Jamaat al-Muslimeen: The Growth and Decline of Islamist Militancy in Trinidad and Tobago

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 23
July 30, 2009 04:25 PM Age: 5 yrs
Category: Terrorism Monitor, Global Terrorism Analysis, Home Page, Terrorism, Latin America

Yasin Abu Bakr, Leader of JAM

On July 27, 2009 Trinidadians marked the nineteenth anniversary of the failed attempt by the Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM - Muslim Association, known colloquially as “the Jamaat)” to overthrow the government in Trinidad and Tobago in a violent coup.  Although JAM made international headlines in June 2007 when one of the suspects in an alleged plot to attack New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was reported to have ties to the group, the enigmatic Caribbean militant group, composed mostly of Afro-Trinidadian converts to Islam, has received scant attention outside of Trinidad in recent years (see Terrorism Monitor, June 21, 2007).  In contrast, nearly two decades after the coup attempt, Trinidadian society still bears the scars of that infamous day; media coverage and public discussion of domestic politics continue to be fraught with tales of intrigue and conspiracy involving JAM and the highest levels of power in the twin island nation.  JAM’s history of political militancy is only matched by the group’s criminal activities—JAM is implicated in gangland-style slayings, narcotics and arms trafficking, money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, and political corruption.    

In spite of its record, ranking JAM members have escaped serious prosecution for their most egregious actions.  For many Trinidadians, the state’s failure (or what some believe is its reluctance) to bring closure to the 1990 revolt that left scores dead and injured and caused millions of dollars in damages continues to provoke heated controversy.  The ability of senior JAM members to evade justice for their involvement in the uprising and an array of other militant and criminal acts also continues to astound observers who follow the group. The present status of the government’s ongoing legal battles against JAM and, in particular, the group’s leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, is a case in point.  

Legal Wrangling and Controversy

Abu Bakr currently faces a series of charges ranging from sedition and terrorism to incitement to commit violence, all stemming from videotaped statements he made during his November 4, 2005 Eid al-Fitr sermon at JAM’s mosque complex in the St. James section of Port of Spain.  Among other things, Abu Bakr called on all Trinidadian Muslims, especially wealthy Muslims, to donate zakat (alms) to his mosque or face “bloodshed” (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, November 8, 2005).  From the onset, Abu Bakr’s reference to “wealthy Muslims” was widely understood as a threat directed towards Trinidad’s East Indian Muslim community, a frequent object of JAM’s ire over the years.  During his high-profile arrest on November 8, 2005, Trinidadian authorities demolished a section of the JAM mosque complex and conducted searches in a number of JAM-led mosques across the country in a search for weapons and explosives, an effort likely staged as a show of force by the authorities in the face of public pressure to rein in the group.  The search yielded guns, ammunition, and one grenade (Trinidad and Tobago Express, November 11, 2005).  

In an unprecedented move, Abu Bakr’s requests for bail following his incarceration were denied, at least initially, suggesting that the state was serious about putting him away once and for all.  In spite of reaping the economic benefits of an energy boom in recent years, a dramatic upsurge in violent crime across Trinidad, including a surge in brazen gangland-style violence involving current and former JAM members, may have created a sense of urgency for action against JAM (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, May 14; December 28, 2008).  According to some estimates, violent crime rates in Trinidad exceed those in countries long regarded as among the most violent in the region, including Jamaica (Nation [Bridgetown], May 20).  At the time of his arrest, Abu Bakr was facing separate conspiracy charges alleging that he ordered the murder of two former JAM members who were expelled from the group, including his son-in-law.  A Trinidadian court exonerated Abu Bakr for these charges on December 4, 2006 (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, December 5, 2006).

In addition to the charges laid in 2005, the focus of the state’s current efforts against JAM center on recovering an estimated $32 million in damages to public property caused by the 1990 rebellion.  In doing so, the state is determined to assume control of 11 properties owned by Abu Bakr and other ranking JAM members valued at approximately $10 million (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, May 6). Abu Bakr appealed the state’s efforts by issuing a sworn affidavit that he and Prime Minister Patrick Manning had concluded an agreement whereby JAM’s debts to the state would not be enforced (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, July 11).  A May 5 ruling by Great Britain’s Privy Council (an advisory committee that serves as the court of highest appeal for a number of Commonwealth countries such as Trinidad) denied Abu Bakr’s appeal, paving the way for the state to go forward with its efforts to confiscate the properties in question (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, May 6).  The JAM leader had previously challenged the state’s case unsuccessfully through a number of earlier appeals, including a constitutional motion challenging Trinidad’s Anti-Terrorism Act, under which Abu Bakr has been charged (Trinidad and Tobago Express, January 14, 2009).  

