Barbados-born University of Alberta international relations professor Andy Knight’s research on jihadi radicalism in Trinidad and Tobago is being used by the United Nations (UN), to develop a strategy to fight violent extremism, the Edmonton Journal (EJ) has reported.
The best way to counter violent extremism, Knight said, is to tackle the root cause of societal violence. “Get away from blaming a particular religion or a particular culture. Try to understand why individuals are feeling marginalised from their society, community, family,” he said.
In a recent interview, the EJ reported Knight as saying that local historian Professor Brinsley Samaroo led him to an al-Qaeda sleeper cell in Trinidad in 2005. The EJ interview with Knight followed a August 21-25 conference, Ignite Change 2017: A Global Gathering for Human Rights held in Edmonton, Canada, where he made a presentation.
His research on TT jihadism, Knight said, began in 2005 during a conference he had organised, in collaboration with the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus, on Free Trade in the Americas. During that conference, in a casual conversation with Prof Samaroo, Knight said, he mentioned the work he was doing on the recruitment of child soldiers in civil conflicts across Africa.
“This led to a discussion on recruitment of Trinidadians by al-Qaida, something of which I was totally unaware. Samaroo asked me if I would like to see a jihadi sleeper cell that was operating in Trinidad.” The next day, Knight said, Samaroo showed him a map where the cell was located.
SLEEPER CELL NEAR AIRPORT
He was surprised to see it was located close to the Piarco International Airport. Samaroo, he said, drove him to the area to what was a “a seemingly innocuous gated Muslim community, a commune of sorts with a sentry at the entrance to the roadway leading into the commune.”
A guard in the sentry box, he said, “obviously knew Samaroo and after a few questions, lifted up the bar that crossed the entrance way to allow us to drive inside.” The EJ quoted Knight as saying,
“The place seemed very peaceful, with a mosque, a school, a grocery store, and homes that housed what looked like a number of Muslim families. The women wore al-Amira hijab and niqab and the men wore long white thobe. I felt like I was in Qatar, Dubai or Saudi Arabia.”
This was, he said, “an al-Qaida sleeper cell operating under the noses of the Trinidadian government.” Seven years later, he took up the offer of director of the Institute of International Relations at the UWI St Augustine campus on secondment from the University of Alberta.
During the period, Knight said, he continued research on the rise of extremism in Trinidad and with a colleague, John McCoy, they “explored the reasons why this fun-loving, culturally and religiously diverse country, Trinidad and Tobago, was ripe for the recruitment of some of its mostly young men first into al-Qaida and more recently in ISIS.”
Knight told the EJ that, “Converting to Islam or being a long standing Muslim in Trinidad and Tobago is not a recipe for embracing extremism.”
MOST TT MUSLIMS ARE PEACEFUL
Most Muslims in TT, he said, “are peaceful, successful citizens who just want to practice their faith and do good in their communities. Extremism has nothing to do with the Muslim faith in that country.”
Most of the 130 Trinidadians who left the country as foreign fighters for the extremist group ISIS, he said, “found their way to Syria and Iraq and joined forces with the extremists who have been misusing the teachings of Islam to justify some of the most horrific crimes against humanity in that area.”
The majority of Trinidadian jihadis were recent converts to Islam, he said. “Some have been drawn to ISIS on the promise of financial gain. Some are from the lower economic and social strata in Trinidadian society and see joining ISIS as their way out of a poverty stricken existence. Some have been recruited while they were in prison for petty or serious crimes and see Islam as a way out from that life of crime.”
Terrorism is not limited, he said, to predominantly Muslim countries. It can be found amongst believers of different faiths, while some are not religious. “We have a whole breed of home-grown terrorists who are not Islamic,” he said citing a number of examples from around the world who had nothing to do with Islam.
He is hoping, he said “that the UN will use our findings to develop a counter violent extremism strategy that will address the underlying reasons why people, especially young people, are being drawn to violent and extremist ways of addressing their problems.”