From Remote, Luxurious Islands to Terrorist Breeding Ground: Trinidad and Tobago

© Getty – Trinidad and Tobago

When people hear the words Trinidad and Tobago they think of lush, remote islands, all-inclusive resorts, and some of the most beautiful beaches the Caribbean offers. They might think of the country that beat the United States’ men’s soccer team in its 2018 World Cup qualifier. It’s unlikely that many would think of the islands as a potential Caribbean terrorist breeding ground. Few associate the Caribbean with terrorism at all – it is, axiomatically, a place we visit to leave our worries behind.

But between 2013 and 2014, “At least 130 people (have) traveled to Syria to live and fight under the flag of ISIS,” according to the government of Trinidad and Tobago. “More than 200 people (have) traveled from the Caribbean in recent years to join ISIS” [1]. These numbers are increasing at an alarming rate as ISIS continues to bombard Trinidad, and the greater Caribbean, with propaganda. To put these numbers into perspective, Canada, and the United States, together, “…have produced fewer than 300 recruits who made the journey east” [2]. The numbers seem comparable until you consider that Canada and the United States are, collectively, 263 times as populous as Trinidad.

© Getty Images – ISIS propaganda targets the people of Trinidad and Tobago

Security in the Caribbean pales to that in the United States and Europe and that makes Caribbean officials’ nightmare worse. If Trinidadians radicalize in Syria or Afghanistan and return to the islands they could ideologically poison a vast reserve of Caribbean youth. “Trinidad’s citizens can travel through the Caribbean without visas” [2]. Radicals could hop from island to island converting new recruits to their cause.

A reader could be forgiven for thinking this is Trinidad’s first brush with terrorism. But, there was a failed coup in 1990 mobilized by the Trinidadian Islamist group Jamaat al Muslimeen. For six days, Jamaat al Muslimeen held hostages including the Prime Minister and government officials at Trinidad’s seat of Parliament (the Red House), and at the headquarters of Trinidad and Tobago Television. There was also a foiled terrorist plot to attack New York’s J.F.K. airport in 2007 hatched by Islamists in Trinidad’s neighbor, Guyana [1].

Given Trinidad’s proximity to the United States, radicalized individuals potentially plotting attacks on U.S. soil poses a significant security risk. There is the fear that, “Trinidadian fighters will 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” [3]. President Trump recently spoke, “…with Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago about terrorism and other security challenges, including foreign fighters” [3]. That conversation is already occurring at the highest levels between the U.S. and this modest Caribbean island speaks volumes about the gravity of the situation.

President Trump’s conversation with Trinidadian Prime Minister Rowley comes just after, “…U.S. troops participated in anti-terror raids Thursday in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago helping to capture four ‘ high-value targets’ [4]. US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) forces, “…advised and assisted local Trinidadian security forces,” in the capture of these individuals, “…who are believed to be part of a network engaged in plotting terror attacks” [4]. The Caribbean celebration of Carnival was set to begin Monday, February 12th. With the, “…vibrantly coloured costumes of the participants and incredible celebrations” [5] the prospect that this Carnival could be the site of the next terrorist attack is not far off.

© CNN/Mara Soff – Carnival J’ouvert in Trinidad and Tobago, Feb. 16, 2015

Trinidad and Tobago is, “…top of the list of Western countries with the highest rates of foreign-fighter radicalization,” and, “…by far the largest recruitment hub in the Western Hemisphere” [6]. Trinidad and Tobago must address, at root, issues of radicalization and recruitment on the island before they begin to take a toll on tourism. If not handled properly, we may see ISIS inching ever closer in coming years to the U.S. mainland. As for right now, Trinidad and Tobago must continue to capitalize on its access to foreign forces like the U.S. and Canada to continue deterring the ever-growing problem of radicalization in its midst.



Harrowing Death, Calls For Action: The Syrian Genocide Persists

The Assad regime has been conducting airstrikes on its own citizens for six years now. To date, more than a quarter million civilians have perished. Hundreds of thousands more have been burned, dismembered, or otherwise scarred physically and psychologically.

Diana Semaan, a Syria researcher at Amnesty International, commented on the matter saying, “For six years, the international community has stood by as the Syrian government has committed crimes against humanity and war crimes with total impunity” [1]. Dispiritingly, all the international community can do now, it seems, is help the victims as best they can.

