|Commentary: Drugs, terror and criminality in the Caribbean|
|Published on Wednesday, July 25, 2007||Email To Friend Print Version|
|By Benjamin K. Smith, COHA Research Associate
Growing Criminality Along With the Advent of The ‘Terror” Factor in the Caribbean
Drugs and Terror – An Explosive Mixture
The Drug Situation
The Bahamas for example, despite their reputation as a tourist’s paradise, is slightly less well known for their high criminal ranking, and whose volume of drug-related activity is sufficiently menacing to worry Washington’s security agencies, particularly the DEA. The State Department reports that the country’s 700 islands and cays make it geographically suitable for hosting exactly the kind of transportation and infrastructure mix that criminals desire to expedite their trafficking operations. In 2005 it was reported by the Drug Enforcement Unit (DEU) in the Bahamas, that 840 kilograms of cocaine and 9.0 metric tons of marijuana had been confiscated. Demonstrably, this is a matter that is hardly specific only to the Bahamas.
For its part, the US has made some effort to cope with the phenomenon of maritime-based criminality in the region. In the past, Caribbean-area governments have coordinated with the US through “shiprider” agreements, in which local government officials attempt to police their territorial waters scattered throughout the Caribbean. These pacts allow for US Coast Guard units and other US personnel to board suspect ships found in the maritime jurisdiction of a given island. This process can only be triggered if there is a national from that given island aboard the Coast Guard vessel engaged in the boarding process. The procedure not only helps to intercept narcotics traffic, but also makes it difficult for the trafficker to hide. Still, these agreements have played a minimal role in combating drug trafficking, and the Miami branch of the DEA has not invoked them on numerous occasions, proving again that the US war on drugs has more bark than bite in it when it comes to drug apprehension as well as prevention.
Current US-Caribbean Sentiment
For all of the region’s negative publicity in recent years – much of it drug-related – present relations between the US and the Caribbean remain healthy, if minimal. At the June 20th Caribbean Summit in Washington, Patrick Manning and other island leaders met with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss issues related to the Caribbean diaspora in the US as well as an expansion and deepening of CARICOM’s relations with this country. CaribNews reported Elsworth John, St. Lucia’s Ambassador to the U.S., as saying, “this is about partnerships. We are seeking to establish a new paradigm with the Diaspora, the hundreds of thousands of people from the Caribbean who live and work across the United States.” This discussion may have seemed delicate at the time, given the nature of Desfreitas and his clan’s reported trips between New York and Trinidad, but those closely involved on both sides of the table refrained from addressing the Desfreitas issue. Mr. Young added that, “If it [the JFK plot] does come up, it would be brief, we don’t see it as a big deal.”
The Desfreitas Plan
Still, the break up of the plot, however early in the gang’s planning stage, must be a bittersweet moment for the US intelligence community, which now, at least in the minds of the FBI, the CIA and their counterparts, have a potentially new lethal foe in the form of peripheral terror branches which would have their natural bases in the well over 4 million-strong Latin American Islamic communities. In Brazil and Argentina alone, there is a combined population of 2.5 million Latino-Muslims, while Trinidad and Tobago alone is home to 100,000 of them. It is the latter figure that most concerns U.S. counter-terrorist experts. It has been Desfreitas’ said connection to Trinidad’s Yasin Abu Bakr, the leader of the Islamic militant group in Trinidad, that has made the investigation all the more vital for U.S. intelligence and because of Bakr’s acknowledged relationship to al-Qaeda heavy hitter Adnan el Shukrijumah, who has met with Caribbean militants on different occasions.
