Trouble in Trinidad and Tobago

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

According to "Defence Blog", China delivered 20 Dongfeng MengShi 4×4 army light utility vehicle, which is similar to the US-made Hummer H1, to Trinidad and Tobago in June 2015.

According to “Defence Blog”, China delivered 20 Dongfeng MengShi 4×4 army light utility vehicle, which is similar to the US-made Hummer H1, to Trinidad and Tobago in June 2015.

On 10 July 2016, two days before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Chinese news agency Xinhua released an article alleging that the United States had exercised a kind of imperial hegemony over the Caribbean, maintaining “dominance over the entire region” through military means. This was intended to cast American criticism of China’s aggression against the Philippines and other regional neighbours as hypocritical. Yet the Caribbean is not the way station of empire that the Xinhua writers would have one believe. In fact, beyond Cuba’s isolationist approach to trade and diplomacy in the Americas, several countries in the region are experiencing turmoil that cannot be compared to the conflicts on China’s southern periphery and which the US has not, rightly or wrongly, sought to address.

As addressed in a previous piece, Jamaica is in the midst of a painful struggle with organized crime, involving a staggeringly high homicide rate. Haiti is plagued by political instability amid botched elections and a cholera epidemic. [1] Perhaps most disturbingly, Trinidad and Tobago is contending with threats of terrorism from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other militant Islamist groups. While the thought of ISIS securing for itself a Caribbean enclave might seem fanciful, Trinidad has experienced ruthless terrorist attacks from ISIS-like organizations in the past, particularly from Jamaat al-Muslimeen. Rumoured to have connections to Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, the group staged a coup attempt in the Trinidadian capital, Port of Spain, in July 1990, holding then-Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson hostage while occupying the television station and the Red House, where Trinidad’s bicameral legislature meets, for six days. In 1983, Jamaat al-Muslimeen reportedly considered mounting a coup attempt but an internal rift in the organization resulted in the plot being abandoned. In a more recent attack, members of Jamaat al-Muslimeen engaged in a shootout at Port of Spain General Hospital on 24 July 2015.

The threat posed to Trinidad’s security by Jamaat al-Muslimeen is not specifically the result of US foreign policy in the region. Trinidad and Tobago is an oil-rich country, boasting crude oil reserves equivalent to approximately 728 million barrels in addition to estimated natural gas reserves of 25.2 trillion cubic feet (about 713 billion cubic meters). It is possible that Qaddafi’s support for regime change in Trinidad was motivated by a desire to deny the US another vital source of oil. However, perhaps more likely, the previous and ongoing terrorist activities of Jamaat al-Muslimeen have been driven exclusively by domestic conditions in Trinidad. In a country of just over 1.3 million, the Islamic community is rapidly growing but still remains a small minority of the population, comprising just 5.0% of Trinidadians in 2011. Trinidadians of African descent also remain the second largest ethnic community in Trinidad, comprising 36.3% of the population, compared to Indo-Trinidadians that make up 37.6% of the total public. As indicated by United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reporting on Trinidad and Tobago, Trinidadian Muslims of African descent are an economically marginalized demographic in the country, which has clearly contributed to feelings of disenfranchisement and resentment among segments of the population.

Economic inequality may have created the conditions necessary for radicalization, but the under-development of Trinidad’s defence institutions created the opportunity for Jamaat al-Muslimeen to launch its attacks against the Trinidadian secular state. The country has yet to adopt a national security strategy or similar framework to guide force modernization efforts in the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force (TTDF). There certainly have been attempts by concerned individuals to correct this, including a February 2011 editorial in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian and a thesis presented by then-Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Jeffrey of the TTDF at the US Army Command and General Staff College in 2012. Yet such well-developed proposals for force modernization and expansion have yet to be formally adopted.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of National Security contracted Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding in April 2015 to build four 51-metre 28-knot coastal patrol vessels, two 54-metre fast utility boats, and six 11-metre 53-knot interceptors for the Coast Guard. These vessels will be integral to the fight against organized crime and the issue of narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean. But there are as yet no plans to improve intelligence-gathering or intelligence-sharing capabilities in the country, which will inhibit Trinidadian efforts to combat any future ISIS-led campaign in the country. Trinidad and Tobago is well-served by its own Special Forces unit for counter-terrorism operations, and members of that unit frequently engage in joint training activities with US military personnel, but the country’s defence establishment sorely lacks the means to prevent terrorist attacks while they remain at the planning stage.

Concept drawing of the vessels acquired for the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard.

Concept drawing of the vessels acquired for the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard.

Evidently, the region requires greater American involvement, in stark contrast to what the accusations of Xinhua’s writers suggest. With a series of tragic attacks across Europe in recent weeks attributed either to ISIS or to “lone wolf” terrorists sympathetic to that organization, it is important that the US act to prevent ISIS from establishing a foothold in the Americas. Regular exchanges of best practices, as well as an intelligence-sharing mechanism, with the TTDF and the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) would be an appropriate response to the exacerbated threat from militant Islamism in that corner of the Caribbean.

Footnotes
[1] The ongoing Haiti cholera outbreak is the worst epidemic of cholera in recent history, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the first 27 weeks of 2016, Haiti alone have been reported over 21.600 cases (over 776.000 cases and 9.160 deaths since the outbreak in 2010; Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization, “Epidemiological Update: Cholera“, 21.07.2016).

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

This entry was posted in English, International, Organised Crime, Paul Pryce.

One Response to Trouble in Trinidad and Tobago

  1. Sebastian Diehl says:

    Considering the US’s past history in the region and potential hostile views it would nonetheless be advisable for the US to tread lightly. If, as I was surprised to learn, T&T is oil rich, then they will not be lacking in funds to hire the necessary experts on counter-terrorism, whether US or European, potentially British due to the colonial connections. Of course cooperation, especially inteligence sharing should, and obviously needs to be increased, but the US has a habit of making things worse, if simply by it’s presence. The US simply has a poor record, both in terms of involvement in that region, and in terms of involvement in other places for terrorism reasons.

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