Radical Muslim Leader Denies Links to JFK Plot

Just about everyone in Trinidad and Tobago has an opinion about Yasin Abu Bakr. The head of a radical Muslim sect called Jamaat al Muslimeen, or the Association of Muslims, he has the dubious distinction of being the man who launched an unsuccessful coup in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in 1990 and largely got away with it.

His latest brush with the law involves a complex plot to blow up a jet fuel artery supply at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Four men — Russell Defreitas, Kareen Ibrahim, Abdul Kadir and Abdel Nur — have been arrested for the plot, and three of them will be before a Trinidadian judge Monday, fighting extradition to the United States.

According to a U.S. criminal complaint, one of the suspects, Abdel Nur, went to Trinidad to meet with Abu Bakr and the Jamaat al Muslimeen to see if they would help finance the plot. The criminal complaint leaves open whether Abu Bakr actually met with him. Abu Bakr says he never met the man — an elder at the mosque met with him — and that the Jamaat had no intention of getting mixed up with a plot that Abu Bakr calls "insane."

"And why would I help them with something that is almost, in my opinion, insane?" he said. "You would take someone who would have to have a massive organization with all kinds of funds and resources to do something like this, and this man doesn't have a car, as far as I know. He doesn't even drive a car."

Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad, looks like a low-slung, gritty version of Miami. Calypso music pours out of small shopfronts that advertise Roti and Bake-n-Shark, essentially a fried patty of shark. The Jamaat al Muslimeen compound is just west of downtown Port-of-Spain in the Mucurapo district, an area filled with schools and technical colleges.

The Jamaat has a 5-acre compound complete with an elementary school, a madrasa, and a mosque made of cinder block and corrugated tin. Abu Bakr's office is in the back — or it was until last month, when Trinidadian authorities came in with backhoes and dug up the foundation. The authorities reportedly uncovered and confiscated a small cache of weapons and grenades.

Abu Bakr agreed to talk to NPR in his first interview since the FBI accused members of his group of meeting with the JFK plotters. As he sees it, this whole deal — people he says he has never met coming to see him, a terrorist plot to attack a New York airport — is all about entrapment. He says either the U.S. government or the authorities in Trinidad were trying to implicate him in terrorism.

"I would have thought if this man had come to me, who I don't know, from nowhere at all with something as ludicrous as that, I think I would have called the policemen I knew to lock him up," Abu Bakr said. "I have seen enough movies — I would have thought this guy was a swallow and someone was trying to set me up."

Abu Bakr is not a popular man in Trinidad. People resent him for staging 1990s seven-day coup. Dozens died when he and his followers took over the parliament building and the main television station. He managed to negotiate a pardon and walked away a free man.

Jones P. Madeira was working at the television station when Abu Bakr and his men took it over. Now he works for the government, in the Ministry of Health, as a spokesman. He says when anything bad happens in this small island of 1.3 million people, the Jamaat are immediately suspected. "Memories of 1990 will make them a natural reference for anything that speaks to terrorism," he said. "And it might not be so at all."

Despite a long history of serious charges, nothing seems to stick to Abu Bakr. Law enforcement authorities in Trinidad say they are too frightened to comment on the record about him because he seems all-powerful.

He has been tried and acquitted for conspiracy to murder, suspected to have a hand in bombings in Port-of-Spain, and yet he remains largely unscathed. Abu Bakr's seeming impunity has led Trinidadians to regard him with a strange mixture of fascination and fear.

"I saw him in the courts and saw the magistrate actually treating him with tremendous respect," Madeira said. "The judge was calling him Mr. Abu Bakr, even though he was facing a charge."

The same day the suspected JFK plotters appeared in the Hall of Justice in the magistrate's court for their first extradition hearing, Abu Bakr was in the Hall of Justice in Port-of-Spain, on trial on sedition charges. He had given a sermon in 2005 that Trinidadian authorities said threatened Muslims in Trinidad who weren't paying Abu Bakr zagaat, or money for the poor. That trial ended up being postponed for 10 months, and Abu Bakr is a free man.

Sixty-five-year-old Abu Bakr's background is full of surprises. He says he used to work in the production office of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s comedy show Custard Pie. He was a policeman in Trinidad for 10 years. He was reared as a Catholic. Before his conversion, his name was Lennox Philip. Abu Bakr cuts quite a figure — tall and thin with skin the color of café au lait, he emits a kind of calm charm that appeals to the Afro-Caribbean converts who follow him.

"He walks tall. He speaks tall. He performs tall," Madeira said. "And that is something that impresses, quite easily, the gullible."

The FBI began watching the Jamaat soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, out of an abundance of caution. Law enforcement officials say Abu Bakr doesn't have a lot of control over his followers, and many go on to more radical mosques elsewhere on the island or in the Middle East, while keeping their ties to him.

That's one reason why the U.S. Southern Command listed Jamaat al Muslimeen alongside Peru's Shining Path as a regional threat. Abu Bakr says as converts, Jamaat's members don't have the same prejudices and vendettas that some other radical Muslim groups have — so the concern about their link to terrorism is misplaced.

"A lot of people lump us with everything that is happening in the world, and I think that is not fair," Abu Bakr said.

Officials in Trinidad and in the United States say Abu Bakr is more like Jack Nicholson's mob boss character in The Departed than a budding jihadist. The concern is that some day a group like al-Qaida could make Abu Bakr an offer he can't refuse, offering him so much money to stage something against U.S. interests that he decides it is worth risking his operation in Trinidad.

At the conclusion of the interview, Abu Bakr draws himself to full height and says, "I know you think I am a terrorist, but can I give you a ride home?"

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