Caribbean-Based Islamic Extremism Sparks Concern

JFK Airport Terminal

A 2007 photo of John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in New York City. According to authorities, Abdul Kadir, Kareem Ibrahim and Abdel Nur, of Trinidad, are among four who were planning to blowup a fuel supply pipeline to the airport. Chris Hondros/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A recent alleged terrorist plot to attack John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York ignites concerns about the possible rise of Islamic extremism in the Caribbean. U.S. officials arrested four men in connection with the attempt — three of whom are based in Trinidad.

NPR Correspondent Julie McCarthy is joined by foreign affairs analyst Chris Zambelis to offer analysis.

Trinidad Denies Bail to Militants Held in JFK Plot

A court in Trinidad has denied bail to three men charged with conspiring to attack New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, in a case that has increased scrutiny of the Caribbean-based militant Islamic group Jamaat al Muslimeen.

The three — Kareem Ibrahim, Abdul Kadir and Abdel Nur — smiled and waved to about 20 supporters and family members in the courtroom but did not speak. A fourth defendant is in U.S. custody.

The four men are accused of planning to blow up a jet fuel artery that runs through residential neighborhoods and feeds Kennedy airport.

Jamaat was named but not charged in the U.S. complaint, which alleges that in a search for financial backing, one of the four defendants met with Yasin Abu Bakr, the leader of the group. Bakr's No. 2, Kala Akiibua, has vehemently denied the charge.

"All this hype, all this propaganda, this is a conspiracy," Akiibua said in Trinidad's capital, Port of Spain. "This is an international conspiracy against the Jamaat al Muslimeen."

Akiibua later mocked the idea that a genuine terror plot was afoot among the four defendants, noting the average age of the one Trinidadian and three Guyanese accused in the plot is about 60. He lambasted what the locals call "the geriatric plot."

"Finance? We can't even pay our own lawyers," Akiibua said.

Jamaat's founder, Abu Bakr, was in court Monday on sedition charges stemming from an explosive sermon in 2005. He threatened "blood in the streets" if fellow Muslims did not follow Islamic law and hand over part of their income to the poor.

"He represents a very narrow fringe, but because of ruthless tactics and a willingness to use violence, he's been able to intimidate his way into the political landscape in Trinidad," said Chris Zambelis, a counter-terrorism analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.

Ever since Bakr staged a bloody aborted coup in Trinidad in 1990, he and his followers — mostly Afro-Trinidadian converts to Islam — have had many scrapes with the law. Zambelis said Bakr's domestic terror outfit morphed into a criminal gang of drug-traffickers and racketeers who kept their illegalities close to home.

"For them to possibly be involved in an overseas plot, especially against the United States, would be a dramatic departure from this group's historical track record — that's why I think it's very, very suspicious," he said.

Suspicions about the existence of another terror plot against the United States also run deep within Trinidad's mainstream Muslim community.

"One wonders whether this is just a whole set up of creating hysteria and keeping people on edge and fear," said Muslim scholar Sadiq Nasir.

Even so, former parliamentarian, economist and television commentator Morgan Job said the region is susceptible to the blandishments of radical Islamic leaders like Osama bin Laden.

"Vicious hatred for the West — that's what we need to be dealing with," he said, adding that even "if ten of them are devoted to al-Qaida, you have 10 big, big problems."

But few in Trinidad see Muslim extremism gaining a foothold in the Caribbean. If there is worry over the alleged plot to attack Kennedy airport, it's mostly about a backlash that could make traveling to the U.S. more difficult.

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