Caught on camera: Cellphone images seized by SEBIN, Venezuela’s Intelligence Service, allegedly show some of the Trinidadian Muslims, now detained in a Venezuelan jail, on a firing range using high-powered weapons. Photo: Trinidad Express
By Caribbean News Now contributor
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- Cellphone images seized by SEBIN, Venezuela’s intelligence service, allegedly show Trinidadian Muslims arrested in Venezuela engaging in what SEBIN described as “pre-jihad training” on a firing range using high-powered weapons, the Trinidad Express reported.
The images were reportedly extracted from the cellphones seized from some of the Muslims in a group that travelled to Venezuela from Trinidad and were later arrested in a raid at the Plaza Hotel in Caracas on March 19, together with women and children, who were later released.
The training resembled what takes place in the Middle East as Muslims prepare for what they term jihad, or holy war, an important religious duty for Muslims that includes armed struggle against persecution and oppression.
Intense military, arms and ammunition training is part and parcel of their routine and some of this kind of training, SEBIN alleged, was taking place in Venezuela by some of the Trinidadian Muslims.
In a top secret document prepared by SEBIN and sent to the Trinidad and Tobago government, the pictures in question were taken by three Venezuelan police officers who were later arrested. There are at least six photographs showing the men.
Eight Trinidadian Muslims are currently detained by Venezuelan authorities on suspicion of terrorist activities. The 14 women and children who were held with them at the Plaza Hotel in Caracas on March 19 were released some ten days later and sent back to Trinidad.
This followed a visit of a Trinidad and Tobago delegation headed by Rear Admiral Richard Kelshall who met with Venezuelan authorities two days prior to their release.
Out of that meeting emanated the top secret document given to the Trinidad and Tobago government, which the Trinidad Express reported exposes some alarming security concerns that the country’s security forces need to monitor closely.
The document outlines in detail the day the Trinidadian Muslims were held at the Plaza Hotel in Caracas and revelations about possible terrorist activities that can have far reaching consequences for Trinidad and Tobago.
Minister of National Security Gary Griffith spoke about the document in late April.
“A secret document has been given to me through the delegation from the Venezuelan authorities and this is obviously a sensitive document and I would not be able to actually state what is in the document, it is sensitive correspondence,” Griffith said.
In the top secret document, there are dates of the arrivals for all the Trinidadians who touched down at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Venezuela between January and March this year.
The raid on the Trinidadian Muslims at the Plaza Hotel, authorities said, was brought to the attention of SEBIN “after a prolonged stay at the hotel” and the use of “cash to cover their bills”.
Further suspicion arose, SEBIN stated, when members of the group were reclusive, as more persons continued to arrive and bills continued “to be paid exclusively in cash”.
Cleaning staff at the hotel were even barred from entering the rooms, the report revealed.
SEBIN’s suspicion was compounded further as they “implemented surveillance on the group and observed that Dominic Pitilal [one of the group] was routinely changing large sums of US” currency.
It was then SEBIN decided to make their move, executing a search warrant in the rooms occupied by “Pitilal and associates” and reportedly discovered: two satellite phones, 20 mobile phones, two laptops, six tablets, army type uniforms, combat paraphernalia, firearm training paraphernalia, telephone video of several of the detained persons in firearms training in Caracas.
According to the Trinidad Express, the accusation of jihad is only the beginning of something more profoundly troubling.
Sources within the Muslim community in Trinidad told the Express they have received information about Trinidadian Muslims fighting in the Syrian civil war as part of the anti-Assad movement.
Sources said every individual is paid US$150,000 to come to Syria and fight.
The subject is rarely discussed in certain Muslim circles in Trinidad, some fearing if they say anything, their lives might be in jeopardy. It is also a case that Muslim women know about, but are not willing to inform on friends or family members.
Well-placed Muslim sources who met and spoke with the Express in the last few weeks on the condition of anonymity say some of the women and children who were detained in Venezuela were in transit to Syria.
Three well-placed sources say people had confided in them about how the operation would go down.
One said, “What they do is buy plane tickets showing travel from Venezuela to China in transit through Turkey. When the plane stops there they get off and cross the border into Syria, but many would be thinking they have gone on to China as the ticket states.”
Another indicated that a named Trinidadian Muslim now in Syria has been in contact with family members in Trinidad and is also in constant contact with another local Muslim man.
Intelligence sources said they have been monitoring the movements of certain people, but would not commit to a solid answer.
When asked about Trinidadians using Venezuela as a stepping stone to head to Syria to fight in the jihad, Griffith said, “We most definitely have intelligence of all matters of national security but pertaining to that quite obviously, I would not be able to actually state what intelligence that we have for obvious reasons.”
In the last three weeks, the UK Guardian has carried stories about Muslim men leaving the United Kingdom to fight the war in Syria with young women also trying to follow. When they return to their countries they could be a serious security risk and the Anti-Terrorism Unit in Britain is closely monitoring the situation.
CNN in a recent report online entitled “West’s biggest threat: Battle hardened homegrown terrorists”, warned about American Muslims leaving to fight in Syria and returning as a potential threat to the US.
Intelligence sources in Trinidad also said they are fearful that some of those fighting in Syria will return to Trinidad with the radical ability to carry out violent acts there.
In fact, SEBIN in its secret report made specific recommendations to Trinidad’s national security ministry indicating it should pay closer attention to particular mosques.
Concerns outlined in the report also included:
• The increase of illegal diesel trafficking.
• Increase of the volume and flow of narco-trafficking and arms and ammunition trafficking.
• Increase of persons from the Middle East entering and transiting Venezuela onward to Trinidad.
SEBIN also revealed to the Trinidad and Tobago government that “British and US sources have expressed through official channels that there is an uneasiness relative to chatter emanating from Trinidad and Tobago at this time.”
Griffith said, “When we get types of intelligence that can be perceived as individuals being enemies of the state or trying to have any plan to overthrow the government, or any democracy as we know it, we would have that pre-emptive strike. We would be aware of what is happening and we would ensure that we do it to them before they do it to us.”
Attempts to assess the level of US concern in relation to the security of the Caribbean generally – a region that is variously described as America’s “third border” and America's “backyard” – by means of official comment have largely proven to be fruitless.
There has been the so-called Third Border Initiative (now apparently moribund) and the more recent Caribbean Basin Security Initiative but the latter has largely focused on maritime interdiction of drug traffickers while seemingly ignoring the fact that the vacuum left by US financial and political inattention has been quickly filled by the Chinese (economically), Venezuela (politically and economically) also acting as a proxy for Iran, and more recently by the Russians for their own reasons.
Apart from the fact that questionable individuals from these and other countries are using the economic citizenship programs of many of the small Caribbean countries to obscure their real nationality and background, there is the concern expressed by intelligence sources in Trinidad that some of their nationals fighting in Syria will return with the radical ability to carry out violent acts in that country – i.e. part of America’s “third border”.
The so far unanswered questions posed to various US House and Senate committees that ought to have an interest in this area have tried to address the apparent inattention to the situation in the region itself, thus allowing hostile elements virtual freedom of movement in an area up to the actual border when, with a fairly modest effort in the overall scheme of things, the situation could be dealt with much more effectively.
With all the ex post facto
hand-wringing over events in Benghazi, an increased level of congressional interest and concern in working to prevent other potential problems closer to home might have been expected but is apparently thus far non-existent.