At his compound on the outskirts of Port of Spain, the man responsible for the only attempted militant Islamic overthrow of a Western government is smiling. “I’ve been charged with treason, I’ve been charged with sedition, with murder, conspiracy to murder, [stockpiling] guns….” Abu Bakr, the fiery 73-year-old leader of Jamaat al Muslimeen, rattles off the many accusations that the government of Trinidad and Tobago has leveled against him.
“Nothing has stuck, because it’s fabricated,” he continues. “They list all the charges in a book, and they just throw the book at me…. That’s not prosecution, that’s persecution!”
Bakr has mellowed a bit in his old age, but he still relishes the opportunity to serve as a thorn in the side of the government with whom he has clashed for decades. Depending on which local you ask, “The Jamaat” is either a jihadi group, a vast criminal organization, an invaluable community resource providing jobs and social services to Trinidad’s disadvantaged, or a combination of all three.
But everyone agrees that the coup that Bakr led in 1990 — which held the state hostage for six days, unleashed widespread looting and chaos, and resulted in 24 deaths and the shooting of the prime minister — changed the country forever.
“That coup affected the nation, the society on a whole physically, psychologically, and otherwise,” says Inspector Roger Alexander, the head of a special police task force in the capital, Port of Spain. “It showed the weakness, and when weakness is exposed, many people take advantage.”
The country’s murder rate has spiraled out of control, mostly due to a thriving drug trade and gang violence. Many, though, attribute the rise of violence in the country to a precedent that Bakr set by going after the government. “It taught gun diplomacy,” says Hal Greaves, a community activist who works on anti-violence programs.
When I arrive to meet Bakr at Jaamat’s sprawling headquarters on the outskirts of Port of Spain, a three-year Commission of Enquiry into the 1990 coup has just been completed. Bakr refused to attend and testify despite threats of additional prosecution.
Instead, he announced that he plans to present his reasons for the coup directly to the country's people. During a lengthy interview with VICE News, however, he's comfortable discussing everything that led up to it, as well as pontificating on a number of other topics.
“My responsibility is to the people of Trinidad and Tobago," he tells me. "In the end, they will judge how I interact with everyone."
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Bakr is extremely charismatic. About 6'4", he greets me warmly when I enter his office, and is full of good cheer and quick jokes. When I start to ask him questions about crime and corruption in Trinidad, he dismisses them with a smile, saying, “These are political questions, and I am a priest.”
But he is far more than a simple Imam, as evidenced by the scowling bodyguards who shadow his every step. In Crown Heights, my Trinidadian neighborhood in Brooklyn, immigrants who left the island decades ago still speak of him in hushed tones, as if he is the shadow ruler of the entire country.
Though he went to college in Toronto, Bakr says he is Trinidadian “to the bone and in the marrow.” Canada, however, is where he converted to a style of pan-African revolutionary Islam heavily influenced by the Nation of Islam. He came back to Trinidad and became a police officer while Jamaat al Muslimeen took shape.
A government minister warned Jamaat to get the amnesty deal in writing. Several copies were made, but when Jamaat turned themselves in, authorities tore up all the copies.
A lot of Jamaat’s enemies have labeled it as a jihadi organization, but its roots were as a social protest movement. Jamaat established itself as a sort of self-sustaining community, preaching discipline and offering social services and jobs to disenfranchised Trinidadians, many from the violent and drug-ridden neighborhoods of East Port of Spain.
“A lot of their main enemies try to label them as a radical Islamist group like al Qaeda, which is absurd,” says Chris Zambelis, a senior analyst who conducted lengthy research on the group and authored a number of reports for Terrorism Monitor.
Instead, Zambelis explains, they were more like a Black Power movement that used Islamic and revolutionary discourse to advocate for Afro-Trinidadians. In the 1970s and 1980s, Trinidad was divided along racial lines between those with African heritage and those with Indian heritage; many Afro-Trinidadians felt the government neglected them. And so Jamaat prospered and became quite powerful, functioning as a sort of stand-in local government in some places.
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As we stroll through the compound, Bakr points out where there was once a garment factory, a wood shop, a dental clinic, a health clinic, schools, soup kitchens, and a large mosque. But in the lead-up to the coup and the ensuing chaos, most of it was destroyed by government forces. Many Trinidadians say that the country's very social fabric, and any semblance of law and order, was destroyed as well.
