One question that should be asked and answered about this week's FBI arrest of ISIS-inspired Rondell Henry, who allegedly aspired to a vehicle-ramming attack on Maryland's National Harbor, is whether he or his plot had any live connection to his Caribbean island nation of origin, Trinidad and Tobago (T&T). The 28-year-old computer engineer immigrated from T&T, became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and converted to Islam at some point on his life journey that has, for now, ended in a Maryland jail cell.
The question of whether he maintained associations on his homeland islands matters because, as I have written, they have become a hotbed of Islamist extremism in America's southern sphere of interest, with hundreds of its citizens — men, women, and whole families — having joined the now-defunct ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Immigration and travel between the islands and the United States should be under greater scrutiny for this odd development alone, but most definitely — and much more so — if it turns out that Henry's conversion, radicalization, and alleged plot had any roots in Trinidad and Tobago.
Though Henry's arrest is still very fresh, nothing so far in the public court filings or the island media addresses the question. T&T National Security Minister Stuart Young essentially stiff-armed questions about it, telling a local newspaper only that the terror plot now involved a U.S. citizen. It's "obviously a matter for the U.S. authorities," Young was quoted locally as saying, pointedly also adding that the Americans will deal with "this U.S. citizen" as appropriate. This response fails to recognize that Islamist terrorism very often is international in nature, directed from abroad, funded or incited by far-away people and groups who may continue to pose a threat.
Anyway, it remains unclear whether before, during, or after his emigration to the United States, Henry spent time in his home nation, perhaps mixing with the wrong people or in contact with former friends, relatives, or even friendly new strangers there.
Only about 5 percent of the country's population is Muslim, according to the CIA's World Factbook. But this 5 percent have caused outsized global security concerns.
At least 130 of T&T's 1.2 million citizens left their touristy beaches to fight with ISIS. "Entire families went," including at least 42 children, according to findings in a recent study by UK professor Simon Cottee of Kent University. In 2017, Southern Command's Admiral Kurt Tidd said: "Some of the individuals who left Trinidad-Tobago" have shown up "on film engaged in terrorist acts" and have committed murders in Syria. Even the New York Times couldn't ignore the developing threat from T&T's jihadists, posting a story in 2017 citing American officials who fear "that Trinidadian fighters could return from the Middle East and attack American diplomatic and oil installations in Trinidad, or even take a three-and-a-half hour flight to Miami."
T&T nationals did "very well" in ISIS, former U.S. Ambassador John L. Estrada told the Times. "They are high up in the ranks, they are very respected and they are English-speaking. ISIL have used them for propaganda to spread their message through the Caribbean."
A hard-line Sunni Islamist mosque and its imams have been accused of causing trouble for decades. In 1990, 40 Islamist insurgents associated with Jamaat al Muslimeen attempted a coup against the government, taking the prime minister and most of his cabinet hostage for a week. In 2007, members of Jamaat al Muslimeen were tied to a plot to bomb New York's JFK airport; one of its members was sentenced to life in prison.
Last September, the U.S. Treasury Department listed two citizens of T&T on its terrorism sanctions list. Dual U.S./Trinidad national Emraan Ali and Trinidadian ISIS supporter Eddie Aleong joined six other Trinidadian individuals or entities already on the international sanctions list. The Treasury Department accuses both men of working together to raise and send cash to Trinidadian ISIS fighters in the conflict zone. In 2015, Ali lived for a time at an ISIS guest house in Raqqah, Syria, the fallen ISIS caliphate "capital", while Aleong is suspected of facilitating money transfers to ISIS as recently as March 2018.
In 2017, an international task force that included American components conducted anti-terror raids in which four "high value targets" were arrested for allegedly plotting to attack the annual Carnival celebrations in T&T.
The broader neighborhood has proven kind of rough, too. Shia groups like Hezbollah, along with its sponsor, the government of Iran, have long held criminal and intelligence footholds throughout South America, as I explained in an update on the subject. This has included Venezuela and its offshore island of Marguerite, about 150 nautical miles from Trinidad.
As I wrote recently, just around the coastal bend in Suriname, a plot to kill the U.S. ambassador was broken up.
Visa-free travel is allowed throughout the Caribbean and its various trade zones.
According to the most recent U.S. State Department Countries Reports on Terrorism reflecting calendar year 2017, the U.S. government has pushed the island nation to do more counterterrorism.
"The threat from the possible return of foreign terrorist fighters remains a primary concern," the report states, referring to T&T foreign terrorist fighters.
The plot for which Rondell Henry is being investigated may well turn out to have no provenance in his home islands; plenty of violent extremists in the United States have radicalized themselves on internet fare alone. But if it turns out that Henry was traveling back and forth to his homeland, or communicating extensively with T&T foreign terrorist fighters, then lessons need to be learned and actions taken.
Todd Bensman is a Texas-based senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. For nearly a decade, Bensman led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum.