Simon Cottee, Black Flags of the Caribbean: How Trinidad Became an ISIS Hotspot . London: I.B. Tauris, 2021. i + 160 pp. (Cloth US$ 29.95)
Simon Cottee, a senior lecturer in criminology, has sought to examine how Trinidad and Tobago, a country far removed from the turmoil of the Middle East, has emerged as contributing one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters to ISIS, as a percentage of its small (1.3 million) population. He paints a vivid picture of the backgrounds and motivations of those who went to support ISIS and the network enabling them to do so, and punctures the propaganda of alleged persecution and religious exclusion that is pervasive in ISIS publications and videos.
Cottee begins Black Flags of the Caribbean with an interesting prologue, linking a double shooting to men who would eventually go onto become ISIS fighters. His first chapter offers an interesting insight into Trinidadian ISIS fighter Shane Crawford. His interviews with people who knew Crawford, including his mother, were handled with skill, and he is unsparing in calling out the hypocrisy in the justifications given by parents of ISIS fighters, referring to one claim of religious persecution in Trinidad, as “a demented fiction” (p. 13).
Chapter 2 deals with the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, a radical Islamic group that staged a bloody coup attempt in 1990. Cottee links the ideology of the Jamaat to the seeds of radicalization that eventually bred Trinidad’s ISIS fighters and does so effectively, unsparing in his criticism of the delusional nature of the Jamaat’s leadership.
Cottee’s finest work is done in Chapters 3 and 4. In Chapter 3 he provides a detailed analysis of the demographics of Trinidad’s ISIS fighters and, to some extent, their families. He claims he was able to determine the identities of 120 Trinidadian nationals who traveled to Syria and Iraq, discusses the profiles of this group, and explores how these differ from ISIS fighters from other countries. He tries to examine their motivations for joining ISIS and enumerates a number of “push” and “pull” factors. However, he is unsympathetic to their rationale and brutally frank when he describes the Trinidadian ISIS fighters as “all cold-blooded killers” (pp. 47–48).
In Chapter 4, Cottee does an admirable job of profiling and interviewing Imam Nazim Mohammed, who seems to be at the epicenter of ISIS recruiting in Trinidad. He approaches this by starting with the testimony of the iman’s daughter, Aneesa Waheed, who is currently serving a jail term in Iraq. Cottee concludes (though remaining evasive on this point) that the imam provided the ideological foundation that motivated Trinidad’s ISIS fighters and supporters, and influenced his own daughter in this regard.
The penultimate chapter of the book is its weakest. Cottee’s discussion of Trinidad’s security apparatus and its approach to the departure of Trinidadians for Iraq and Syria is superficial. His discussion of the 2018 Carnival terror plot is inadequate and left me somewhat puzzled. However, eschewing “political correctness,” he exposes the hypocrisy of some in the mainstream Trinidadian Islamic community who defended the daughter of a convicted extremist who wore a garment emblazoned with the ISIS flag, making allegations of “Islamophobia” (p. 86); he laments this attitude.
Cottee’s final chapter details the plight of Trinidad’s ISIS widows and children and the campaign to bring them home. He carefully differentiates between children and women who were duped by unscrupulous spouses or parents and those who had a history of pro-ISIS views prior to their departure. He proposes some suggestions for the authorities but acknowledges the intense antipathy felt by the Trinidadian public to most returnees. One stand-out feature of the book is Cottee’s use of the social media posts of Trinidadian ISIS men and women to illustrate their radicalization and support for the terrorist group, rendering hollow later claims of ignorance of the brutality of ISIS.
In his conclusion, Cottee points out the unique nature of Trinidad’s ISIS recruits and reemphasizes the utter fallacy of their claims of religious persecution and discrimination. His most important point, however, is that the radicalization of Trinidadians took place within a dangerous social network that instilled radical ideals and supported those who went abroad to support ISIS.
Black Flags of the Caribbean is not without minor flaws. Some of Cottee’s work on the security apparatus is superficial and some of his starting assertions are disputable. His interview approach is effective and allows readers to draw conclusions from the interviewees’ own words. This is an excellent and highly recommended book on a subject that has received inadequate attention in the West, and perhaps even less in Trinidad itself.