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On July 27, 1990, a children's program on Trinidad and Tobago Television was interrupted by the image of Bakr, wearing a flowing white gown, seated behind a desk. “At 6PM this afternoon, the government of Trinidad and Tobago was overthrown,” he told the nation. “The prime minister and members of the cabinet are under arrest. We are asking everybody to remain calm. The revolutionary forces are commanded to control the streets. There shall be no looting.”
Widespread looting immediately followed — and it devastated the city. Bakr repealed a 15 percent sales tax live on the air, then the Disney movie The Little Mermaid played. Meanwhile, at the Red House, the nation's parliament building, former Minister Joseph Toney was addressing his peers. In video from the incident, Toney stops speaking as shots are heard. Screams follow. Toney and others run and hide for cover as an armed man in fatigues arrives and starts beating him with a rifle. For six days and five nights, the nation was held hostage.
Bakr says the coup attempt was years in the making, occurring, he insists, because “the government did not obey the rule of law; they plunged the country into anarchy.”
It’s a strange proclamation for a man whose followers blew up a police station with a car bomb, shot the prime minister in the leg, and took over parliament while it was in session. But even 24 years later, Bakr still sees the coup attempt as something that needed to be done because a corrupt government and police force was targeting Jamaat. In his telling, the origins of the coup can be traced to a simple land dispute.
Bakr’s sprawling compound lies on land that was gifted in 1969 to a Muslim organization that predated Jamaat. At the time, the area was nothing but swampland. Bakr and his people drained the swamp and started building their own community. He says that over time, the land became prime real estate, coveted by powerful people in the country who wished to take it for themselves. As the land dispute continued, authorities occupied part of the compound, then refused to abandon their positions despite a court order. More legal fights ensued, but the situation remained at a standstill.
Bakr walks through the Jamaat compound.
Bakr claims that as this was going on, he and his followers were shutting down the country's drug trade. This angered Trinidad’s elites, many of whom — including the attorney general and the minister of national security — he accuses of being tied to drugs. “They were all involved in the narco trade, and we were opposed to that," Bakr says. "We were cleaning this place up from drugs."
His claim isn't totally without corroboration; in 1987, a police officer allegedly witnessed a number of powerful officials conducting a massive cocaine deal in a private room at Piarco International Airport. The officer, Bernadette James, turned to Bakr for protection. “She came to us and told us that the government was planning to kill her,” Bakr says. James later died suspiciously while participating in a police anti-terrorism exercise, when a single live round was used amid thousands of blanks reportedly fired. James was sitting on a bus filled with other police officers participating in the exercise; the live round, allegedly fired by a man outside the bus, struck James and killed her.
“Four days before they killed her, she came to me and told me about the people who were in the VIP room,” Bakr says.
Her death had a profound effect on Bakr, who decided he was at war. ”My wife reminded me that when she married me I was a tiger and it seems like now I’ve become a pussy-cat,” he recalls of that time.
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And so Bakr decided to expose what James had told him. He went to the government. He went to the courts. But nothing happened. Bakr claims that an informant in the Ministry of National Security then told him authorities were going to attack his compound and destroy everything in an attempt to provoke a reaction from Jaamat that would justify extrajudicial killings.
Jamaat had been stockpiling arms and training for years, with some members even receiving paramilitary experience in Libya.
“By that time, we had prepared to defend ourselves,” Bakr says. “We went to the parliament and arrested [the politicians] and charged them for murder. That is the coup, that was what the coup was about.”
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Bakr doesn’t go into detail about the siege. A Trinidadian journalist now based in New York told me many of the country’s people think Bakr expected the country to rise up with him and thank him for ridding them of a corrupt regime. That didn’t happen.
Instead, the siege of parliament continued until the leaders of Jamaat realized they had no way out. At one point, members of Jaamat stationed in the Red House asked Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson, who died this past April, to call off his troops. They handed him a microphone to address forces stationed outside, but Robinson instead told his troops to “attack with full force.” Robinson was promptly shot in the leg.
'It’s getting worse every day, and it’s going to explode,' Bakr says of Trinidad’s crime and corruption.
Less than a week after the coup began, a now infamous amnesty deal was reached that was supposed to allow all members of Jamaat to go free. Bakr says the siege then wrapped up with the government admitting they were wrong.
While Bakr and his crew were negotiating for amnesty, a government minister named John Humphrey warned them to get the deal in writing. A number of copies were made of the statement were made for the proper authorities, and when everyone from Jamaat had turned themselves in, the authorities tore up the documents, according to Bakr.
Bakr and many of his followers were sentenced to death before a court battle ensued and the amnesty deal was upheld. They were released after two years in prison.
