When Yasin Abu Bakr and his bunch of misguided followers decided to stage a coup in Trinidad 26 years ago, nobody knew of Al Queda, ISIS, and other radical Muslim groups.
Bakr embarked on mission impossible on July 27, 1990, unaware of what he wanted and how he was going to leave TTT and the Red House.
In 2001, terrorists hijacked American Airlines planes and crashed into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, signaling to the world that the Muslims were on a war path. Years later, ISIS formed and their members have been on a path of destruction in Europe, using various methods to create havoc.
But long before their arrival, Bakr and the Jamaat Al Muslimeen had been threatening this country.
So why did Bakr attempt to take over the country?
Today marks the 26th anniversary of the 1990 attempted coup. The entire world knows who did it. But who was the person(s) behind the attempt to overthrow the democratically-elected government of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR)? Who wanted to make sure that the NAR government fell, even by the use of arms?
That has been the burning question for the past 26 years, so much so that many people in society had been calling for a commission of inquiry into the events of that period.
One such person was Winston Dookeran, a hostage in the Red House, who later acted as prime minister when the six-day ordeal was over and while Prime Minister ANR Robinson was recovering from injuries sustained when he was a hostage in the Red House. Well, seven months after coming into office, then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, ordered a commission of inquiry in December 2010.
After millions were spent on the inquiry, it was not clear what caused the coup attempt.
The undisputed facts are that around 6 pm on July 27, 1990, Jamaat al Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr led a group of men which invaded TTT House and Radio Trinidad on Maraval Road. Another group, led by Bilaal Abdullah, stormed the Red House while Parliament was in session.
But did Bakr wake up that morning and decide he was going to overthrow the government? The answer is no; this was planned months before, with very few people knowing what was going to take place. Guns and ammunition used in the coup attempt were bought in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in October 1989. Who financed this operation? Who was privy to the information that Bakr was going to attempt to take over Trinidad and Tobago? Was Bakr promised a position in the NAR when it came to power in 1986? Who reneged on that promise to give him a position in the government?
Who used Bakr and his group when it benefitted them? Bakr has gone on record and called the names of two politicians whom he said knew in advance about the plan.
Many felt that Bakr responded angrily to the occupation by the police and army on his compound at Mucurapo on April 21, 1990. But records later showed that the plan was already in train for a take-over.
The Jamaat rose to prominence in 1985 when its members began erecting a building to house a mosque on lands at Mucurapo which they occupied. The building was being erected on lands owned by the Port-of-Spain City Corporation which claimed that it did not give the Jamaat permission.
When the City Corporation failed to get the Jamaat to stop erecting the building, it went to the Port-of-Spain High Court and obtained an injunction.
The construction did not stop and Bakr was hauled before Madam Justice Jean Permanent for contempt of court. He was jailed for 21 days. The building was completed and there was a grand opening attended by Opposition politicians in 1986.
The NAR came into power in late 1986 with a landslide 33-3 victory. In the following years, the NAR became unpopular, slashing public servants’ salaries and operating on the oil price of US$9 a barrel.
Very soon, the Robinson-led government started losing face and when the Basdeo Panday faction of the NAR walked away, the writing was on the wall for the NAR.
The Jamaat moved onto state lands at Mucurapo in April 1990 and started to build a school. The State objected and went to court and obtained an injunction. Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, who was not yet involved in politics, was the attorney for the Jamaat. The police and the army began occupation of the state lands at Mucurapo, much to the annoyance of the Jamaat membership.
While there was tension between the Jamaat members and the law enforcement officers, nothing major happened. Sometime in June 1990, the then Minister of National Security Selwyn Richardson received an intelligence report from the police Special Branch that something was brewing with the Jamaat, but he paid no attention to it.
Just after a jump on July 27, 1990, the women of the Jamaat have whisked away in vehicles. The men, most of them youths, loaded up in vehicles and headed to Port-of-Spain. Most of the membership still knew very little. The police and the army on the state lands paid no heed.
It was obvious, that what happened next was carefully planned. Bakr invaded TTT and the Red House, and Abdullah stormed the Red House. Bakr went on TTT and said he had taken over the country. In the melee at the Red House, Diego Martin Central MP Leo Des Vignes was shot and later died. Robinson and Richardson were shot and beaten. Bakr announced that he was in charge and asked the security forces to put down their weapons.
But it was the exact opposite as the security forces opened fire and challenged the Muslimeen. On the second day, July 28, 1990, the Muslimeen insurgents were boxed in with nowhere to go. Then, the talk of amnesty began. The Jamaat called for their attorney, Maharaj, to come to the Red House to authenticate the amnesty which they were negotiating. But Maharaj took his family and flew off to Grenada. He later said he was fearful of being shot while on his way to the Red House. To escape the possibility of people coming for him at his San Fernando home, he fled the country.
Although acting President Emmanuel Carter signed the amnesty that day, the Muslimeen still made demands. On August 1, 1990, the hostages were released and the Jamaat members surrendered. But 114 Jamaat members were taken into custody and later charged with offenses such as murder, treason, shooting and possession of arms.
Police seized a lot of guns from the Red House and TTT which had been in the possession of the insurgents. Where did the Jamaat get those guns? No one knew. The breakthrough came when the police submitted the serial numbers of the guns to the United States authorities, seeking the assistance of the US Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau. The results were positive.
Investigations revealed that on October 21, 1989, an off-duty Miami police officer saw US-based Muslim leader Louis Haneef and an unidentified man by between ten and 20 assault rifles at a gun show in Fort Lauderdale. Haneef returned the next day and bought a large quantity of ammunition.
The guns were placed in holes cut into plyboard and packed tightly together in containers and sent to Trinidad. The containers carried the address of a top member of the Jamaat, who had gone to Miami ten times between January and July 1990. The containers were removed from the Port-of-Spain port and sent to a warehouse in Trinity. They only surfaced on the day of the coup when trucks were used to bring the weapons and the Jamaat members into the city.
Haneef was arrested and charged in Fort Lauderdale in 1991 with conspiracy to export weapons to Trinidad. He eventually pleaded guilty in the Broward County Federal Court and was jailed for four years.
On June 30, 1992, Justice Clebert Brooks ordered that the Muslimeen insurgents be freed because they were the recipients of an amnesty. The State appealed, but the Court of Appeal by a 2-1 majority agreed with Brooks.
The State went to the Privy Council which said that the amnesty was invalid because after receiving it on the second day of the insurgency, the Jamaat continued to make fresh demands. But the Law Lords said it would be an abuse to rearrest the insurgents and charge them again.
The insurgents were free of what they did in 1990. They were never held accountable for the deaths of close to 30 people and the millions of dollars in destruction of buildings in the city. At least half of the insurgents have since been killed. But the question that will always remain on the minds of every citizen in this country is—who was behind that bloody takeover?