Abu Bakr and 113 others involved in the coup evaded prosecution and lengthy incarceration after talks between JAM and the authorities to end the hostage standoff resulted in a general amnesty for Abu Bakr and his organization. Abu Bakr and the coup plotters would serve only two years in prison (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, February 11, 2009).  Many Trinidadians believe that JAM’s uncanny ability to evade prosecution for their role in the coup and other offenses is emblematic of the power and influence Abu Bakr wields among a narrow but nevertheless significant demographic within the Afro-Trinidadian community in impoverished areas of Port of Spain.  Abu Bakr’s political influence is an important asset come election time for politicians seeking an advantage in key electoral districts where a few hundred votes can mean the difference between victory and defeat.  Abu Bakr himself has boasted of his ability to play the role of kingmaker during tight Trinidadian elections (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, May 5, 2009).  

Other observers suggest that JAM’s continued ability to function amid overwhelming evidence implicating the group in violence, terrorism, and crime stems from the group’s links to the security services and the political establishment, including all of Trinidad’s major political parties.  In theory, such access would leave Abu Bakr and his associates immune from prosecution out of fear they would disclose the exact nature of their corrupt dealings with prominent politicians, security officials, and business leaders in Trinidad.  

Origins and Ideology

In spite of its dogmatic rhetoric and revolutionary discourse, JAM today is widely regarded as a criminal gang more than anything else.  And while many observers continue to mistakenly link JAM to international extremist movements with a transnational agenda such as al-Qaeda, the evidence suggests that JAM’s brand of militancy has played out solely within a local Trinidadian context to further narrow objectives and there are no indications to suggest that this will change.  That aside, a glimpse at JAM’s origins and early ideology provide insight into some of the factors that may have contributed to the violent coup attempt and other aspects of the group’s behavior.

JAM emerged in the early 1980s during a period of severe social and economic crisis and heightened racial and ethnic tensions between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians (often referred to as East Indians due to their South Asian roots), the multiethnic country’s two dominant communities.  The group’s founder and leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, is a 68 year-old Afro-Trinidadian convert to Islam. Formerly a police officer under the name Lenox Philip, he is now known as “the Imam” by his followers. Abu Bakr founded JAM along with a core group of likeminded associates as a movement to advocate on behalf of all Afro-Trinidadians, the overwhelming majority of whom are Christians.  Owing to its origins, JAM has always been an essentially Afro-Trinidadian movement.  The group has, however, been known to attract a small number of East Indian Muslims and members of other ethnic and racial groups drawn to its social agenda. [1]

While JAM may be characterized as an Islamist group, the pan-African nationalist ideals that gave rise to a heightened sense of black consciousness and ultimately the “Black Power” movement in the 1960s and 1970s profoundly impacted the outlook of the organization’s founders. [2] Abu Bakr has claimed, for instance, that his worldview was inspired by the popular turmoil in February 1970 that came to be known in Trinidad as the “Black Power Revolt.” [3] JAM’s discourse mirrors the rhetoric used by the most militant strains of pan-African nationalist movements such as the Nation of Islam who claim to advocate on behalf of all black people, not just Muslims.  Leftist populism and the anti-imperialist narratives that fueled national liberation movements during the Cold War have also influenced JAM’s ideology.

Islam has always had a special resonance among adherents of the Black Power movement, including non-Muslims. [4] The harsh legacy of slavery in the Americas has profoundly impacted how Afro-Trinidadians perceive their identity.  The ethnicities, languages, and religions of African slaves were essentially replaced with the cultures, languages, and religions of their slave owners.  In this context, Christianity became associated with slavery and colonialism. [5] Therefore, for many Afro-Trinidadians, conversion to Islam signified an affirmation of cultural identity, resistance, and empowerment.

In the years preceding the coup attempt, JAM’s discourse dwelled on issues of social justice, poverty, racism, and government corruption.  The group also operated an extensive social service network catering to Trinidad’s poor.  JAM was outspoken against the scourges of drug abuse and alcoholism the group believed were encouraged by what it saw as the loose morals of Trinidad’s “Carnival” society. [6] To insulate themselves from these societal ills, JAM organized a commune-style village where members could live and worship.  Government efforts to evict the group from its mosque complex in Port of Spain played a major role in prompting the group to take up arms.

