Caribbean Briefs

February 18, 2017 GMT

Trinidad & Tobago tries to halt fighters to Islamic State

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad & Tobago — A Caribbean island nation has become an unlikely source of fighters and funding for the Islamic State militant group, prompting an internationally backed effort to stem the flow of money and recruits to Syria and Iraq.

Security officials and terrorism experts believe that as many as 125 fighters and their relatives have traveled from Trinidad and Tobago to Turkey and on to IS-controlled areas over the last four years, making the country of 1.3 million people the largest per-capita source of IS recruits in the Western Hemisphere.

The Islamic State has put out propaganda videos and magazines featuring bearded fighters with lilting Trinidadian accents training in the desert with sniper rifles and encouraging their countrymen to join them.

Alarmed, Trinidadian state security officials have launched intensive surveillance and monitoring of the country’s homegrown Islamist movements, which have a history of militancy and crossover with the country’s violent criminal gangs. Saying their efforts are bearing fruit, Trinidad and Tobago officials have recently proposed legislation to crack down on the flow of money to Islamic State fighters overseas by establishing criminal penalties for those sending money to the group.

“There’s always a concern in terms of money leaving Trinidad and Tobago that could be involved with terrorist activities,” National Security Minister Edmund Dillon said. “There is a minority in the Muslim community and there is a minority in the criminal community that is hellbent on committing these types of offenses.”

U.S. officials have described themselves as deeply concerned about the combatants and funds heading out of Trinidad and Tobago. They say they are working with the islands’ government on intelligence-sharing and new legislation, as well as sponsoring trips for Muslim leaders to the U.S. to meet Islamic leaders working on anti-extremism programs.

“They are certainly not the only ones worried about this phenomenon of self-radicalization and how easy it has become,” said U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, who is responsible for Department of Defense operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean. “They need to be able to understand what are the conditions that might predispose individuals to become radicalized and then to be able to take steps to try to stop that from occurring before people go down that path with the tragic results we have seen in everyplace from Paris to Brussels to Berlin to Orlando to San Bernardino.”

Tidd praised Trinidad and Tobago for adopting anti-terrorism legislation and cooperating with the U.S. and other international partners.

“Trinidad is a serious country and recognizes that there is work to be done,” Tidd said.

Some hard-line Muslim leaders have opposed the new efforts, instead blaming the government for failing to improve the lives of poor, largely Afro-Trinidad youth who can find themselves drawn in by IS recruiters.

An oil-rich nation just off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago has long been celebrated for its rich mix of cultural influences, primarily rooted in India and Africa. Its Muslim minority of Indian-descended families and Afro-Trinidadian converts includes dozens of mainstream mosques and more militant strains such as the Jamaat al Muslimeen, an organization responsible for a 1990 coup attempt classified as the Western Hemisphere’s only Islamist uprising.

Umar Abdullah, head of the hard-line Islamic Front group in southern Trinidad, said he has actively discouraged members from traveling to Syria to fight. He said he knew several young men who had become IS fighters, although he declined to provide specifics.

At the same time, Abdullah defended IS recruits as legitimate defenders of embattled Muslims in Syria and Iraq, comparing them favorably to Western soldiers involved in military actions in the Middle East.

The Trump administration attempts to block travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries has raised sensitivities in Trinidad and Tobago about what some call an alarmist focus on the country’s problem with IS recruiting.

But some of Trinidad’s Islamist leaders say they approve of Trump’s attempted crackdown on visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, and admire what they call his bold and decisive leadership style.

Diplomat to accept award from Cuban group

WASHINGTON — A prominent diplomat is planning a politically sensitive trip to Cuba to accept an award from a pro-democracy group on the island.

Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, will travel to Cuba next week to accept the Oswaldo Paya Prize from the Latin America Youth Network for Democracy, a spokesman for the regional organization said Wednesday.

Spokesman Gonzalo Ezpariz confirmed Almagro’s plans but declined to disclose details of a trip that could touch a nerve in Cuba, which has opened its economy to a degree but remains a one-party state and has had a rocky relationship with the OAS. He did not know if Cuban authorities had issued a visa for the secretary general.

The Cuban Embassy in Washington had no immediate comment.

The prize is named for a leader of a movement that sought a referendum on free speech and other political freedoms. Paya died in a 2012 car crash that his family blames on the government. His daughter, Rosa Maria Paya, leads the group recognizing Almagro with an award intended to raise awareness about what it sees as abuses by the region’s governments.

Almagro, a former foreign minister of Uruguay, received the daughter in his office in October, when they signed an agreement in which the OAS offered support to young activists in Latin America and the Caribbean and to expand efforts to promote human rights and civic participation in electoral processes around the region.

Cuba was suspended from the Washington-based Organization of American States in 1962. The suspension was annulled in 2009 but Cuba has not moved to rejoin the organization, which was created to promote regional cooperation but has been viewed by Havana as dominated by the United States.

Given that history, it would be unprecedented for an OAS secretary general to travel to the island to accept an award named for a Cuban dissident, said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

2 Dominican journalists killed during transmission

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — A radio producer and an announcer have been fatally shot in the Dominican Republic while one of them was reading the news during a live transmission on Facebook.

Police said the shooting occurred Tuesday in San Pedro de Macoris, just east of the capital of Santo Domingo. Three men have been detained, but no one has been charged.

Gunfire is heard during the Facebook Live video, along with a woman yelling “Shots! Shots! Shots!” before the transmission cuts off. Police say they don’t yet have a motive.

The victims were identified as announcer Luis Manuel Medina and producer and director Leo Martinez at radio station 103.5 HICC. Police say a secretary was injured and is undergoing surgery.

Medina was also the official announcer of the Estrellas Orientales baseball team.

But Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said Havana would likely provoke sharp reactions in Washington and elsewhere if it blocked Almagro’s visit when the government of President Raul Castro is opening up more to the world with economic reforms and amid the restoration of formal relations with the United States.

TSA workers charged in cocaine-smuggling ring in Puerto Rico

Authorities said that security screeners and airport workers helped smuggle 20 tons of cocaine through Puerto Rico during an 18-year operation that ended only last year.

Federal officials said Monday that smugglers repeatedly got suitcases full of cocaine through the Transportation Security Administration system at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan.

Twelve defendants, including six current and former TSA screeners, were indicted by a grand jury in Puerto Rico.

Authorities said an airport bag handler, Javier Ortiz, picked up suitcases containing cocaine from smugglers at the check-in counter and put them through X-ray machines staffed by cooperative TSA workers.

After making sure there were no drug-sniffing police dogs around, Ortiz loaded the bags on planes and then called a colleague to signal that it was safe for the smugglers to board the plane, according to Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Velez, the U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico.

— Compiled from The Associated Press

The TSA’s longtime security director for Puerto Rico, Jose Baquero, said the agency started the investigation as part of its campaign against insider threats.

Last week, the Republican staff of the House Homeland Security Committee said in a report that the TSA, airports and airlines were not doing enough to protect against security threats posed by insiders — employees who don’t go through the screening that travelers do.

They noted several failures, including a big gun-smuggling operation at the Atlanta airport. While progress has been made, the report’s authors said, “America’s airports and aircraft remain vulnerable to attack and exploitation by nefarious individuals.”

— Compiled from The Associated Press