January 26, 2003
By Raffique Shah
BRITISH government intelligence agencies are little better off today than they were 30 years ago. Then, between MI5 and MI6, they were supposed to know if the then leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, was picking his nose, the kind of toilet paper he used, and even what he and his wife did, and when. Today, at best, these and other agencies (there's a special intelligence/operations unit outside of these that reports directly to the Prime Minister) will have available to them modern electronic eavesdropping devices. They, like the Americans, also rely heavily on satellite images that are said to be capable of telling the colour of one's jockey shorts as you sit in your living room.
Yet, for all their reputation and their superiority (the Americans' CIA wasn't in their class, it was said, but the Israelis' Mossad was deemed the best), in 1970 they were unaware that at least two lieutenants in the T&T Regiment, trained at Sandhurst, had leftist tenden- cies.
In the face of the Black Power uprising that raged for months with distinct anti-colonial rhetoric, none of these "intelligence" agencies warned the then Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, that he could expect trouble in the army in the event that his government decided to confront the protestors. So much for their "superior intelligence".
Fast-forward to 1990 and the attempted coup by the Muslimeen. Islamic fundamentalism had gained ground globally following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, and with its anti-American theme, all the above-mentioned agencies will have focused heavily on activities by "suspect" Muslim groups. Here in Trinidad, the Muslimeen were very vociferous on all kinds of issues, and although the average Trini expected some kind of violence (not necessarily a coup), none of these "brilliant" agencies had a clue on what Abu Bakr was up to. In fact, we later learned that the arms used by the Muslimeen to take over the Red House and TTT came from the US.
The Americans, who were (and still are) the global police, had no idea that arms were purchased in their country and were to be used in Trinidad for an attempted coup. In fact, well before that-in 1979- the arms that Maurice Bishop used to overthrow the Eric Gairy government were purchased in the USA and shipped to Grenada. It was long after the coup that the Americans did a "trace" on the arms, much the way they did after the failed coup in Trinidad in 1990.
The point I'm making is that these intelligence agencies are not the super-efficient information-gathering machines they are made out to be. They are not only fallible, but in many instances incompetent. In fact, like our Special Branch, they are known to have fed wrong or distorted information to their political directorates, sometimes with devastating consequences.
For example, how come they did not know in advance of Saddam Hussein's attack against Kuwait back in 1990? The Iraqis had squabbled with Kuwait over allegations that the latter were extracting crude from a common border-deposit through lateral drilling. The signs were there that Iraq would not tolerate that, so the attack, if not the invasion of Kuwait, should have surprised few intelligent people. Still, America and its allies were caught with their pants down.
Today, we are hearing and reading reports emanating from these same intelligence agencies, and accepted by their governments, that Trinidad and Tobago is host to "Islamic terrorists", hence a country to be "blacklisted" for Americans, Britons, UN personnel, and now Australians. What is the basis on which they decided that we have "terrorists" here? What evidence is there that fundamentalist Muslims are bent on attacking visitors from those countries? None, I say. Some publicity-seeking pseudo-Mullah makes statements about "jihad" and spews other anti-American, anti-British rhetoric, and these reports are interpreted to mean there's imminent danger to mainly white foreigners who visit this country.
While one cannot dismiss out of hand the ranting of a madman, there is nothing to suggest that this country is in danger of being taken over by Islamic fundamentalists, or foreigners are at greater risk from bandits and murderers than nationals. In fact, outside of a handful of xenophobic zealots who span the spectrum of religions and ideologies, Trinis, if anything, are noted for our friendliness towards all foreigners, something that visitors notice as soon as they settle down in taxis on the way to their hotels. Indeed, there may be complaints about "dirty Port of Spain" and vagrants littering downtown; but none about hostility from the average Trini.
So why would any government or tourist agency abroad issue warnings about "terrorists" being active in Trinidad? It is we Trinis who have to face the virtual army of bandits, kidnappers and murderers who stalk our once-peaceful country.
We natives also have a government that is burying its head in the bloody sand, treating crime with kid gloves when it is clear we need to use the iron fist. We have to cope with a self-destructing public health service with culpability lying at the feet of both the Government and our hypocritical doctors. If anything, we are the ones who should be protesting the dereliction of duty on the part of government. We should let Prime Minister Patrick Manning know that given our stance on incompetence, nepotism and corruption, for any government that short-changes the people, it will be a case of "easy come, easy go".
But for foreign governments to brand us in the same category as Afghanistan or Palestine or Northern Ireland, it's patently unfair. Travel advisories for countries that are steeped in crime (and we are low on that list: think of Brazil, Colombia, hell, even the so-called "inner cities" of London, New York and LA) are not abnormal. And if we have to pay a price in terms of tourist arrivals because of our inability to deal with crime, then so be it.
To suggest, though, that we have amongst us "terrorists" who pose a danger to foreigners is unjust in the extreme. And to see a former Prime Minister support T&T's name being dragged in the mud of terrorism on the basis of badly flawed intelligence reports, one needs to ask if the man is sane...or sober.
Except for the transient Trini who would turn "refugee" in a flash based purely on his or her politics, most of us are destined to live and die here. We must, therefore, resist, with one united voice, inept foreign agencies and governments branding us with stamps of their choice. In David Rudder's words, we must be "Trini to the bone."