Trinidad and Tobago, a Caribbean island nation just off the coast of Venezuela, is certainly not one of the first countries to come to mind in terms of U.S. national security, but perhaps it should.
The country has become a major ISIL recruitment hub with real security implications for the United States. Moreover, the impacts of climate change have the potential to enhance the success of ISIL and other terrorist recruitment efforts both now and in the future by exacerbating stressful conditions at home.
Largest ISIL Recruitment Hub in the Western Hemisphere
Trinidad and Tobago has the highest rate of foreign-fighter radicalization in the Western Hemisphere, earning it the distinction of being the largest ISIS recruitment hub in that area. This has direct security concerns for the United States. Given the fact that people in the Caribbean travel visa-free throughout the islands, some fear the relative ease with which ISIL recruits from Trinidad and Tobago could travel to the Bahamas before taking the three-and-a-half-hour flight to Miami, Florida. There is also some concern that upon returning from the Middle East, these fighters may target American diplomatic and oil installations in their home country.
Why Citizens May be Drawn to ISIL
Some explanations for why such high recruitment is coming from Trinidad and Tobago are that many may see more opportunities through ISIL and support its anti-corruption message. According to the Trinidad and Tobago 2016 Crime & Safety Report produced by the U.S. Department of State, the overall crime and safety situation in the country is deemed “critical”. Citizens face increasing unemployment, systemic corruption, areas of significant poverty, and high crime rates. Perhaps for this reason, Islam’s call to halt corruption and oppression may be resonating with the country’s people. Furthermore, those who do join ISIL tend to be very successful. They are respected and find themselves in high-ranking positions. With the promise of a better life, whole families have left the country to join ISIL.
Current conditions in Trinidad and Tobago may be driving some citizens to join ISIL in search of better opportunities, but both current and projected climate change impacts may add additional stresses to magnify some of the drivers which are leading the country’s citizens towards such terrorist activities.
Sea Level Rise
The continued climate change impacts on sea level rise could increasingly threaten the stability of the country. In terms of economics, valuable areas of commercial activity are in the coastal zone. This includes oil and gas infrastructure on the West coast. The country is the largest oil exporter in the Caribbean and is the primary producer of liquefied natural gas in Latin America and the Caribbean, making the energy industry a major part of the economy. Sea level rise is likely to affect the salinization of coastal aquifers, a critical source of freshwater, as well as increase the risk of waterborne diseases. Furthermore, because the fault zone created between the Caribbean and South American tectonic plates stretches across all of Trinidad, South West Trinidad’s current rate of sea level rise is approximately four times greater than in North West Trinidad. The disproportionate effects of sea level rise throughout the country could lead to social disparities and greater unrest.
In 2016, officials in Tobago declared a water shortage crisis, despite investments in well drilling. This resulted in push-back from businesses and citizens who depend on tourism revenue. The crisis was fueled by last year’s dry season. By some projections, annual precipitation will decrease by 14 percent by 2050 and 21 percent by 2100 in the country. These decreases would further lead to reductions in groundwater recharge. Surface water loss is also anticipated as temperatures rise. Combined with sea level rise impacts on freshwater availability, these additional stresses on the water supply and dependent industries could enhance the drive to go elsewhere for better economic opportunities and access to resources.
Increased Storm Damage
Traditionally, hurricane patterns in the Caribbean have followed a north-westerly path, leaving more southern countries like Trinidad and Tobago to be less affected. However, as a consequence of climate change, these hurricane tracks may be altered in such a way that the country will be hit more frequently by these kinds of storms. Climate change is also projected to increase the frequency and intensity of such storms. According to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank, the estimated annual value of mean damage due to tropical storms in the country for various scenarios ranges from $19.6 million to $36.9 million.
Problem Recognized by US Security Community
President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy and the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap highlights the security community’s recognition of linkages between security and climate change. This recognition also extends to Trinidad and Tobago in particular. For example, the U.S. Southern Command completed a joint assessment in partnership with the country on the defense implications and risks posed by climate change. Greater collaboration among the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Southern Command can enhance the understanding of potential risks posed by climate change in Trinidad and Tobago.
Anticipated short- and long-term climate change impacts on Trinidad and Tobago are likely to produce additional stresses on many areas of society. Damage to key economic areas, shortages in critical resources, and destruction caused by sea level rise and storms may create stronger incentives for citizens to seek better opportunities not only through ISIL, but other extremist groups. It is important for the U.S. security community to increase its knowledge of the extent to which climate change may intensify existing security risks in Trinidad and Tobago in order to act in the best interest of U.S. national security, both now and in the future.
Katherine is a WiSe Fellow and program consultant at ICF, a global consulting firm that works in environmental and security issues. Ideas expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of ICF.