What a Small ISIS Cell in Trinidad is Teaching SOUTHCOM
Just because a country is relatively small doesn’t diminish the threat, or the difficulty of mustering a counter-effort.
Earlier this year, working with its partners on the ground, the U.S. military helped disrupt an alleged ISIS-inspired attack that would have targeted a festival — in Trinidad and Tobago.
The raid grabbed headlines immediately afterward. But it — and U.S. Southern Command’s ongoing efforts to help the Trinidad security forces develop counter-extremism capabilities — offer lessons about how to confront radicalism at home and abroad, SOUTHCOM’s commander Adm. Kurt Tidd said Wednesday.
Trinidad and Tobago had little experience with violent extremism until it became the nation with the largest per-capita ISIS population in the Western Hemisphere. Even just a year ago, Tidd described the Caribbean cell as more aspirational than active. It’s a valuable case study as the Pentagon grapples with a post-caliphate Islamic State and the group’s metastasizing spread.
Some of the lessons SOUTHCOM is learning have nothing to do with military or law enforcement’s role in tracking and preventing extremist activity. After the raid, for example, the Trinidad government struggled to prosecute the alleged perpetrators because the country’s laws hadn’t caught up with the new threat.
“Legally, the jurisdictions” present a challenge, Tidd said in Washington, D.C. It’s “a country that up until recently did not have any laws on the books to be able to prosecute things like radicalization and support to terrorist organizations. They are confronting that.”
Others are more straightforward, if unexpected: Figuring out interagency squabbles and mounting a whole-of-government approach can be as difficult in an island nation as elsewhere.
“You think: relatively small nation,” Tidd said. “But they’ve got some of the same challenges we do with regard to law enforcement, military, intelligence all trying to figure out how to coordinate their activities effectively.”
And all that rests on the willingness to admit that radicalization is something that can happen anywhere — from San Bernardino to Belgium — something Trinidad and Tobago has done, Tidd said.
“Among the Caribbean nations, they have had the courage to say, ‘We are concerned about this problem,’ and to speak out openly and try to do something about it,” he said. “You have to first acknowledge the possibility that it could occur, then look for what are the signs and conditions that might lead people to be radicalized.”