The men who had tried to violently overthrow the government then began campaigning for the country’s most powerful political parties.
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Daurius Figeuira, a researcher who has written about both the coup attempt and the drug trade in the Caribbean, tells me that the coup set a terrible precedent. “When we have a marginalized group living on swampland on the outskirts of the inner city, that then storms the parliament and takes the prime minister hostage, what happens to the legitimacy of the state?” he asks, rhetorically. “It has yet to be repaired, because immediately after the coup in the general election of 1991, politicians were dancing with the Jaamat al Muslimeen to campaign for them.”
Members of Jamaat had been used in the 1980s by politicians who wanted help winning elections — and who then wanted enforcers. This practice resumed shortly after the coup attempt. Jamaat also received lucrative government contracts meant to combat unemployment, known as the Unemployment Relief Programme, which they essentially used as a money-making racket.
Since their release, Bakr and his followers continued to run afoul of the law. A Bakr associate was convicted of repeatedly attempting to traffic in guns from Florida, and in 2005 was sentenced to 12 years in prison. In 2005 Bakr was tried for conspiring to murder two former members of Jamaat, and was detained for questioning regarding a number of bombings in the capital. In 2007 he was tried for sedition based on a sermon he delivered two years earlier threatening rich Trinidadians who wouldn’t pay him a religious tithe. He was never found guilty of anything.
Then there was Bakr’s brush with the US criminal justice system. In 2007, three men were arrested for plotting to blow up fuel depots at New York’s JFK International Airport. One of the men had spent time at Bakr’s mosque; Bakr, who the FBI had been surveilling since 2001, was suspected of being linked to the crime, but he was never charged.
These days, his power has waned; Figueira calls him irrelevant. Bakr, for his part, seems content to simply sit back and level charges of corruption and narcotrade involvement at the government while casually predicting that the country will fall into anarchy. “It’s getting worse every day, and it’s going to explode,” he says of Trinidad’s crime and corruption.
Murders in Trinidad have risen from about 100 a year in the 1990s to about 450 a year today, one of the highest murder rates in the world. Many of the homicides are attributed to gang wars that rage in neighborhoods where Bakr once exerted the most influence.
And while Bakr may be “irrelevant,” some of his former lieutenants are alleged to be leading some of these powerful street gangs. Jaamat has fractured, with some members more interested in profiting from crime than in providing social services, and others simply no longer wishing to follow Bakr. “They were taught by me to be leaders,” he says. “So obviously if they are in the community, they could be leaders.”
For his part, Bakr claims that any Jaamat members involved with the drug trade are former Jaamat members. “Whoever was involved and did not play by the rules, we cast them out,” he says. “Why are we going to be doing all this work with these young children, and then selling drugs? You’re defeating the purpose.”
Why, I ask Bakr, were things so calm in Trinidad before the coup when now they’ve spiraled out of control? “Because I was in charge,” he answers. I stifle a laugh at first, but he’s not kidding. “I’m telling you, I was in charge before 1990, I was in charge of the ground.”
Inspector Alexander, who regularly does battle with the city’s gangs, seconds this idea. “He had a hold on so many defenders in the community that you could get the results that you were looking for,” he says. “Say, for instance, they stole your car. He could make some calls and get your car back — but then you have to ask yourself, who stole your car?”
A 2006 report by Zambelis, the analyst who studied Jamaat, described Bakr as a criminal kingpin and political kingmaker. Zambelis wrote that, “Over the years, the Jamaat has been tied to extensive criminal activity that includes narcotics and weapons trafficking, kidnapping for ransom — a growing problem in Trinidad and a favorite tactic of urban street gangs — money laundering, and extortion. In fact, many observers count the Jamaat alongside Trinidad's most notorious street gangs in terms of criminal prowess.”
Bakr doesn’t seem concerned with control these days; maybe it’s his old age or his health problems. He speaks proudly of his family, his four wives and many children, who he says are doctors, lawyers, and economists. One of his sons is a professional soccer player in Europe.
As we near the end of our time together, Bakr takes me to the back of the property to show me some new developments. He is hoping to get the wood shop up and running again, and he is working on building a supermarket. Much like his country, Bakr has been trying to recover ever since the coup.
And contrary to his proclamations of government failure and impending chaos, he maintains a bit of optimism for the future. "If you're going to live, then hope must run eternally, so I think or hope eternally that something will happen for the better,” he says. “What, I don’t know, but something. It cannot continue the way it is.”
Follow Danny Gold on Twitter: @DGisSERIOUS