion of terrorist activities. The 14 women and children who were held with them at the Plaza Hotel in Caracas on March 19 were released some ten days later and sent back to Trinidad.

This followed a visit of a Trinidad and Tobago delegation headed by Rear Admiral Richard Kelshall who met with Venezuelan authorities two days prior to their release.

Out of that meeting emanated the top secret document given to the Trinidad and Tobago government, which the Trinidad Express reported exposes some alarming security concerns that the country’s security forces need to monitor closely.

The document outlines in detail the day the Trinidadian Muslims were held at the Plaza Hotel in Caracas and revelations about possible terrorist activities that can have far reaching consequences for Trinidad and Tobago.

Minister of National Security Gary Griffith spoke about the document in late April.

“A secret document has been given to me through the delegation from the Venezuelan authorities and this is obviously a sensitive document and I would not be able to actually state what is in the document, it is sensitive correspondence,” Griffith said.

In the top secret document, there are dates of the arrivals for all the Trinidadians who touched down at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Venezuela between January and March this year.

The raid on the Trinidadian Muslims at the Plaza Hotel, authorities said, was brought to the attention of SEBIN “after a prolonged stay at the hotel” and the use of “cash to cover their bills”.

Further suspicion arose, SEBIN stated, when members of the group were reclusive, as more persons continued to arrive and bills continued “to be paid exclusively in cash”.

Cleaning staff at the hotel were even barred from entering the rooms, the report revealed.

SEBIN’s suspicion was compounded further as they “implemented surveillance on the group and observed that Dominic Pitilal [one of the group] was routinely changing large sums of US” currency.

It was then SEBIN decided to make their move, executing a search warrant in the rooms occupied by “Pitilal and associates” and reportedly discovered: two satellite phones, 20 mobile phones, two laptops, six tablets, army type uniforms, combat paraphernalia, firearm training paraphernalia, telephone video of several of the detained persons in firearms training in Caracas.

According to the Trinidad Express, the accusation of jihad is only the beginning of something more profoundly troubling.

Sources within the Muslim community in Trinidad told the Express they have received information about Trinidadian Muslims fighting in the Syrian civil war as part of the anti-Assad movement.

Sources said every individual is paid US$150,000 to come to Syria and fight.

The subject is rarely discussed in certain Muslim circles in Trinidad, some fearing if they say anything, their lives might be in jeopardy. It is also a case that Muslim women know about, but are not willing to inform on friends or family members.

Well-placed Muslim sources who met and spoke with the Express in the last few weeks on the condition of anonymity say some of the women and children who were detained in Venezuela were in transit to Syria.

Three well-placed sources say people had confided in them about how the operation would go down.

One said, “What they do is buy plane tickets showing travel from Venezuela to China in transit through Turkey. When the plane stops there they get off and cross the border into Syria, but many would be thinking they have gone on to China as the ticket states.”

Another indicated that a named Trinidadian Muslim now in Syria has been in contact with family members in Trinidad and is also in constant contact with another local Muslim man.

Intelligence sources said they have been monitoring the movements of certain people, but would not commit to a solid answer.

When asked about Trinidadians using Venezuela as a stepping stone to head to Syria to fight in the jihad, Griffith said, “We most definitely have intelligence of all matters of national security but pertaining to that quite obviously, I would not be able to actually state what intelligence that we have for obvious reasons.”

In the last three weeks, the UK Guardian has carried stories about Muslim men leaving the United Kingdom to fight the war in Syria with young women also trying to follow. When they return to their countries they could be a serious security risk and the Anti-Terrorism Unit in Britain is closely monitoring the situation.

CNN in a recent report online entitled “West’s biggest threat: Battle hardened homegrown terrorists”, warned about American Muslims leaving to fight in Syria and returning as a potential threat to the US.

Intelligence sources in Trinidad also said they are fearful that some of those fighting in Syria will return to Trinidad with the radical ability to carry out violent acts there.

In fact, SEBIN in its secret report made specific recommendations to Trinidad’s national security ministry indicating it should pay closer attention to particular mosques.

Concerns outlined in the report also included:

• The increase of illegal diesel trafficking.

