Mayhem in Trinidad – An Irishman’s Diary on the only attempted Islamist coup in the western hemisphere
Yasin Abu Bakr, the leader of Jamaat al-Muslimeen, a radical group in the twin island state of Trinidad and Tobago, the scene of the western world’s only Islamist attempted coup d’état, on July 27th, 1990.
The usual raucous Friday after-work gathering at the harbour bar fell silent as all attention focused on the sole television set in the corner. We watched in stunned silence as a man wearing a long white robe and turban announced that the government had been overthrown. Accompanied by a machine gun-toting accomplice, he announced he was in the process of negotiating a transition of power with the army. It was 6pm on Friday, July 27th, 1990, and the occasion of the western world’s only Islamist attempted coup d’état.
We were later to learn that the rebels had taken control of the island’s only television station and one of the two national radio stations, before storming the Red House where a sitting of parliament was in session. The prime minister and 26 MPs, including most of the cabinet, were held hostage by the insurgents. A state of emergency was declared and a 24-hour curfew caused much panic amongst the 1.2 million citizens. Air services were suspended, with telephone communications being the sole means of contact with the outside world.
Later that night the security forces closed down the main TV transmitter which had been broadcasting propaganda. Radio news was limited, with the staff of the one station outside of Muslimeen control having what seemed like about four CDs – Elton John’s Sacrifice was on near-constant rotation. Most of us tuned into the BBC World Service awaiting reports filed from the neighbouring island.
The attempted coup happened at a time of severe economic austerity. A decline in petroleum products and the falling price of oil meant high unemployment and poor public services. The government cut public sector pay by 10 per cent , introduced VAT and devalued the local dollar. Protests and one-day stoppages became regular occurrences, and even the nurses had taken to the streets.
It was in this economic climate that the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen had gained a foothold in poorer areas, providing necessary social services with the provision of food and healthcare, while waging war on drug dealers. They had been under surveillance for some time, with Abu Bakr arrested several times on charges ranging from leading illegal demonstrations to being in contempt of court.
The spark which ignited the coup was a demand by the authorities to vacate and demolish a compound at Mucurapo Road, which by now included a half-built mosque. The development on disputed land did not have planning permission, with the Muslimeen effectively squatting the site.
The hostage stand-off at the parliament building lasted for six days. When he refused to call off the security forces, the prime minister was shot in the leg and the other hostages were regularly beaten and degraded.
Outside the Red House there was little information, much tension and rising panic as food supplies ran out. There was extensive looting, widespread arson and lawlessness, particularly in the capital city, causing many millions in losses and damage. By the time the rebellion ended, much of Port of Spain had been reduced to a smouldering heap of rubble and destruction. The death toll of the attempted coup was 24, including an MP, Leo Des Vignes, one police officer, several civilians and insurgents.
It was widely rumoured that the CIA provided equipment and operatives to assist in the hostage negotiations, having landed in an unmarked aircraft through Crown Point Airport on the other island of Tobago – a fact since confirmed by official US sources.
The insurgents surrendered on August 1st after receiving a promise of amnesty. However, they were arrested and charged with treason. After being held for almost two years they were released on a ruling from the Court of Appeal. Although this ruling was later overturned by the Privy Council, the insurgents were never rearrested.
Ten years ago, a court ordered the Muslimeen to sell land to compensate the state for the losses incurred during the attempted coup. The final report from from the formal enquiry in 2014 said that since the attack, Abu Bakr has been “committed to peaceful politics”, but pointed at “mafia-like” activity on behalf of his organisation.
Today a memorial at the Red House commemorates the events of the attempted coup.
Abu Bakr remains active as the head of the Jamaat al-Muslimeen, commanding loyal support while attracting suspicion from those who consider him nothing more than an opportunist who got away with treason.