Trinidad and Tobago Takes Measures to Fight Potential Threat of Terrorism
By Diálogo February 24, 2016
Things have been going so well for so many years in Trinidad and Tobago that locals repeat the mantra “God is a Trini.” During the good times, earnings from natural gas and oil exports made this Caribbean nation one of the richest countries in the Western Hemisphere. However, the recent collapse in world oil prices has caused the country to more difficult times.
But now the country confronts a new threat: the possible growth of terrorism within its borders. To understand why this could be a major concern for the country, Diálogo spoke with Brigadier General Rodney Smart, Chief of Defense Staff Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force, during the XIV Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC) in Kingston, Jamaica, held in January.
Diálogo: A lot was said about the possible growth in terrorism in the Caribbean during CANSEC 2016. Somehow, Trinidad and Tobago was referenced more times than other countries. Is it because it has the largest Muslim population in this region?
Brigadier General Rodney Smart: It’s possible. As far back as 1990, we have had an attempt by a Muslim organization to overthrow the elected government of the country. So that always remains in our head. But more recently, you may have heard about a video that was circulated on the Internet where there were Trinidadians who had gone to fight with ISIS. They used to bring the message to try to recruit young people from Trinidad and Tobago [TTO]. From that perspective, we have concerns that TTO remains one of the countries where recruiting is taking place. TTO is one of the countries where people have gone to Syria to fight, as well as to return. We do have concerns in our country with regard to the potential of terrorism. And hear the word I used: potential. I believe it will not happen, but we have concerns, and therefore, we have put strategies in place.
Diálogo: During your presentation at CANSEC 2016 you said that one way of countering this would be to send positive messages, especially to the youth. What is your country doing to accomplish that?
Brig. Gen. Smart: In TTO, we have several youth programs, some of them are run by the military, and through those programs, we hope to influence the minds of young people and show them there are better alternatives to those which are presented by groups such as ISIS. I will also say to you that we are becoming more vigilant in terms of social media and the effects and the mechanisms through which persons on the other side are using social media. Those are two immediate things I can tell you that are happening. Youths are speaking to youths. I am seeing youths go on the television and discouraging other youths. Having been empowered enough to feel that this – what is being presented to them – is not a good alternative.
Diálogo: In your opinion, why are countries not reacting as fast to counter what the terrorists are doing, especially when it comes to the use of social media?
Brig. Gen. Smart: Because this is not a normal mechanism of a country to communicate to its youth; so countries don’t have programs set up, established programs that communicate nationally to youths. However, because they – the terrorist perpetrators – recognize that this is a mechanism through which youths communicate, they are using this space. Now, the established countries will eventually catch up, but because this is not the normal way of communicating, they are using the conventional approaches. I think we reached a point where countries have recognized they have to now use social media to communicate with youths.
Diálogo: Speaking specifically about illicit trafficking, a few years ago TTO had to establish a curfew because of the violence that was rising, especially among young males. What’s the current situation in the country?
Brig. Gen. Smart: Having established a curfew is what we call a State of Emergency to deal with the crime situation at any given moment. And it worked. The level of violence went down, especially homicides. What we have recognized is that this is something you have to be continuously putting resources after. You have to be continuously looking at the internal databases. And very recently, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago (Keith Rowley) – recognizing that there has been a spike (in violence) at the start of 2016 – has asked the Military to work with the police in a more definitive manner so that this spike he has observed will not prevail, and that the persons who are perpetrating the violence in the society will be brought to justice.
Diálogo: Do you think your Defence Force is having to focus more and more on what’s called the new threats, like the Armed Forces in other countries, such as Colombia?
Brig. Gen. Smart: I would say to you that Armed Forces in the Caribbean missions have always been different than Armed Forces in most developed countries. For example, the United States Armed Forces or Regular Forces, its purpose is really external to the United States, governed by posse comitatus for example. But there are Military capabilities that are available to states through the National Guard, but small countries are unable to have a standing military as well as a National Guard. The capabilities of small states have always been used not just for security but also for developmental purposes. In small nations, the Military model is different than the developed countries. But, I will also say to you, for example, the United Kingdom has a history of using its Troops internally for things such as flood relief. Disaster response is not new to a Military like the United Kingdom’s. The model is dependent on one’s situation.
Diálogo: You mentioned the United Kingdom because Trinidad and Tobago is part of the Commonwealth, correct?
Brig. Gen. Smart: Yes. Trinidad is not unique. In other countries in the Commonwealth you will see a similar model. If you go back to Britain, Britain has always used its forces both internally and externally. The chances of you seeing U.S. Troops being used in American cities are very rare. It is just a different model.
Diálogo: What do you expect from Admiral Kurt Tidd, U.S. Southern Command’s new Commander?
Brig. Gen. Smart: He has huge shoes to fill because [U.S. Marine Corps] General [John F.] Kelly (former SOUTHCOM commander) was exceptional, a very good friend to the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force; he was a supporter. However, I just came out of a bilateral meeting with Adm. Tidd, and I am convinced we have a very willing and able partner as well in him. I look forward with great enthusiasm to engage with him as well as General [Clarence K.K.] Chinn [U.S. Army South Commander]. What has happened is that there is a new engagement at the Army Soldier level in the Trinidad and Tobago Army, the Regiment. There is a new engagement that was enabled by the United States Chief Military Liaison Officer, Colonel Claudia Carrizales. She has enabled that relationship between Army South and the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment. So I am saying, at the strategic level – SOUTHCOM level – I can see continued engagement, and I can see continued development between these two organizations. But even at a level below, Gen. Chinn already has begun making sure that there is a relationship that is in place. In a nutshell, I can see the relationship growing even stronger, if that is possible.