Trinidad 1990: The Caribbean’s Islamist Insurrection
Sanjay Badri-Maharaj is the author of this book but also was there when it happened. As such, he has a personal stake in getting this book a wide audience. Sanjay is a native TTer (TT stands forTrinidad & Tobago, as they say on the islands), an Indo-Trinidadian. He studied at Kings College London, and received a PhD from the Department of War Studies, focusing on India’s nuclear capabilities. He has authored other books on modern-day military topics from the Caribbean and India, including an upcoming review of English-speaking Caribbean militaries. Sanjay was a visiting International Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. Sanjay has also served as a Consultant to the Ministry of National Security in Trinidad, a key player in this particular book. Thus, when Sanjay explains how things are really done in Trinidad, it is not speculation, but eye-witness observation and experience, with the keen eye of a practicing lawyer.
This book is No 19 of the Latin America @ War series by Helion, covering the last 100 years of conflicts from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego. Trinidad 1990 explores the only Islamist Insurrection in the Western Hemisphere. Little attention was given in 1990 and it seems to have been a bad dream to all involved.
What You Get
This 11.7 X 8 ¼ inch (297 X 210 mm) softbound book is only 3 mm thick, but packs a lot of information. The covers are in color with four pages of color illustrations of personnel, equipment and a map. Production quality is good; however, there were many minor editorial mishaps – missing words/letters, misspelled words, and some awkward grammar. Nevertheless, these minor issues do not detract from the story. There are 68 pages, with small print – making this book appear small but actually having a lot of info. There is one Table, 4 maps, 71 B&W photos, 7 color profiles of military equipment and 3 color illustrations of personnel.
After a list of Abbreviations (do take note of these, they are used often), there are 7 sections to this book, followed by and Appendix of the Defence Force Today, a Bibliography, Notes and About the Author. Sections are: 1) Background; 2) Rival Forces; 3) Planning the Attack; 4) The Jamaat-al-Muslimeen Strikes; 5) Hostages and Negotiations; 6) The TTDF Responds; and 7) The Endgame, Amnesty, Surrender and Conclusions.
Trinidad and Tobago are small tropical islands off the coast of Venezuela, with a population of almost 1.5 million in 2011, the latest census, increased from under 0.5 million in 1946. The Introduction sets the stage for what how Trinidad & Tobago (TT) experienced a government takeover from endogenous radical Islam elements. TT is rich in oil and gas, but this bounty was sequestered by an oligarchy after the British left in 1962 and TT became a sovereign nation. Sanjay pulls no punches, points fingers and names names in describing how TT went from a comfortable, affluent country to a den of thieves, corruption and poverty by 1990. Disenchantment of poorer Afro-Trinidadians led to conversions to Islam, and the growing population of Indo-Trinidadians (now the largest ethnic group in TT) clashing with different mindsets about home, government and life in general.
There are so many things that went wrong by every party to the sordid story that this book was painful to read. Disparity of wealth led to a bloated and corrupt government and police force, disenfranchising the majority of the population. In the 1980s, the oil crisis plunged TT into an economic depression. South American drug cartels found easy business in TT as a shipping point for drugs to the USA and other Caribbean destinations. Crime lords actually ran the country from behind the scenes, using uneducated youth as heavies and hooligans.
African Muslims came from slaves and later, British Colonial military personnel, but most Muslims were Indian Indentured immigrants. Sunni is the predominant sect. The 1970s saw a change in the well-integrated Muslim communities by African militants, with funding by Saudi Arabia and Libya. The Black Power movement in the USA helped to radicalize Muslims, and led to a bizarre revolt of an Army regiment in 1970, which was quickly put down without loss of life. This revolt led successive governments to neuter the military and police forces to ensure no armed rebellions from within would upset their oligarchy. Lenox Phillip changed his name to Yasmin Abu Bakr and proceeded on a campaign to restore his version of radical Islam, targeting the Indo-Trinidadian Muslims as well as the establishment. He formed the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen in 1982 and found funding from foreign sources. He and other members went to Libya for terrorist training, and began accumulating arms. The government hassled him over improper use of land (he simply took over some land and built a mosque), which was a sticking point for Abu Bakr increasing his anti-government rhetoric and actions.