Patterns of Islamist Extremism in the Caribbean and Central America
The possible expansion of Hezbollah and al-Qaeda in the Caribbean came to the attention of US intelligence in June 2004, when the aforementioned Adnan G. El-Shukrijumah, was seen in Honduras. Born in Saudi Arabia, Shukrijumah has since been described by the FBI as becoming al-Qaeda’s next Muhamed Atta, one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 hijackings. Both men were educated in the United States, and like Atta, Shukrijumah is said to have been trained by some of al-Qaeda’s top operatives. At the time of his sighting in Central America, US intelligence believed that he had been involved with two of South America’s premier gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, and Mara 18th St. (M18) which are represented heavily throughout Central America, and permeate Trinidad’s relatively large Muslim population. This finding is compounded by the fact that al-Qaeda has acknowledged success in efforts to recruit Caribbean Muslims.
A second clue came in July of the same year, when Egyptian national Ashraf Ahmad Abdullah, was arrested in Miami for his role in an illegal immigration operation whereby Egyptians were entering into the US after passing through a hub in Guatemala utilized to gain false entry permits and to satisfy other requirements. Intelligence officials believe that this was a conduit for terrorist networks in Egypt, and was used to deploy their operatives to the U.S.
The Case of Trinidad
Conveniently situated in the Gulf of Paria, and within a mere 100 miles of Venezuela’s North-Eastern coast, the islands have become home to dozens of small Middle Eastern energy companies as well as an array of small-to-medium sized electronics businesses around the Port of Spain. The irony in this relationship is that liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and tankers, the transport system utilized by maritime oil exporters like Trinidad, are easy targets for terrorists. The latter can readily hijack the vessels for reasons of extortion or threaten to scuttle a tanker at some strategic shipping location.
Because so much of the international focus on maritime terrorism and marine-oil transport is generally directed toward the Malacca Straits, (the world’s most vulnerable marine-oil geographic resource), other germane members of the international gas and oil community in the Caribbean, such as Trinidad and the Bahamas, have been given much less attention. Still, the US receives 75 percent of all of its LNG imports from Trinidad, which have doubled in the last ten years and are expected to jump to 10 percent of the country’s total gas input by 2010. In light of this information, it is fair to say that vulnerable giant LNG tankers are undoubtedly a priority, or someday will be for international terrorists. Given this scenario, it almost seems ironic that the targets of Desfreitas and his Caribbean gang were the relatively prosaic oil and gas pipelines fueling JFK, – their plan could have been triggered much closer to home with far more thundering consequences.
Jamaat al Musileem and Abu Bakr
In the 2001 and 2002 elections, Bakr campaigned for the People’s National Movement (PNM), and successfully snagged several seats in the Trinidadian legislature. Since then, he has been involved in a number of violent incidents, including being implicated in several serious crimes. Yet, the Trinidadian government has been unable to arrest, let alone indict him on threats by Jamaat al Musileem to harm government officials or even try to topple the present administration of Patrick Manning. Coincidentally, Bakr is also one of the island’s wealthiest citizens and owns several million-dollar properties. Desfreitas and some of the others charged in the alleged conspiracy were in Trinidad in April to meet with Bakr, most likely in an effort to gain financing and approval for their operations.
Another entity posing a potential threat is Waajihatul Islaamiyyah (The Islamic Front). The group has close associations with more renowned organizations such as Jamaat al Murabiteen (the group responsible for the Bali Beachfront bombings of 2005). Waajihatul Islaamiyyah has expressed its desire to create an Islamic state inside Trinidad. More chilling, however, is its professed admiration for Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, as disturbing as it may be to acknowledge such a potentially explosive terrorist ingredient, Trinidad’s religious freedom is safely guaranteed under its constitution, as demonstrated by the fact that the government subsidizes both religious and public schools.
Current Trinidadian Initiatives Against Islamic Extremism
Considerations for the US
While the region has never struggled with international terrorism like the kind that destroyed the World Trade Center, and threatened JFK, it has dealt with domestic terror for decades. The concern for the State Department is that this pattern may shift. Its fear is that events like the last one mentioned could in the future fuel potential terrorists to advance their cause in the region, or perhaps even permanently relocate some of their operations to areas with growing Islamic populations that potentially harbor would-be terrorists and could serve as bases for operations.
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