AT LEAST 19 Trinidadian Muslims are now in the custody of the Venezuelan intelligence service SEBIN (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional), under the suspicion of being terrorists.
Well-placed intelligence sources in Venezuela confirmed the arrests of the Trinidadians, along with two other non-nationals at Plaza Hotel in Sabana Grande, Caracas.
The arrests followed a daytime raid last Wednesday.
The Express and TV6 News understand that three Trinidadian imams were among those held during the raid.
They are all being detained at SEBIN headquarters in Caracas.
The Express and TV6 News were informed that officers from SEBIN searched the hotel rooms of the Trinidadians and found military-style uniforms and Jihadist videos.
They also confiscated US$102,000 in cash and 66 passports that were in the possession of one of the Imams, who is attached to the Montrose Masjid.
The imams claimed they were not connected to the group and said they had come to Venezuela to secure visas at the Saudi Arabian consulate for Trinidadians who were going to the Hajj pilgrimage.
But intelligence sources in Venezuela who checked into their story indicated that the imams had some of the arrested group members’ passports in their custody.
“When we checked into their story we understand that they were trying to get the passports of these group members renewed by going to their consulate here in Venezuela.”
Intelligence sources close to the investigation informed the Express and TV6 News that the imams were attempting to renew the passports of the members, stating that they were travelling to Syria in a few months.
A high-ranking security source in Venezuela told the Express and TV6 News that the Trinidadians are being treated as suspected terrorists as it is believed they were leaving for Syria to fight in the Jihadist war.
Umar Abullah, head of the Islamic Front in Trinidad, said: “We have been asking for a long time for this Government to establish diplomatic relations with the Saudi government as it relates to visa and travel requirements to the holy land. It would prevent incidents like this with Imams having to travel to Venezuela with huge amounts of money and people’s passports if we can establish a Saudi consulate here.”
But one of the men, authorities believe, is instrumental in teaching some of the group members to use firearms and is wanted in Trinidad on a suspected murder charge.
Another one of the men now in custody was detained for questioning during the 2011 state of emergency in Trinidad.
He was suspected of being part of an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and some members of her administration.
The Express and TV6 News obtained the names of all of the persons in custody, but decided to withhold them until further investigations.
Apart from the three imams in custody, there are eight children, ranging in ages from two to 11, five adult men and three women.
The Express and TV6 News were reliably informed that officials from the Trinidad and Tobago Consulate made attempts to see the children but have been barred.
Venezuelan authorities have been tight-lipped about the arrests and say they will not share any information since they believe it can prejudice their investigation.
Under Venezuelan law, the group can be detained up to 45 days without being charged.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs official indicated under the Vienna Convention the group is permitted one consular visit.
The Express and TV6 News understands that the children and the adult men and women had entered Venezuela between January 1 and 5. The Imam from central Trinidad entered in February, while the other two imams came in on March 16 and 19.
Intelligence sources in Venezuela and Trinidad revealed “that the authorities were alerted to the members of the group from officials at the hotel, who indicated that they had being paying cash for the rooms ever since they arrived and kept to themselves all the time.”
Minister of National Security Gary Griffith confirmed the incident to the Express and TV6 News via text message and indicated that a team from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Security is expected to leave today to hold talks with Venezuelan authorities.
Admiral Richard Kelshall is one of the members of the team heading to Venezuela, Griffith indicated.
Griffith, however, said he was not aware if the Trinidad nationals were being treated as suspected terrorists.