Why are young men from the Caribbean joining ISIS?

By W. Andy Knight
By W. Andy Knight

By W. Andy Knight


Many in Canada’s Caribbean communities may be surprised to learn that between 100 to 120 young men from the Caribbean islands have become foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Why would anyone want to leave the islands we consider tropical “paradise “for the “hell-hole” in the territory now occupied by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?

Almost 100 of those individuals who were recruited by ISIS are citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. This is a huge number, given the fact that the twin island state has a population of 1.3 million. To do a comparison, according to a 2014 Public Safety Canada report, 130 individuals with Canadian connections have been radicalized and are now suspected of carrying out terrorism-related activities overseas. And, Canada’s total population is 32 million. It may come as a surprise to many that Trinidad and Tobago has one of the highest per capita rates of foreign fighters in the world.

So what’s going on in the Caribbean, known for its sea, surf, sandy white beaches and sun? And, more specifically, what’s happening in Trinidad and Tobago, that fun-loving country which is better known for its steel pan music, its calypso and soca, its chutney and parang, its carnival and all-inclusive fetes, its twerking and grinding.

Trinidad and Tobago is not all “paradise” and “fun-loving”. This country has a well-established radical and militant Islamist community that has drawn historically on the philosophy and ideology of the Black Power movement and the Nation of Islam in the United States. Some segments of the population have in the past been linked to the ideas of Pan-Africanism espoused by the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Trinidad and Tobago  is the only Western country in which an “Islamist” insurrection has been tried (in 1990). That failed coup was the brainchild of Jamaat al Muslimeen’s leader, Yasin Abu Bakr.

To understand why Trinidad and Tobago is perhaps more conducive to radical Islamist ideology than the rest of the Caribbean, one has to know something about the history of Islam in the twin-island republic.. A former colleague of mine, and perhaps the most knowledgeable Muslim historian in Trinidad, Professor Brinsley Samaroo, reminds us that the religion of Islam came to Trinidad during the colonial period with the arrival of slaves from West Africa. Some of those slaves were in fact very knowledgeable of the Quran and the Arabic language. But the majority of the Muslims who came to Trinidad and Tobago were East Indian indentured servants who were brought to Trinidad and Tobago to work in the sugar cane fields. Most of these individuals came from the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar regions of Northern India. These early Muslim arrivals, from Africa and India, practiced a benign and pacifistic form of the Islamic religion.

But by the mid to late 20th century, there were forces in Trinidad and Tobago, particularly among the African population, that became fed up with British colonial domination. Those forces were fuelled by the Black Power movement. Many in that movement converted to a radical version of Islam preached by Elijah Mohammed, the African-American religious leader who created the Nation of Islam in the United States, and who influenced individuals like Trinidadian-born Stokley Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Ture. Yasin Abu Bakr, born Lenox Philip, was one of those Trinidadians  who converted to Islam during a period of residency in Canada where he was a student. In Canada, Abu Bakr got heavily involved in the civil rights movement that was focused primarily in Toronto during the 1970s. He aligned himself with Stokley Carmichael and the Black Panthers movement and he brought this radicalism back to Trinidad when he returned in 1978.

In a study conducted by John McCoy and me on the subject of Homegrown Violent Extremism in Trinidad and Tobago, we found that youth in that country are succumbing to the same recruitment tactics used by ISIS in other Western countries, including in Canada and the United States. ISIS recruiters are utilizing the Internet and social media to spread their ideology of hate in every corner of the world, and Trinidad and Tobago is certainly not immune to those efforts at radicalization. Trinidad and  Tobago is in fact more susceptible to the radical Islamist overtures than most other Caribbean countries because it  already has a well established Muslim population, in which extremist individuals can blend.  Several Trinidadians who are non-Muslims have been exposed to certain terms such as the umma, the caliphate, jihad, dawa, fatwa, the Haddith, hijab, niqab, sharia,and  takfir. What we have found in our research is that many of the foreign fighters from Trinidad and Tobago are, in fact, new converts to the Muslim faith.

What is disconcerting about the “new convert” phenomenon is that these individuals are not very familiar with the Quran and the Haddith. They are not steeped in the Islamic religion  – which is generally regarded as a religion of peace. Some of these individuals are criminals who were converted to Islam by radical imams who target vulnerable individuals in places like the remand centers, prisons, schools, and mosques. According to Arthur Snell, a former British High Commissioner to  Trinidad and Tobago, “quite a lot of things that occur in jihadist groups elsewhere apply in Trinidad – people who are exposed to gang violence, broken homes, poor education opportunities, a lack of a sense of self belonging.”

But the primary reason why ISIS propaganda is attracting several youths in Trinidad and Tobago is because the seeds of extremism were already planted in that country by individuals who cloaked themselves in the robes of a radicalism that calls for righting the wrongs of injustice. As long as there are young people in Caribbean countries who feel marginalized and oppressed, we can expect that this tropical paradise will become the breeding grounds for radical and extremist ideas that have little or nothing to do with Islam per se.


  1. Andy Knight is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. Professor Knight and Tanya Narozhna, an associate professor of Global Studies at the University of Winnipeg , are co-authors of the recently published book, Female Suicide Bombings: A Critical Gender Approach.