Violence brings crackdown on Muslim group

Port-of-Spain, Trinidad - Fifteen years ago, a radical Muslim group firebombed the police headquarters here, hijacked the nation's only television station and held Parliament hostage for six days.

The failed coup by Jamaat Al-Muslimeen -- the only Islamic revolt in the Western Hemisphere -- left 24 dead and the prime minister with a gunshot wound in his leg. The attackers were given amnesty two years later, and the group and its charismatic leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, have since retained a measure of influence here through nebulous political connections.

But now, as public outrage over a rash of kidnappings, murders and bombings threatens the ruling party, the People's National Movement (PNM), authorities are focusing on Jamaat and the 64-year-old Abu Bakr as never before.

Earlier this month, the government sued Jamaat for an estimated $5 million in damages caused by the coup attempt, seeking to seize about 10 properties owned by the group's leaders.

Less than three weeks before, a judge ordered Abu Bakr to stand trial on terrorism and sedition charges stemming from one of his sermons last November -- just seven months after a jury deadlocked on another case, in which he was accused of conspiring to murder two former Jamaat members who allegedly refused to share with him the spoils of their crimes.

The fateful sermon was televised at his mosque; Abu Bakr threatened ''war'' against rich Muslims who don't give 2.5 percent of their income to charity, a tithe called zakaat that is required by Islam.

He was arrested Nov. 8, and two days later, the police and army stormed Jamaat's compound on Mucurapo Road and two of Abu Bakr's homes. They dug up the floor of his office, looking for weapons and explosives connected to the bombings, which injured 28 people in the second half of last year.

Authorities found a rifle, some ammunition, a hand grenade and walkie-talkies, but no evidence on the bombings, officials said. Abu Bakr has remained in jail ever since as a judge repeatedly denied him bail. Jamaat representative Kala Akii Bua says that the group has become a convenient scapegoat for a government under fire for its inability to control crime. ''The easiest solution is to blame the Jamaat Al-Muslimeen,'' he told The Miami Herald.

But many people in Trinidad were relieved at Bakr's arrest, believing that he has been behind the crime wave and wondering if his political connections would save him from punishment. Last year, a record 380 people were murdered and 70 were abducted for ransom in Trinidad and Tobago, a two-island nation of 1.3 million people.

All this turmoil is rattling Trinidad and damaging its carefully coiffed reputation as a tourist destination -- the languid land of carnival, calypso and quiet Caribbean coves. ''The fear is ever-present in people's minds,'' said Martin Daly, a former independent senator.

Two high-tech police blimps now hover over the capital, monitoring the streets for crime. And the FBI and the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command are watching the situation closely, given Trinidad's position as the largest supplier of liquid natural gas to the United States. The FBI is helping local police by analyzing bomb fragments and residue.

Depending on the point of view, Abu Bakr, a former police officer with a powerful build and intense manner, is a savior or a demon. Born Lennox Phillips, he was educated in Canada, became a Muslim convert and took control of Jamaat Al-Muslimeen, which means Society of Muslims, in the 1980s.


Group members are known to have received training and funds from Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi. And Jamaat has been closely scrutinized since 9/11 because of its image as a radical Muslim group.

Prime Minister Patrick Manning took heavy criticism for courting the group during the 2002 election. After Jamaat campaigned for him, Manning offered Abu Bakr land adjacent to the Mucurapo compound that had been in dispute for years, but a public outcry prompted him to retract the offer. According to the newspaper Trinidad Express, Abu Bakr has since amassed a small fortune, with four homes, one for each of his four wives.

The government has recently appeared to be trying to distance itself from Jamaat. But the group is still believed to have members serving in the Unemployment Relief Program, a make-work initiative long associated with political patronage and corruption. ''I think the government is trying to disengage, but it's not that easy,'' said Selwyn Ryan, a professor at the University of the West Indies and author of The Muslimeen Grab for Power.


Many officials, journalists and academics in Trinidad blame Jamaat -- or some of its members, at least -- for kidnapping, extortion, gun-running and drug trafficking.

''Extortionist thugs,'' Ryan calls them.

Ryan estimates that Jamaat has several hundred members, although no one knows how many supporters it may have in addition, and its reputation for violence looms large.

In August 2003, Aub Bakr was charged with conspiring to murder two former members who had publicly accused Jamaat of kidnapping. A Jamaat member testified that Abu Bakr ordered him to deliver an AK-47 assault rifle to kill the pair. Shortly after, one of them was attacked but survived.

In 2004, the Trinidad Express reported that Jamaat was illegally quarrying a plot of land and had chased off government inspectors who tried to confront them.

Last May, Jamaat member Clive Lancelot Small was convicted in Miami of trying to ship 60 AK-47s and 10 MAC-10 submachine guns and 10 silencers from Fort Lauderdale to Trinidad in 2001. In court papers, U.S. prosecutors said the guns were both for Jamaat and for resale.

And on Nov. 4, Abu Bakr delivered the sermon in which he told his followers to demand the tithe from Muslims who were not paying it. In a country divided evenly -- and sometimes bitterly -- between the descendants of African slaves and East Indian indentured servants, the sermon was seen as a threat to the Muslims who are Indian, and who do not identify with the predominantly black Jamaat.

''I foresee a war,'' Abu Bakr said, according to an official who has seen the video but asked to remain anonymous out of fear. ``Lives may be lost.''

Abu Bakr's attorneys have said he was simply paraphrasing parts of the Koran, and his group insists it is a legitimate religious organization helping the urban poor passed up by the country's oil and natural-gas booms. Its school serves about 300 students.

On a typical day, the halls are hushed, the students disciplined. The boys wear traditional Muslim caps, and girls wear hijab scarves. The curriculum is a mix of religion and basics -- math, music, English, social sciences. On the walls, images of Islam commingle with Big Bird and Burt and Ernie.

Abu Bakr's secretary Gail Alonzo says the government has been trying to shut it down. On Nov. 10, when police raided the compound, they searched the school, too.

''They didn't find anything,'' Alonzo said. ``They just ate the children's snacks.''