THE Federal Court in the United States has formally charged two Trinidad and Tobago-born Americans for joining the international terorrist group ISIS.
On Wednesday Emraan Ali, 53, and son Jihad Ali, 19, were charged in a Florida court with providing material support to ISIS. They are the first TT nationals to have been charged with terrorism offences related to ISIS.
According to the criminal complaints, Emraan Ali took his wife Sulaimah Abdul Aziz, one stepchild and five children to Syria to join ISIS in March 2015. Jihad Ali, who was born in November 2000, was just 14 at the time. They travelled from Trinidad via Brazil.
Emraan Ali was born in TT, and became a naturalised US citizen in 2007, after moving to New York in 1991. Ali moved back to Trinidad in 2008, where he lived in Rio Claro. His son Jihad moved to Trinidad when he was seven.
Emraan, US officials said, has been on the radar of the security services for a while: In 2018 the US Department of the Treasury named and sanctioned him, along with fellow Trinidadian Eddie Aleong, for organising money transfers from TT to support Syria-based Trini ISIS fighters.
According to research on TT ISIS members, more than 240 TT nationals migrated to the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. This makes TT one of the world’s biggest recruiting grounds, per capita, of ISIS.
Little is known about what these TT nationals did once they crossed over into Syria and Iraq. Many, such as Shane Crawford and Sean Parson, were killed in targeted US drone strikes; others died on the battlefield or in bombings, while some – notably Zaid Abdul Hamid, Safraz Ali, Nicholas Joseph Lee and Ziyad Mohammed – survived and are now in detention in Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria.
Of the scores of TT women who joined their husbands in Syria and Iraq, some 25 are currently in detention in the Al Hol camp in Syria, along with over 70 TT children, according to journalist Amandla Thomas-Johnson.
Emraan Ali, who used the nom de guerre “Abu Jihad TNT,” told FBI agents that after three months of arriving in Syria he and Jihad, after a vetting process, made their way to Raqqa, the then de-facto capital of the Islamic State, where they received comprehensive military training.
This was focused on using AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns. He was assigned to the “Anwar al-Awlaki battalion”, a military unit made up of English-speaking foreign jihadists. Anwar al-Awlaki was a US-born radical cleric who was killed in an American drone strike in 2011.
Ali, who had multiple business interests in Trinidad, including buying and selling cars and construction, worked on residential building projects for ISIS in Raqqa. He also sold goods to ISIS members for profit, including livestock, cars, weapons and phones.
In addition to this, he was involved in organising money transfers from this country to TT ISIS fighters in Syria, using a contact in Trinidad who collected money from the relatives of ISIS fighters. Ali orchestrated the whole venture, using an intermediary who operated between Syria and Turkey. He charged a fee of 15 per cent for his financial services.
According to the criminal complaint, in November 2016 Ali had arranged for his daughter to marry a 21-year-old British ISIS fighter, Fayyad Uthman. She was just 14 at the time. She gave birth to their first child in 2018, when she was 15.
The complaint states that Emraan moved his family to Baghuz at the end of 2018. On or about 17 March, 2019, Ali and his two sons surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Ali claims that his main reason for going to Syria and joining ISIS was so that he could live and raise his children in an Islamic environment. He also told agents that he had heard and seen positive things about ISIS through his wife’s sister, a woman named Sumayyah Roberts.
Sumayyah is the daughter of Aneesa Waheed and granddaughter of Imam Nazim Mohammed, who runs the Umar Ibn Khattab mosque in Rio Claro.
Ali said that he had communicated with Sumayyah and her husband Akil Roberts after they had gone to Syria in September 2014. They had sent him photos and videos depicting a “good life” in the caliphate, and he was apparently taken in by this.
The complaint against Jihad Ali, who used the name “Abu Dujanah,” states that Jihad told agents he was excited to go Syria, but also felt he couldn’t speak out against his father. He said he was 14 or 15 when he first attended military training, which involved firing weapons and close quarter battle and urban warfare. He said some of the training was “cool” and some was “scary."
He was issued with an AK47 and assigned to the same battalion as his father. He admitted that he fought in several places, including Baghuz, the last sliver of ISIS-controlled territory in Syria which fell in March 2019.
The complaint against Jihad Ali makes reference to his Facebook page, which he set up in March 2016. In one post, he uploaded a photo of an ISIS fighter posing alongside a machine gun. It is captioned: “IF DEATH IS WHAT YOU OFFER US THEN KNOW, WE CAME TO DIE.”
“Subhanallah (‘glory be to God’),” Aneesa Waheed commented on the post.
Waheed, who is serving a 20-year jail sentence in Iraq, now claims she was hoodwinked into joining ISIS.
The court documents state that Emraan Ali’s other son, who is 15 and identified only as “IMA,” surrendered to the SDF with his father and his brother, Jihad.
Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent (UK). His book Black Flags of the Caribbean: How Trinidad Became an ISIS Hotspot (Bloomsbury) will be published early next year.