ISIS in The Caribbean: A Hidden Threat

A Potential Caliphate in The Making

The Caribbean region is ripe for ISIS recruitment. In fact, the Island States of Trinidad and Tobago are now the top producers (per capita) of ISIS recruits fighting or attempting to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Not long ago, U.S. Southern Commander, General John Kelly said, “Even just a few of these nuts can cause an awful lot of trouble down in the Caribbean because those countries don’t have a FBI, they don’t have law enforcement as we do, and many of these countries have very, very small militaries if they have militaries at all.”

With more than 11 million Americans traveling to the Caribbean in 2016, the potential danger of ISIS attacks is ever growing.  The islands of the Caribbean are soft targets.  Little security is in place, and there are very fluid border controls, if at all, throughout much of the region.

I just returned from the French West Indies.  While there, it was relatively easy to travel between the several countries that are in the area  There were no controls; I was never stopped, and I never had to show any proof of identity.  It is even possible to swim from one country to another; I’ve done it.  Travel by boat, paddle board, or even a kayak can very easily get a person into any of the countries that comprise the island chain known as the “Lesser Antilles.”

The map below shows the proximity of each island.  They are only a few nautical miles apart.  Saint Martin, where I was, is part of France.  Officially known as the Collectivity of Saint Martin, it encompasses the northern 60% of the divided island of Saint Martin, and some neighboring islets, the largest of which is Île Tintamarre.

The southern 40% of the island of Saint Martin constitutes the “Dutch Side.”  Sint Maarten is part of The Netherlands.  Right across the channel is Anguilla, which is part of the United Kingdom.

For years, when I was between security contracts in the Middle East, I would head to the Caribbean to reset and get reacquainted with my wife. It is an excellent place to take a break and plan the next adventure.  But after 11 years of visits to the area, I have noticed a change.  Security is a concern. The restaurant owners see it, and the resort and hotel operators are all starting to pay attention. The biggest issue I see is the clear lack of security infrastructure.

The island nation has built its reputation and economic future on tourism.  Saint Martin is called “the friendly island”, and the people and businesses do their utmost to live up to that motto.  Having an overtly visible and somewhat prominent presence of security could be considered counter to that image by tourists.

Keeping that outward impression in mind, the Dutch side of Sint Maarten has not visibly increased security.  The change is most noticeable on the French side of Saint Martin.  Over the years, I have seen the ups and downs — from almost no security to a visible presence.  Several years ago, Saint Martin had little in the way of police presence.  There was the occasional French Gendarme, but they did very little active patrolling.

What I Observed

This year, security was layered.  Most of the private establishments have hired private, unarmed security.  Sometimes you even see the same people as maintenance personnel during the daytime.  They are mainly there to be seen as a deterrent.  The next level is the local police.  They concern themselves with traffic and such, but I never saw them taking an active part in crime prevention or similar matters.

Above the local police is the French Gendarmerie.  This is where things start to get interesting.  The Gendarmes are posted on a rotational basis and make up most, if not all, of the regular police activity.  They are all trained on the French mainland and are rotated to the island for their several month tour of duty.  What is very evident today, as opposed to several years ago, is the French Gendarmes are actively patrolling and are very visible.

For the last couple of years, the French Foreign Legion has made its presence known.  Speaking with several Legionaries over the years, I was told the mission had become more counterterrorism than anything else.  But when the Legionaries come to town, there is little chance of criminal activity.  The locals do not want to be on the opposite end of the Legion’s enforcement of the law.  To say their techniques are heavy handed would most likely be an understatement.

France uses Saint Martin as one of their training grounds, and you can regularly see groups of Legionaries patrolling the streets, or entire columns trekking around the island beaches fully geared out and climbing the steepest grades.  Last year, I mistakenly asked one of the soldiers if they were with the French army.  I was quickly corrected with a curt, “We are Legion.”

The Danger

With the ease of travel between the islands, the potential for infiltration of the region by ISIS has never been higher, and several island nation states have become hotbeds for ISIS recruitment.  The “threat” in the Caribbean is not so much about sending fighters to Syria.  ISIS is no longer pushing for recruits to come to Syria, as was done in the past.  What ISIS is currently focusing on is pressing those loyalists in the Caribbean to launch attacks at home and assist with building a Caliphate.

This is particularly concerning because many Caribbean islands are popular tourist destinations, and American tourists are a likely target.  With little infrastructure to prevent attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations, ISIS has found a soft point to bring its brand of terror to the Western world.

Success for ISIS Recruitment

Although not high in numbers, about 5% or 60,000 of Trinidad’s 1.3 million population is Muslim.  The recent numbers show ISIS recruitment was up 50% over last year.  The fact is that increased infiltration of ISIS in the Caribbean has started to raise very bright red flags for those concerned with security and safety.

Trinidad and Tobago’s people are English-speaking and trace their roots back to Africa, India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and the Mediterranean.  English speakers are sought after by ISIS as they are more adept in assimilating in the U.S. societal fabric.  This fact is another reason ISIS is putting a concerted effort into the Caribbean islands, especially Trinidad and Tobago.

In 2011, a state of emergency was declared in Trinidad and Tobago to help deal with the escalating crime situation.  This resulted in The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) removing the islands from the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) list, exempting them from certain kinds of development aid funding, making the economic situation worse.

Unfortunately, outside of tourism, there is little opportunity for economic growth.  This has become further propagated by the crash in oil prices during 2015. Poverty, drugs, and crime in the lesser controlled region are rampant.  ISIS is exploiting this fact and using the drug trade to cultivate new routes and methods of entry into the United States.

Regulatory Issues

In contrast to the laws of many countries, it is not illegal in Trinidad to join the so-called Caliphate, though the government wants to change that.  Up to 130 people have made the trip to Syria from Trinidad according to a former United States ambassador, John L. Estrada, and Trinidad’s minister of national security, Edmund Dillon.

By comparison, about 250 citizens of the United States, a country with 240 times the population, have joined the extremists or attempted to travel to Syria by late 2015, according to a House Homeland Security Committee report.

Seeing the Problem with Eyes Open

In the end, we must not be myopically focused on the ISIS threat in the Middle East.  As the U.S. and other countries push ISIS out of their strongholds, ISIS will expand and disperse into other regions.  We are already aware of the threat of ISIS in the EU — many islands in the Caribbean are considered part of the EU and all the freedom of border travel makes it is very easy for an embedded ISIS radical in Europe to go to the Caribbean and then the U.S.

These regions, that have lax laws, inadequate security, and more importantly access to the West, are prime targets and destinations for ISIS.  As fighters return to their homes, they don’t leave their radicalized Jihad behind. With returning fighters from Trinidad, Tobago, and even Jamaica, the danger of quiet infiltration into the U.S. is ever growing. Couple that situation with the abundance of soft targets in the form of western tourists and the chances for a tragedy in the Caribbean are genuine.

With almost 100% attention concentrated on ISIS in the Middle East and news reports of attacks in the U.K. as well as the EU, few consider the Caribbean a dangerous place.  It is supposed to be the land of vacations, sun, and graduation trips.  Unfortunately, we must now look to these locations we once thought of as safe as potentially the next point of attack.  The world has changed, and our understanding of the threat must change along with it.


Jon Harris

Jon Harris is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former Army NCO, Sergeant Morales Club member, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He is published in Army Trainer Magazine, authored regular columns in several newspapers, and is the author of the Cold War novel Breakpoint. His adventures as a security contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq can be found on www.dispatchfromdownrange.com. He holds a B.S. in Government and Politics and an M.S. in Criminal Justice and is currently completing his Juris Doctor degree.

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