On July 27, 1990, 114 members of JAM stormed the Red House (National Parliament) in downtown Port of Spain taking Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson and most of his cabinet hostage. [7] With JAM in charge of the major communications outlets, the country was plunged into chaos. The siege lasted six days, caused many casualties and left an estimated $32 million in damages to public and private property (Terrorism Monitor, June 21, 2007; Terrorism Monitor, March 9, 2006).

International Allies

JAM’s international allies reflect the revolutionary underpinnings of JAM’s ideology, particularly those non-Islamist aspects that emphasize social justice and anti-imperialism.  During the 1980s, JAM had friendly relations with Libya, which maintained close ties with a number of radical leftist and violent revolutionary movements in the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America. [8] Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, whom Abu Bakr counts as a close friend, has always fashioned himself as an advocate for revolutionary struggle.  In this regard, JAM’s Sunni Islamist pedigree had little to do with Libyan support for the group.  Libya provided JAM with financial support under the auspices of its World Islamic Call Society (WICS) to bolster its social service efforts in Trinidad.  Libya also provided members of JAM with paramilitary training on Libyan soil. [9] In spite of Libya’s documented support for JAM and initial questions regarding possible Libyan involvement in the 1990 coup attempt, there are no indications that Tripoli had a hand in the 1990 revolt.

The international connections of Abu Bakr and other JAM members also reached Sudan in the 1990s, when Abu Bakr and other JAM members attended Islamic conferences and other events hosted by the Sudanese government.  Some sources claim that Sudan provided JAM with funding and other forms of support (Associated Press, November 1, 2001).  Abu Bakr was even known to have a ceremonial sword he received as a gift from Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir (Trinidad and Tobago Express, November 11, 2005).

JAM lauds Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution for what it sees as his advocacy on behalf of the poor in Venezuela and the wider region and his opposition to a dangerous U.S. hegemony in the Americas. [10] The ties between JAM and Caracas, however, extend beyond feelings of mutual admiration.  A number of ranking JAM members, including Abu Bakr, spent four days in Caracas in September 2004 at the invitation of the Venezuelan leader (Trinidad and Tobago Express, September 5, 2004).  In spite of JAM’s relations with Chavez, there are no indications that Venezuela supports JAM’s criminal and militant activities.  Similarly, JAM has also been a vocal supporter of other leftist leaders in the Americas that the group sees as positive forces, including former Cuban president Fidel Castro. [11]

Conclusion

On the surface, the failure of Abu Bakr’s latest appeal may have sounded the death knell for JAM as an influential player in Trinidadian society and politics.  While JAM has always been a fringe movement among both Trinidadian Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the overwhelming financial burdens of potential property losses coupled with growing defense fees may devastate the organization once and for all.  As the face and heart of the organization for decades, Abu Bakr’s modest but loyal following is likely to dwindle in the face of further state pressure.  JAM has, however, proved to be a resilient force; Abu Bakr’s repeated attempts to appeal the state’s case against him and JAM demonstrate that he will not surrender without a fight.



Notes:

1. It is also worth noting that at least six East Indian members of JAM participated in the 1990 coup attempt.
2. For an overview of the ideological influences of Yasin Abu Bakr and JAM, see Selwyn Ryan, The Muslimeen Grab for Power: Race, Religion, and Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago (Port of Spain: Imprint Caribbean Ltd., 1991).
3. For background on what has come to be known as the 1970 Black Power Revolt in Trinidad, see Victoria Pasley, “The Black Power Movement in Trinidad: An Exploration of Gender and Cultural Changes and the Development of a Feminist Consciousness,” Journal of International Women’s Studies 1, no. 1 (2001).
4. For an overview of the influence of Islam in black identity politics, see Robert Dannin, Black Pilgrimage to Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); see also Michael Gomez, Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
5. Sylviane A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
6. Author’s conversation with senior ranking member of JAM, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, October 2007.
7. Many of the weapons used in the coup attempt were procured in the south Florida area by JAM members living in the United States. For more details, see Loren Berger and Denis Henigan, "Guns and Terror," Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2001.
8. For more details about JAM’s links to Libya, see Selwyn Ryan, The Muslimeen Grab for Power: Race, Religion, and Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago (Port of Spain: Imprint Caribbean Ltd., 1991), pgs. 252–66.
9. Author’s conversation with senior ranking member of JAM, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, October 2007.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.


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