Caribbean nationals join forces with ISIS

Shane Crawford
Shane Crawford Trinidad Express

When Shane Crawford calls his mother for a weekly phone chat, their conversation centers on family, on how much he misses her and on her latest bout of computer woes.

What they don’t talk about: How he spends his days as a member of the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Crawford, 28, has been in Syria since November fighting for ISIS, under the adopted name “Asadullah.”

“This is his choice,” Joan Crawford told the Miami Herald in an interview this week about her son’s decision to join ISIS. “Nobody is going to love him less for his decision.”

As the jihadist group gains membership and traction after beheading hostages, including Pinecrest journalist Steve Sotloff, and capturing large portions of Syria and Iraq, intelligence agencies are finding that its cultural pull stretches to the Caribbean, which has struggled with militant activities.

Shane Crawford, who grew up in this central Trinidad city and was detained in a 2011 plot to assassinate the prime minister but never charged, is believed to be one of several Trinidad nationals now affiliated with the Islamic militant group in Syria. He left home late last year to “fight on behalf of Muslim brothers and sisters,” his mother said. Crawford was recently identified by his mother and others in a widely circulated ISIS video posted online.

Local news outlets have cited unnamed government sources asserting that as many as 50 Trinidad citizens are enlisted with ISIS. Parbatie Hazel, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of National Security, said the agency could not confirm that number but maintained that the government is working with U.S. and British intelligence agencies.

“The National Security Intelligence agencies in Trinidad and Tobago are aware of Trinidadians fighting as foreign fighters in Syria,” Hazel said. “However, due to the ongoing sharing of intelligence with our international counterparts and the sensitivity of the mission, we are not able to divulge the number of nationals who are presently out there.”

Harold Trinkunas, a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Institution’s Latin America Initiative, said terrorist activities in Trinidad have heightened sensitivity.

“The fact that the Trinidad and Tobago security services are able to make statements like they have is because of their own previous experience with Islamic radicalism,” he said. “It is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has had an actual Islamic insurrection.”

Despite that 1990 coup attempt, he and other Latin American experts say the country may be an anomaly.

“Our view so far is that Latin America as a whole is not likely to be very fertile ground for ... ISIS mainly because second and third generations are much more integrated in the society than in Europe,” said Frank Holder, chairman of the Latin American region of FTI Consulting, which looks at risk and security issues. “You don’t have the same amount of the hatred and separation and violence you have in other places. To us, this is incidental recruiting of disaffected youth.”

Trinidad’s government recently started a campaign focused on helping young people in low-income communities to resist the appeal of ISIS and other overseas militant groups. In neighboring Guyana, Islamic officials are also warning young Muslims to resist temptation to become radicalized. So far, they say, there is no evidence of Guyanese enlisting as foreign fighters with ISIS.

A woman from Aruba, however, was arrested in Belgium in August after she became suspected of recruiting for ISIS, according to Belgian government officials.

For some here, the idea of Trinidadians joining jihadi forces has brought back memories of the attempted coup, when members of the Islamist group Jamaat-al-Muslimeen stormed parliament and held the prime minister and other government officials hostage for days before surrendering.

An island nation of 1.3 million, Trinidad has historically prided itself on cultural inclusion and tolerance of religious diversity. About 6 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, according to the U.S. State Department.

But concerns about Islamic extremism have been growing since March, when Venezuela detained five Trinidadian men amid allegations that they were engaged in terrorist activities.

Last month, Trinidad signed onto a United Nations Security Council resolution enacting measures to stem terrorist recruitment.

“Terrorism has and continues to undermine the sovereignty, territorial integrity and peace and security of the peoples of the Middle East and further afield,” Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said at the United Nations last month.

But Joan Crawford insists it is unfair for government officials and the media to brand her son as a terrorist. He is simply looking to help protect people in the Middle East from atrocities, she said.

“We have radicals in Islam; I’m not saying that’s not so,” Crawford said as she sat on a living room sofa, wearing flip-flops and faded blue jeans with a black hijab over her head and shoulders. “But people have this way of thinking that Islam is so barbaric. It is not. My son wants peace; he loves peace.”

Crawford, the only person to publicly acknowledge a relative’s involvement with ISIS, describes her son as a gentle and caring man who patiently fixed her computer and carried her around the house for weeks when her pulmonary fibrosis made it difficult to walk.

She has heard talk that ISIS fighters are paid $1,000 per day, but she insists that her son has not seen that kind of money — he would be sending some home if that were the case, she said — nor was it the reason why he decided to move to Syria.

“Men are going there because of their beliefs, because of their love of Allah,” she said.

The youngest of six children in a Christian family, Shane Crawford was not particularly religious for most of his life. He grew up with an appreciation for video games and a love of computers, dismantling pieces of tech equipment and putting them back together just to satisfy his curiosity.

It was not until the early 2000s that he decided to convert to Islam. Several years later, his mother converted, too — she was heartened by the ways in which Islam had made her son more serious and ready to settle down, she recalled.

He married his longtime girlfriend. They had a child. And he developed a sense of wanderlust, telling his mother how he wanted to travel to the Middle East, to meet other Muslim men his age, to learn more about his religion. He toyed with the idea of attending school in Yemen, she said.

In Trinidad, employment options were limited. He strung together odd jobs, sometimes selling fish.

But Crawford’s job prospects became more bleak when he was implicated in a suspected 2011 plot to assassinate Persad-Bissessar and cabinet members. Detained for two weeks, he was never charged with wrongdoing.

His mother said the unease and frustration he felt afterward pushed him to leave. But he left without saying goodbye — a decision he made to spare her the heartache, she said. He called home a few days after his arrival to announce he had moved to the Middle East, that he had finally decided to pursue his dream of living among Muslim men and women and fighting for a cause he believed was just.

“He called me and said, ‘Mom, I’m in Syria. You’re going to hear all kinds of rumors and things about me being a terrorist, but I have made my decision,’” Crawford said.

She said she is proud of her son and his convictions — but she misses him. It is unlikely he will ever return to Trinidad, and her physical ailments will prevent her from traveling to visit him.

“I came to the conclusion that I will never see my child again,” she said, “until the day of judgment.”

Miami Herald Caribbean correspondent Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.