The cry for help is at its latest peak as more than 500 Syrians have been killed this week in the suburbs of Eastern Ghouta. More than 1,000 have been injured. [2] Russian-backed Syrian forces claim they are trying to uproot rebels, but civilians comprise the majority of the casualties. “Nearly 400,000 people live in Eastern Ghouta. They account for 94% of all currently besieged Syrians.” The airstrikes, suffice it to say, are ineffective at targeting so-called rebels.

© Amar Al Bushy/Al Jazeera – Survivors of the latest bombings in Eastern Ghouta struggle with horrific destruction and loss of life

On Friday, February 23rd, 2018 the United Nations will be voting on a “30-day truce in Syria to allow [much needed] aid deliveries and medical evacuations” [3]. Medical supplies could be delivered and those who are critically wounded could be evacuated to receive life-saving treatment. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has demanded before the U.N. that there be, “An immediate end to ‘war activities’ there.” [3] The resolution might sound like progress. But Russia, Bashar al-Assad’s key backer, is a U.N. Security Council member and is likely to veto the resolution. It has already, “…cast 11 vetoes on possible Security Council action on Syria since its civil war began in 2011,” [3].

So many images, tweets, news reports, and videos have emerged from Syria over what has already been so many years revealing devastation and disarray. It sometimes seems there is little that can be done. The U.N. tries to step in, but Syria has become a frenzy over power, religion, and territory. Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States all have equities in Syria, making it all but impossible to give precedence to the Syrian people’s needs.

© Dominic Waghorn/Sky News – Balkanization makes Syrians’ homeland a self-perpetuating warzone

“Ghouta will fall,” says Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the online British newspaper The Independent, and once it does, “Idlib must surely be next” [4]. The carnage will not end anytime soon. All we can do is help those who suffer the brutal consequences of the war, day after day, especially the children. They should remain central to what is fought for in Syria.

© Ghouta Media Center- Syrian children flee a kindergarten bombing in Eastern Ghouta



Click here to learn more about Ahmad Mohibi, Founder of Rise to Peace

How the United Nations Is Empowering the Leaders of Tomorrow

The United Nations’ Friendship Ambassadors Foundation (FAF) brought together more than 1,000 students and young professionals from around the world to collaborate at the 2018 Winter Youth Assembly from February 14th to February 16th, 2018. The theme of the 2018 Winter Youth Assembly was Innovation and Collaboration for a Sustainable World.

Students and young professionals engaged in seminars, workshops, and presentations to dialogue about the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda includes 17 goals which aim to eradicate poverty, protect the planet, all while encouraging continued prosperity. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the SDGs, seek to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies free of fear and violence.

The 17 SDGs envision a world free of poverty, with universal literacy and equitable access to all levels of quality education; a world committed to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene; a world with sufficient, safe, affordable and nutritious food; a world with safe human habitats and universal access to sustainable energy; a world which honors universal respect for human rights, dignity, culture, race, and ethnicity; a world in which every child grows up free from violence and exploitation; a world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality with all legal, social and economic barriers to their empowerment removed; a world in which every country enjoys sustained economic growth and decent work for all; a world in which natural resource production and consumption – from air to land, rivers to lakes, oceans to aquifers – is sustainable; a world where we live in harmony with nature, where wildlife is protected.

Of the 17 SDGS, Goals 4 and 16 are paramount to today’s global security issues.

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive, equitable quality education with universal, lifelong learning opportunities. Ensuring that children and adults have access to quality education is one way to eradicate extremism. Some targets include:

• A world, by 2030, where all girls and boys complete free, equitable quality primary and secondary education
• Provide safe, inclusive and effective learning environments for all by building and upgrading educational facilities to be child, disability, and gender-sensitive
• Ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills requisite for global citizenship and sustainable lifestyles
• Ensure that youth and adults achieve literacy and numeracy

Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions

• Significantly reduce all forms of violence and consequent mortality rates
• End all forms of violence towards children including torture, abuse, exploitation, and trafficking
• Promote the rule of national and international law, ensuring equal access to justice

These goals require the cooperation of all nations. All countries, acting in partnership, will implement the SDGs together. Governments should commit to working tirelessly for the implementation of this agenda by 2030.

