The Caribbean has become a potentialhotbed for dozens of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters fleeing their current overseas locations as the terrorist group facesmounting military pressure.
With United States-led coalition forces squeezing ISIS-occupied territories into tighter spacesin Syria and Iraq, reports indicate that surviving ISISmembers, from places like Trinidad and Tobago,may seek to go backto their homeland. The return of ISIS fighters to places like the Caribbean has been a lingering worry for years.
“The threat from the possible return of foreign terrorist fighters remains a primary concern,” the U.S. State Department noted in its review of 2017.
Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump declared ISIS defeated. Late last month, Trump said almost 100 percent of ISIS territory in Syria had been captured by coalition forces. While top U.S. military intelligence disagreed with the president’s assessment, they confirmed the ISIS stronghold in eastern Syria had been weakened significantly and possibly on the verge of collapse. Trump has demanded that captured ISIS fighters should be returned their country of origin andthreatened to release those fighters if their home territories refused to take them back.
“Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing,” Trump said last month.
The president has also made clear he will not welcome U.S. residents who joined ISIS to return. In one instance last month, Trump told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to bar the return of Ahmed Ali Muthana, a U.S.-born resident of Alabama who joined ISIS five years ago. Muthana is challenging the president’s decision in court.
Other countries also appear worried about the prospect of taking in ISIS members. Some have announced drastic steps. Germany, for example, declared ISIS members returning home must stand criminal trial, even while admitting that “all German citizens” have the right to return to the country. Other European nations, like France, however, are not willing to accept ISIS members.
The Caribbean faces a similar dilemma even as it becomes a possible target for returning fighters. More ISIS members have originated from T&T than any other nation in the region, according to a report by the U.S.-based The Suphan Center. It claims 130 T&T nationals had left the country to join ISIS by 2017. The number included spouses of fighters and their children.
It is not clear how many remain alive and aretrying to return to T&T. However, T&T has already expressed concern about the presence of ISIS fighters. Early last year, the T&T Foreign Office announced it believed a terrorist attack was “very likely” in the twin-island republic. In Feb. 2018, T&T law enforcement reportedly arrested individuals who planned to carry out attacks against carnival, the annual mass celebration.
Caribbean Today’s efforts to get further clarification on T&T’s position regarding the issue of possible returning ISIS members to the country were unsuccessful last month. At the time of deadline for filing this story, a senior official at the T&T Consul General in Florida had not responded to a request for an interview.
At the time of the Suphanreport, ISIS still held multiple strongholds. But those have steadily crumbled under pressure, causing foreign fighters to leave. The report identified “5,600 citizens or residents of 33 countries who have returned home,” although up to the time of publication in Oct. 31, 2017 the report did not document any going back to T&T. It is estimated that more than 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries overall joined ISIS.
The Caribbean is generally not seen as a place ripe for ISIS terror. However, like other nations that could witness the influx of fleeing ISIS members, the report doubted the region is ready for the challenges their return could present. The returning fighters, it noted, could become a serious threat.
“All returnees, whatever their reason for going home, will continue to pose some degree of risk,” the Suphan report noted among its key findings.
The Suphanreport warned that almost all nations, including in the Caribbean, have no comprehensive plan to deal with the influx of ISIS members.
“States have not found a way to address the problem of returnees,” it noted. “Most are imprisoned, or disappear from view.”
ISIS fighters not monitored or controlled by law enforcement in their home nations could become a worrying long-term problem.
“(T)hey will present a challenge to many countries for years to come,” the Suphanreport added.
The report indicated foreign fighters usually left their home countries to join ISIS “in reaction to persistent and obdurate local conditions of poor governance and social stagnation, but in addition to the possibility of self-betterment and freedom from discrimination and injustice, many have also seen in (ISIS) an opportunity to find purpose and belonging.”
If ISIS members returned to T&T, for example, it is unlikely that conditions would have changed significantly since they left.
Still, the Suphan report explained that not all returning ISIS members will become dangerousin their homeland, although, it added, “it is inevitable that some will remain committed to the form of violent ‘jihad’ that al-Qaeda (another terrorist group) and IS (ISIS) have popularized, both within and outside the Muslim world.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. is also concerned about ISIS members returning to the Caribbean. With nationals free to move about the region, the worry is that ISIS fighters could figure out how to cross into the U.S.
In 2017, the New York Times, crediting U.S. official sources, reported “that Trinidadian fighters could return from the Middle East and attack American diplomatic and oil installations in Trinidad, or even take a three-and-a-half hour flight to Miami.”
A dozen years ago, a terrorist plot to blow up JFK International Airport in New York was linked to nationals from Guyana and T&T.
In late 2017 the T&T National Security Council gave the green light to a counterterrorism plan, which involved co-operation with the U.S.With ISIS rapidly losing its foothold in places like Syria and Iraq, and its members looking for a safe haven, it’s effectiveness, and the Caribbean’s safety, may be facing its sternest test.