Eleven months ago, 29-year-old Shane Crawford sold his valuables—a van and a big screen TV— to make up money for the airfare to go to war-torn Syria.
Crawford, a Muslim also known as “Asadullah”, wanted to fight on the side of militant organisation Islamic State (ISIS) in the civil war that has plagued Syria since 2011.
He didn’t tell his mother, Joan, whom he lived with at Enterprise Village, Chaguanas, about his plans.
On November 27, 2013, Crawford and one of his two wives travelled to Caracas, then to London and Turkey before they made it to Syria to join the ISIS cause.
“He called a week later to say where he was,” said Joan in an interview with the Sunday Express at her rented, dilapidated, and wooden home last Friday.
While she seemed visibly distressed, she invited the Sunday Express into her home.
Joan, clad in black hijab, had a copy of last Friday’s Express on her couch. While she does not usually purchase the newspaper, on that day she bought one to see the story written about Crawford, the last of her six children.
Caribbean Communications Network’s (CCN) Multimedia Investigative Journalist Mark Bassant had identified Crawford as one of the men in an ISIS video posted on YouTube, bathing in the Euphrates River which starts in eastern Turkey and flows through Iraq and Syria.
Joan said the video that showed Crawford taking a bath in the Euphrates was taken from a phone which he had lost during combat.
Joan said the video was posted in January, which was when she saw it, and neither police nor intelligence officers had sought her out to comment on it.
She said it was only recently that the video was making the rounds in the local media and her son was once again being branded a terrorist.
This time, though, she is glad he is out of the country and has no intention of returning.
“Anybody who left for Syria, they are not coming back here,” she said.
Asked to elaborate, she explained that people weren’t leaving Trinidad by themselves but were taking their families along with them.
“They are not coming back,” she stated emphatically.
She has reconciled the fact that she will not see her son in the flesh again either because he will not return home or he might die fighting.
But she communicates with him through social media like Skype and Whats App since his Facebook profile was deleted.
“Facebook deleted his profile. He didn’t do it,” she said.
And he calls to check up on her, she said.
She said she has to wait for him to communicate with her because he doesn’t answer when she calls.
The Sunday Express asked that Joan communicate a request to Crawford to interview him on his decision to fight for ISIS.
Late Saturday evening, Joan said Crawford had called but after she relayed the request, he said he could not speak with the media.
“He said he’s not allowed. They have a policy on that. No media,” she told the Sunday Express.
Joan said Crawford’s decision to leave Trinidad to fight in Syria was prompted by the inadequacy of what his life had become in Trinidad and the need to find a greater purpose.
In October 2011, Crawford was detained during the State of Emergency for being part of a plot to kill Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and three Cabinet ministers and to cause panic in the country.
Despite being detained for 14 days, no charges were laid against him or 15 other men after the police failed to provide sufficient evidence for them to be charged in relation to a conspiracy to murder Persad-Bissessar and three members of her Cabinet.
But Joan conceded that Crawford had had trouble with the law before.
In 2010, Crawford appeared before the Arima court on charges of allegedly being in possession of a Glock 9mm pistol, 110 live rounds of assorted ammunition and four firearm magazines.
He was jointly charged with his wife Jamilla Onika Luqman, 22, of Bournes Road, St James, and Wallerfield, and Milton John Algernon, also known as Fareed Mustapha, 38, of Hibiscus Arch Road, Rio Claro and Campo Village, Cunupia.
Algernon was once a director of the Trinidad and Tobago Agricultural Society and the vice-president of the Goat and Sheep Society.
After being charged together in 2010, both Crawford and Algernon were detained during the SOE and both men travelled to Syria together with their families in 2013.
Joan recalled that during the SOE, the police had called her and said they were looking for her son.
Joan said he was out on bail for the ammunition charge and had to check in with the police regularly.
“I called him and was worried. I asked him what is it he had done again. He said he didn’t know. He went himself to the Cunupia Police Station saying that he heard they were looking for him and after that they detained him,” she said.
“But he was never the same. He used to say how the men would ask each other what exactly they were detained for because no one told them.”
Crawford and Algernon were detained at the Eastern Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre in Santa Rosa.
Life after SOE
Joan recalled that Crawford spent two years after being detained during the SOE selling fish along the Southern Main Road in Enterprise.
“You know how difficult it is for him to get a work after his own country branded him a terrorist? Wanting to kill his own Prime Minister? It affected him, he is not a talkative person but I knew,” she said.
The Sunday Express went to Enterprise on Friday and spoke to two acquaintances of Crawford.
One recalled that not only was Crawford selling fish, but he also worked taxi from Port of Spain to Chaguanas.
Another recalled that Crawford attended El Dorado Secondary School.
“From since school he was a tough one, he was a deviant,” one of them recalled.
“He was a man who would take his Muslim wear seriously. He was always wearing his clothes. Even when he was selling fish,” the other acquaintance recalled.
“But he was also a ladies man, he always had these girls around him,” he added.
Crawford, the men explained, had a good education.
Joan produced his school certificates to show that in 2002, he scored five Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) subjects, including English Language, Integrated Science, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering Technology and Technical Drawing as well as a course on Best Practice Behaviour.
In 2003, he did an Adolescent Development Programme at the El Socorro Regional Life Centre and in 2004, Crawford completed a certificate from Servol for PC Systems Servicing and Troubleshooting.
After secondary school, Crawford converted to Islam.
The Sunday Express also visited the home where Crawford grew up with his uncle which was also along the Southern Main Road.
His step-aunt said she had not seen him in a long time and had lost his number. When the Sunday Express pointed out that he was not in the country but was in a video, she was unaware that he had left the country.
Joan said after the SOE, her son was frightened to venture out.
“He would stay inside and play his games, he liked video games,” she said.
“Not everyone can take oppression. You lash out in different ways. He left to fight. He believes in what he is doing.”
The ISIS life
So is Crawford making US$1,000 a day to fight for ISIS?
“Well, if he is, I am not seeing it,” said his mother as she waved her hand around her meagre apartment which she rents for $1,000 a month.
CCN TV6 had reported that ISIS recruits were being paid US$1,000 a day to fight for them.
But Joan said that is all part of the propaganda, which has come from the Western media.
She said she lives off her disability grant of $1,500 and a food card of $400 from which she covers her rent and food.
She said Crawford and his family have been given living accommodations and food and shelter but are not given the money which it is alleged that he makes.
When the Sunday Express questioned her on the beheadings which have become a trademark of the terror organisation, she quickly responded: “I have seen them and I have asked my son and he says he is not involved in that.”
So what exactly is he involved in?
“He is fighting. He does not believe in raping women and killing children. It is those crimes which were being committed in Syria which prompted him to go and fight,” she said.
“His life is better. He has purpose. He has his family and he is not coming back here,” she said.
Asked if she was aware of more families that had left, Joan was quiet. She chose not to talk about it.
“The Middle East is a big place. If you feel oppressed, there are many places to go,” she said.
But will she go?
The quick answer was “No”.