Can Deradicalization Reduce Violent Extremism? This Expert Thinks So

When seeking counter-terrorism explanations and solutions, the focus is generally on why radicalization occurs. What happens after radicalization–deradicalization–is much more complicated. Deradicalisation programs are becoming increasingly important in countries that aim to avoid further violence and rehabilitate those who have been radicalized.

Deradicalization programs vary but can include counseling, theological education, and attempts to deemphasize violence in the radicalized person’s value system. There is much criticism of the programs’ effectiveness, however, since there is little evidence at this point to confirm whether or not these programs work.

The writings of Daniel Koehler, Director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, and contributor to George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security are vital to understanding this new path. Despite much of the criticism leveled at deradicalization programs,

Koehler argues that arresting or killing people is not the answer to violent extremism since it leaves its appeal untouched or even strengthened[1]. Koehler argues that deradicalization is not the same as disengagement. Disengagement is a mere behavioral change ensuring that a person no longer commits illegal activities, but it does not imply a change in ideology[2].

It is important to understand what motivates a person to engage in violent extremism in the first place. A  broad survey of the literature regarding radicalization suggests that possible driving forces include lack of professional prospects, education, community support, or simply a person’s attempt to find meaning and honor in his (sic) life. Diverse schools of thought including sociological, empirical and psychological theories are converging to grapple with this problem.[3]

Koehler suggests a broad set of tools could be used to address an individual’s concerns, from vocational training to religious or psychological counseling, and even creative art therapy[4].

It is important, however, to tailor the deradicalization techniques to each individual. The ideology and identity that is ingrained during the radicalization process are deeply personal and difficult for a person to simply forget. This lack of efficiency is one of many legitimate concerns about deradicalization programs. Despite those concerns, more research and development could demonstrate that investing in these programs could significantly alter the way extremist groups operate, and perhaps, diminish their success.

[1] Price, Michael. (2017, May 26). Can terrorists be deradicalized? Science Magazine. 
[2] Boghani, Priyanka.  “Deradicalization” Is Coming To America. Does It Work? (MARCH 18, 2016 .). 
[3] Koehler, D. (2014). The Radical Online: Individual Radicalization Processes and the Role of the Internet. Journal for Deradicalization, 0(1), 116–134.
[4] Boghani, Priyanka.  “Deradicalization” Is Coming To America. Does It Work? (MARCH 18, 2016 .). 

Click here to learn more about Ahmad Mohibi, Founder of Rise to Peace

Semantics Matter: ARSA and the Difference Between Insurgency and Terrorism

Independent Online/AFP

While tensions between the Rohingya Muslims and the Myanmar government have existed for decades, violent eruptions over the last year have catalyzed the growth of the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA). The Myanmar government has since designated this group a terrorist organization, diminishing the legitimate political grievances of the Rohingya. An analysis of the distinction between insurgency and terrorism will demonstrate that the government’s categorization is inaccurate and that ARSA’s momentum, in addition to the government’s brutality, may lead to a successful insurgency.

Formed in 2013, ARSA started as a “small-scale effort to organize a Rohingya resistance.” The Rohingya have been systematically marginalized by the military and government for years. Stripped of their citizenship and living in extreme poverty, they remain a vulnerable, and largely displaced, population. Weary of the persecution against the Rohingya and their inability to seek political redress, ARSA planned and executed two attacks on military outposts. Last October, ARSA killed nine officers. In late August 2017, ARSA attacked another army base and 30 police posts, resulting in the death of 71 people, of which 12 were security officers. The government’s response to the attacks has been heavy-handed and disproportionate, often targeting civilians. In an attempt to flush out ARSA, the military set fire to villages, forcing hundreds of thousands of innocent Rohingya to flee, attacking some with bullets, machetes, and even landmines as they retreated. Following the first attack, the group’s leader, Ataullah abu Amar Junani, released a video in which he claimed responsibility and indicated that the decades of crimes against the Rohingya justified the attack and the right to defend themselves.

Contradicting ARSA’s narrative of self-defense stand instances of violence towards their own people. In the midst of the clashes between the military and the Rohingya, young men fleeing must not only escape the military but avoid ARSA, as many find themselves forced by their own to stay and fight.