• Increase of the volume and flow of narco-trafficking and arms and ammunition trafficking.

• Increase of persons from the Middle East entering and transiting Venezuela onward to Trinidad.

SEBIN also revealed to the Trinidad and Tobago government that “British and US sources have expressed through official channels that there is an uneasiness relative to chatter emanating from Trinidad and Tobago at this time.”

Griffith said, “When we get types of intelligence that can be perceived as individuals being enemies of the state or trying to have any plan to overthrow the government, or any democracy as we know it, we would have that pre-emptive strike. We would be aware of what is happening and we would ensure that we do it to them before they do it to us.”

Attempts to assess the level of US concern in relation to the security of the Caribbean generally – a region that is variously described as America’s “third border” and America's “backyard” – by means of official comment have largely proven to be fruitless.

There has been the so-called Third Border Initiative (now apparently moribund) and the more recent Caribbean Basin Security Initiative but the latter has largely focused on maritime interdiction of drug traffickers while seemingly ignoring the fact that the vacuum left by US financial and political inattention has been quickly filled by the Chinese (economically), Venezuela (politically and economically) also acting as a proxy for Iran, and more recently by the Russians for their own reasons.

Apart from the fact that questionable individuals from these and other countries are using the economic citizenship programs of many of the small Caribbean countries to obscure their real nationality and background, there is the concern expressed by intelligence sources in Trinidad that some of their nationals fighting in Syria will return with the radical ability to carry out violent acts in that country – i.e. part of America’s “third border”.

The so far unanswered questions posed to various US House and Senate committees that ought to have an interest in this area have tried to address the apparent inattention to the situation in the region itself, thus allowing hostile elements virtual freedom of movement in an area up to the actual border when, with a fairly modest effort in the overall scheme of things, the situation could be dealt with much more effectively.

With all the ex post facto hand-wringing over events in Benghazi, an increased level of congressional interest and concern in working to prevent other potential problems closer to home might have been expected but is apparently thus far non-existent.

Violence brings crackdown on Muslim group

A radical Muslim group in Trinidad that staged an attempted coup in 1990 is under fire from the government for allegedly inciting violence.

Joe Mozingo TRINIDAD

Sunday, March 12th 2006

Fifteen years ago, a radical Muslim group firebombed the police headquarters here, hijacked the nation's only television station and held Parliament hostage for six days.

The failed coup by Jamaat Al-Muslimeen - the only Islamic revolt in the Western Hemisphere - left 24 dead and the prime minister with a gunshot wound in his leg. The attackers were given amnesty two years later, and the group and its charismatic leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, have since retained a measure of influence here through nebulous political connections.

But now, as public outrage over a rash of kidnappings, murders and bombings threatens the ruling party, the People's National Movement (PNM), authorities are focusing on the Jamaat and the 64-year-old Abu Bakr as never before.

Earlier this month, the government sued Jamaat for an estimated $5 million in damages caused by the coup attempt, seeking to seize about 10 properties owned by the group's leaders.

Less than three weeks before, a judge ordered Abu Bakr to stand trial on terrorism and sedition charges stemming from one of his sermons last November - just seven months after a jury deadlocked on another case, in which he was accused of conspiring to murder two former Jamaat members who allegedly refused to share with him the spoils of their crimes.

The fateful sermon was televised at his mosque; Abu Bakr threatened ''war'' against rich Muslims who don't give 2.5 per cent of their income to charity, a tithe called zakaat that is required by Islam.

He was arrested November 8, and two days later, the police and army stormed Jamaat's compound on Mucurapo Road and two of Abu Bakr's homes. They dug up the floor of his office, looking for weapons and explosives connected to the bombings, which injured 28 people in the second half of last year.

Authorities found a rifle, some ammunition, a hand grenade and walkie-talkies, but no evidence on the bombings, officials said. Abu Bakr has remained in jail ever since as a judge repeatedly denied him bail. Jamaat representative Kala Akii Bua says that the group has become a convenient scapegoat for a government under fire for its inability to control crime. ''The easiest solution is to blame the Jamaat Al-Muslimeen,'' he told The Miami Herald.

