Sayfullo Saipov, the sole suspect in the New York City terror attack on October 31, wasn't from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or other countries that have been the birthplaces of militants who've struck the US in recent years.
Instead, he was from the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan, a country with a history of religious violence — and one whose citizens are susceptible to ISIS propaganda and recruiting efforts.
Officials say Saipov carried out the attack — which killed eight people and injured 11 — “in the name of ISIS” and had planned the strike for weeks. Though he seems to have been acting on his own with no direct ties to ISIS, “he appears to have followed, almost exactly to a T, the instructions that ISIS has put out in its social media channels before with instructions to their followers on how to carry out such an attack,” John Miller, the New York deputy police commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, said at a news briefing on Wednesday.
Saipov also seems to have been radicalized after he came to the United States, and not back in Uzbekistan. But ISIS and other militant groups have been actively recruiting Uzbek migrant workers in the US, Russia, and Europe. A two-year federal terrorism investigation led to charges against five men from Uzbekistan, and another from neighboring Kazakhstan, for providing “material support” to ISIS. Uzbeks have also conducted attacks in Russia, Turkey, and Sweden over the past year, killing 57 people.
However, “it would be a terrible mistake to draw negative conclusions on Uzbekistan because of this one crazed individual,” Frederick Starr, a Central Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University, told the radio program 1A in an interview today. “In terms of Islamic extremism, [Uzbekistan is] quite quiet today — quieter than most of the region.”
Still, it’s clear that some Uzbeks have been attracted to ISIS’s brand of radical Islamist ideology — and that means the US and others must take the country more seriously as a possible source of future militants.
Uzbeks have become a prime recruiting target for terrorist groups — including ISIS
For most of the past two centuries, Uzbekistan was part of Russia, and later the Soviet Union. It only became an independent nation in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union.
From then, the country suffered under the authoritarian rule of dictator Islam Karimov until his death in 2016. He held a tight grip on the state, controlled the media, and centralized the economy. The state’s brutal security service spread its authority throughout the country, even into small neighborhoods. And Karimov ran a secular government, even though the majority of the population is Muslim.
His authoritarian rule in part led the economy to suffer. Today, Uzbekistan is 159th in the CIA’s ranking of GDP per capita among countries.
The poor living conditions and struggling economy led many in Uzbekistan to leave the country and seek opportunities elsewhere in places like Russia, Europe, and the United States.
That could be why Saipov departed in 2010, at age 22. “If anything, it’s normal for a 22-year-old to leave Uzbekistan to go work somewhere,” Nate Schenkkan, a Central Asia expert at Freedom House, told me. “No one would bat an eye at that. There’s no work; there’s no money.”
But some young Uzbeks who left the country in search of a better life have had trouble fitting in in other societies, Erica Marat, a Central Asia security expert at the National Defense University, told Newsweek.
“Patterns of radicalization for Uzbeks are somewhat similar to that of migrants from other countries, an inability to fit into the society where [they] live, an inability to live the American dream,” she said. “So they are looking for ways to belong and extremist narratives seem to be the most attractive.”
ISIS and other terrorist groups have taken advantage of that feeling of disenfranchisement to recruit Uzbeks and other Central Asians abroad, promising a more lavish and purposeful lifestyle for those who join their ranks. The Financial Times reports that around 80 to 90 percent of ISIS fighters from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan radicalized while they were working in Russia.
From about 2013 to 2014, Uzbeks were the most prominent Central Asians among ISIS’s ranks, Noah Tucker, an expert on Uzbek terrorists, writes for the Central Asia Program at George Washington University.
ISIS created a comprehensive online propaganda machine to attract Uzbeks, Tucker notes. The organization developed an Uzbek-focused media service, video studios, and social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. ISIS even had an Uzbek spokesperson, “Abu Usmon,” but he stopped appearing around the fall of 2014 — about the same time that other ISIS online recruiting efforts geared toward Uzbeks wound down.
On top of that, Uzbekistan has its own history of terrorism. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), founded in 1991 to implement Islamic law in the country, launched terror attacks against Karimov’s regime in the 1990s for outlawing the group. It’s now basically defunct, but over the years it helped the Taliban fight the US in Afghanistan, and garnered headlines for the 2011 high-profile abduction case of Shahbaz Taseer. The group, which now sits at around 1,000 members, pledged its loyalty to ISIS.
Terrorist efforts to recruit Uzbeks have worked
At a 2016 New Year’s Eve party in Istanbul, an ISIS-linked Uzbek killed 39 revelers in a nightclub. On April 3, 2017, an ethnic Uzbek bombed a train in St. Petersburg, Russia, killing 14 people and injuring 51 others.
Four days later, a 39-year-old Uzbek man drove a truck into a busy street in Stockholm, Sweden, murdering four people and injuring a dozen more.
Tuesday’s attack in New York City has now been added to that list. In addition, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a press conference Wednesday that the US might add Uzbekistan to the president’s travel ban list.
That means that Uzbekistan’s relative obscurity may be coming to an end.