Many Rohingya remain committed to joining the fight against the government, nevertheless, willing to risk their lives and those of their families in order to secure rights for the Rohingya. While ARSA participates in violence, the ensuing analysis will demonstrate that their designation as a terrorist group is inaccurate and the government’s response is unjustified.

The definition of terrorism varies between governments, agencies, and academics. This analysis will use International Affairs Professor Bard O’Neill’s definitions of both the terms terrorism and insurgency found in his book Insurgency and Terrorism. He defines terrorism as, “The threat or use of physical coercion, primarily against non-combatants, especially civilians, to create fear in order to achieve various political objectives,” whereas insurgency is “a struggle between a non-ruling group and the ruling authorities in which the non-ruling group consciously uses political resources and violence to destroy, reformulate, or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics.”

ARSA does not fall under the category of terrorism, as the violence is primarily employed against Myanmar militia and not civilians. Furthermore, ARSA repeatedly affirms that it wants the Rohingya to live in peace, to secure their rights and for “greater autonomy as Myanmar citizens.” Rather than hoping to achieve a political objective to bring them leverage over other groups, ARSA simply wants the Rohingya to be afforded equal rights. ARSA uses political resources, such as organizational expertise, to muster fighting forces in the struggle against the Myanmar government in the hope of gaining legitimacy for the Rohingya. Accordingly, ARSA is more appropriately labeled as an insurgency group.

Contrary to the Myanmar government’s intent, their “violence and abuses are likely to boost support for the armed group,” raising the question of whether ARSA could evolve into a successful insurgency. According to American University Professor Bill Belding, eight elements of a successful insurgency can be evaluated to better understand whether ARSA could maintain growth and eventually succeed in their quest for rights for the Rohingya. These eight elements are critical mass, better idea, effective leader, external support, resources, communication, safe haven, and intelligence. The government’s continued violence may push more sympathizers to join ARSA and gain a (1) critical mass. ARSA has “significantly influenced many Muslim religious leaders in northern Rahkine State to endorse [ARSA] despite earlier feelings [of the] violence to be counterproductive.” ARSA hopes to gain rights for the Rohingya people, effectively establishing a (2) better idea. It is difficult to measure the (3) efficacy of their leader, Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi, but his presence is known and he has released videos taking responsibility for the attacks. During ARSA’s attacks, members obtained arms from the Myanmar militia giving them (4) resources. ARSA gained (5) external support by urging Rohingya clerics to issue a “fatwa” stating the campaign against the security forces is legal in Islam. Analysts believe that ARSA receives funding from the Rohingya diaspora and private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Around August 2016, two Saudi-based senior leaders spent a month in the Rakhine State assisting with training. ARSA members use encrypted messaging applications including Whatsapp and Viber to (6) communicate. Their leader effectively communicates because he speaks Peninsular Arabic and the Bengali dialect found in northern Rakhine. Because the Rohingya are displaced persons, since neither Myanmar nor neighboring Bangladesh considers them citizens, they lack a typical (7) safe haven. However, the large Rohingya diaspora, as well as its ability to communicate on texting applications, gives members some semblance of safety. While a typical safe haven provides physical security and the ability for members of a group to convene without fear of attack, the Rohingya still can reap some of the same benefits even as displaced persons. Communication through texting applications allows them to discuss and plan free of government intrusion, and a Rohingya diaspora that is not actively persecuted can assist with logistics. Lastly, ARSA gains important (8) intelligence through their texting applications, which allows quick dissemination of information, but it is noted that they do not appear to have any advanced intelligence operations. Unlike more organized groups which may have technology or spies that can actively gather information, ARSA relies on encrypted messaging applications to spread news and word-of-mouth information to its members. Almost every element of a successful insurgency is found in ARSA’s campaign against the Myanmar government, and if not explicitly present, the lacking elements remain on the cusp of fruition in the volatile and uncertain climate.

Accordingly, the Myanmar government’s labeling of ARSA as terrorists appears to be an attempt to capitalize on the global fear of Muslim extremism to provide cover for their disproportionate military assault. ARSA, while not irreproachable, are fighting for political legitimacy, and thus should be labeled insurgents. The widespread suffering and displacement the military has caused will likely fuel rather than extinguish an uprising. Although ARSA does not yet demonstrate every element of a successful insurgency, it would be in the Myanmar government’s best interest to rethink its counterproductive strategy if it hopes to stifle backlash.