But many people in Trinidad were relieved at Bakr's arrest, believing that he has been behind the crime wave and wondering if his political connections would save him from punishment. Last year, a record 380 people were murdered and 70 were abducted for ransom in Trinidad and Tobago, a two-island nation of 1.3 million people.

All this turmoil is rattling Trinidad and damaging its carefully coiffed reputation as a tourist destination - the languid land of Carnival, calypso and quiet Caribbean coves. "The fear is ever-present in people's minds,'' said Martin Daly, a former independent senator.

Two high-tech police blimps now hover over the capital, monitoring the streets for crime. And the FBI and the Miami-based US Southern Command are watching the situation closely, given Trinidad's position as the largest supplier of liquid natural gas to the United States. The FBI is helping local police by analysing bomb fragments and residue.

Depending on the point of view, Abu Bakr, a former police officer with a powerful build and intense manner, is a saviour or a demon. Born Lennox Phillips, he was educated in Canada, became a Muslim convert and took control of Jamaat Al-Muslimeen, which means Society of Muslims, in the 1980s.

Group members are known to have received training and funds from Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi. And Jamaat has been closely scrutinised since 9/11 because of its image as a radical Muslim group.

Prime Minister Patrick Manning took heavy criticism for courting the group during the 2002 election. After Jamaat campaigned for him, Manning offered Abu Bakr land adjacent to the Mucurapo compound that had been in dispute for years, but a public outcry prompted him to retract the offer. According to the newspaper Trinidad Express, Abu Bakr has since amassed a small fortune, with four homes, one for each of his four wives.

The government has recently appeared to be trying to distance itself from Jamaat. But the group is still believed to have members serving in the Unemployment Relief Programme, a make-work initiative long associated with political patronage and corruption. ''I think the government is trying to disengage, but it's not that easy,'' said Selwyn Ryan, a professor at the University of the West Indies and author of The Muslimeen Grab for Power.

Many officials, journalists and academics in Trinidad blame Jamaat - or some of its members, at least - for kidnapping, extortion, gun-running and drug trafficking.

"Extortionist thugs,'' Ryan calls them.

Ryan estimates that Jamaat has several hundred members, although no one knows how many supporters it may have in addition, and its reputation for violence looms large.

In August 2003, Aub Bakr was charged with conspiring to murder two former members who had publicly accused Jamaat of kidnapping. A Jamaat member testified that Abu Bakr ordered him to deliver an AK-47 assault rifle to kill the pair. Shortly after, one of them was attacked but survived.

In 2004, the Trinidad Express reported that Jamaat was illegally quarrying a plot of land and had chased off government inspectors who tried to confront them.

Last May, Jamaat member Clive Lancelot Small was convicted in Miami of trying to ship 60 AK-47s and 10 MAC-10 submachine guns and 10 silencers from Fort Lauderdale to Trinidad in 2001. In court papers, US prosecutors said the guns were both for Jamaat and for resale.

And on November 4, Abu Bakr delivered the sermon in which he told his followers to demand the tithe from Muslims who were not paying it. In a country divided evenly - and sometimes bitterly - between the descendants of African slaves and East Indian indentured servants, the sermon was seen as a threat to the Muslims who are Indian, and who do not identify with the predominantly black Jamaat.

"I foresee a war,'' Abu Bakr said, according to an official who has seen the video but asked to remain anonymous out of fear. "Lives may be lost.''

Abu Bakr's attorneys have said he was simply paraphrasing parts of the Koran, and his group insists it is a legitimate religious organisation helping the urban poor passed up by the country's oil and natural-gas booms. Its school serves about 300 students.

On a typical day, the halls are hushed, the students disciplined. The boys wear traditional Muslim caps, and girls wear hijab scarves. The curriculum is a mix of religion and basics - math, music, English, social sciences.

On the walls, images of Islam commingle with Big Bird and Burt and Ernie.

Abu Bakr's secretary Gail Alonzo says the government has been trying to shut it down. On November 10, when police raided the compound, they searched the school, too.

''They didn't find anything,'' Alonzo said. "They just ate the children's snacks.''

-Miami Herald