The security forces of Trinidad and Tobago thwarted a terrorist attack planned for February 12 and 13, 2018. The dates coincided with the island’s popular Trinidad Carnival, an annual event that brings thousands of locals and tourists onto the main avenues of the nation’s capital, Port of Spain.
On February 9th, Trinidadian authorities reported the arrest of four individuals who were detained following an intense intelligence effort unveiling a plan to carry out a terrorist attack. Police then arrested three more people, bringing the total to seven. In their sweeps, authorities linked the masterminds of the attack to the Islamic State (ISIS).
“These seven persons of interest are part of an investigation by authorities into the alleged terrorist plot identified by our partner nations’ intelligence agencies,” Commissioner Stephen Williams, chief of Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS), said in a press conference. “All the detainees are at the disposal of the Office of the Public Prosecutor.”
According to Trinidad and Tobago's Ministry of National Security, U.S. personnel—who detected the movements of a group of people planning to attack the U.S. Embassy in Port of Spain—helped foil the terrorist attack. The Federal Bureau of Investigation provided the information to Trinidadian authorities, led by the Special Branch and the Strategic Services Agency. Both agencies, in charge of intelligence for the national security of the Caribbean country, work under TTPS.
TTPS and the Trinidadian military forces put a monitoring task in motion with support from U.S. agencies, starting in December 2017, when the threat was detected. Authorities, Commissioner Williams said, intercepted and deciphered encrypted messages between individuals linked to ISIS, indicating an imminent attack that would target the throngs of people on the streets during Carnival.
For weeks authorities kept track of several people in the Trinidadian districts of El Socorro, Laventille, Enterprise, and Bamboo Settlement in the area of Valsayn. Five mosques in El Socorro, Munroe Road, Sangre Grande, Bamboo, and Laventille were also searched for explosive devices such as bombs, hand grenades, firearms, and ammunitions.
The agencies’ effectiveness
“This operation was the result of ongoing implementation of an integrated intelligence strategy,” said Major General (R) Edmund Dillon, minister of National Security for Trinidad and Tobago. “This nation’s agencies continually work to detect suspicious activities, authenticate their origin, and reduce any possible threat in a timely and precise way.”
Carnival ended without incident on February 13th, but the event represented a major surveillance and control operation. With the end of celebrations, the minister highlighted continued efforts to keep the nation with no history of terrorist acts calm. “All national security agencies that work in coordination around the clock to monitor and assess the real-time movement of people and traffic continue their collaboration and synchronization to ensure public security and the safety of citizens, residents, and visitors alike,” Dillon said.
The alert of a possible attack set off alarms at some of the embassies on the Caribbean island. The United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom issued travel warnings to their citizens..
Source of the threat
The United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office detected the threat of a possible terrorist attack in Trinidad and Tobago and alerted the Trinidadian government in August 2017. Months earlier, speaking before the U.S. Senate on April 6, 2017, U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said that, “Violent extremist organizations such as ISIS seek to radicalize and recruit vulnerable populations in the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America.” Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost nation in the Caribbean, counts with a population of about 1.4 million.
According to the Global Terrorism Index 2017 of the Institute for Economics and Peace, Central America and the Caribbean are regions of least impact from terrorism. However, Trinidad and Tobago has been the subject of concern for intelligence agencies of partner nations in the region. The Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 of the U.S. Department of State designates the island nation as having the highest per capita rate of ISIS recruitment in the Americas.
More than 130 Trinidadians are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq in recent years to fight alongside ISIS. Their return as foreign fighters could pose a threat. An October 2017 report from the Soufan Group, an intelligence think tank and security consultancy that tracks foreign combatants, showed an increase in the number of islanders sympathetic to radical Muslims. The report was based on data from governments, international organizations, and research centers.
One example is Trinidadian Shane Crawford (known as Abu Sa'd at-Trinidadi), an Islamist recruit whom intelligence agencies identified as an ISIS sniper. In an interview published in DABIQ, an ISIS propaganda magazine, Crawford asked his compatriots to return to their countries to “attack the interests of the Crusader Coalition,” including embassies, businesses, and civilians.
According to the Soufan Group, approximately 30 percent of foreign fighters return to their countries of origin, posing a challenge to each nation’s security agencies. Authorities in Trinidad and Tobago will remain on alert for the possible presence of extremist Muslim groups.