Meanwhile, the TT military and police forces were rife with political corruption and were decayed vestiges of law and order, with little resources or funding. This is a Military Book Series, but TT had very little in the way of military or police forces. Their Intelligence was nonexistent, and nobody in the government felt they were threatened by any group.
Eventually, Abu Bakr decided to overthrow the government, assured that the population would follow and install him as the leader of a new Islamic nation. He smuggled arms from the USA by paying off a Customs Inspector, and through his religious teachings, attracted a following of young, rebellious youths. Finally, on July 27, 1990, he loaded up carloads of men with guns and simultaneously took over the only television station (TTT, Trinidad Tobago Television), the main Police station and the Parliament Building. Abu Bakr sent out one TV message that he had overthrown the government. His men shot and killed eight unarmed people in these places, including a women who bled to death from a gut shot in front of them and their captives. They also shot the Prime Minister, and forced him to abdicate, but not before signing a letter of amnesty to the attackers. Police were unarmed and fled as fast as they could. However, the TTDR (Trinidad Tobago Defence Force) took immediate action, mostly because most of them were watching a soccer match in a nearby stadium, and quickly contained Bakr’s forces, and ended TV broadcasts by simply turning off their electricity.
The insurrection was poorly planned by any standards, and mostly succeeded in downtown Port of Spain being looted by the local population and insurgents, causing 16 additional deaths, and enormous economic losses to an already impoverished area. The military was also poorly coordinated, but to their credit, did their job and kept the insurrection from spreading. The negotiations for release of hostages at the three government facilities took three days, all the time with no food, water or facilities in the buildings. Amnesty was granted and holds to this day, despite revisits by TT. Abu Bakr continued his rhetoric and tried politics without results, and is alive to this day. No reparations were demanded or given to those killed or injured in the insurrection. It seemed to just have been a bad memory shortly after everybody went home, except for a devasted downtown district. The Indo-Trinidadians took over control of the government, and have continued to be the majority of TT and its controlling interest.
The whole situation would have been a comedy of errors on all sides, but nothing serious has happened to the government or country since. The military continues to be funded poorly and is in a state of torpor, except for its small Coast Guard, which still maintains a collection of small patrol boats and out of service helicopters.
The subject of this book is not well known in the USA, but the author gives a moving analysis of why and how it happened. The author, Sanjay, is passionate about telling the facts regardless of any political correctness, probably because he lived through the events and the anticlimactic aftermath. People were killed in cold blood, and the killers were let off scot free. Lawlessness abounded for a few days in the immediate area, but did not spill over into nationwide anarchy or unrest. The small, underfunded and undertrained military upheld the Constitution and allowed the civilian government to determine the outcome through proper channels, keeping the insurrection from becoming a serious bloodletting. Ineptitude abounded on all fronts, but somehow the government takeover became just another house-cleaning with different faces. Not much changed afterwards.
There are lessons from these events, but it really shows what happens when personal integrity is mostly lacking in government institutions, and how the sinister specter of organized crime can quietly manipulate outcomes favorable to their cause. One has to ask themselves the question: what would TT look like now if the military did not do their job? Perhaps everything that happened was for the good of the many, regardless of what outsiders might think.
Thanks to the author for this overlooked and unusual event into scrutiny, Helion Books for publishing this history, and Casemate Publishers for getting this book to us.
- Figure 1: Front cover of Trinidad 1990. The Caribbean’s Islamist Insurrection.
- Figure 2: Back cover of Trinidad 1990. The Caribbean’s Islamist Insurrection.
- Figure 3: A color map of Trinidad and Tobago, showing Port of Spain, the capitol where the insurrection occurred.
- Figure 4: After the unarmed Police Constable was shot and killed, a car bomb was exploded in front of Police Headquarters, and then was occupied by the insurgents.
- Figure 5: Photo showing destructive looting and arson in Port of Spain encouraged by the insurrectionists.
- Figure 6: Screenshot of Abu Bakr’s TV broadcast to the nation that the government was overthrown.
Thanks to Casemate Publishing & IPMSUSA for the review copy!