For Uzbeks, Radicalization Often Begins Abroad

The Islamic State has ramped up its Russian-language recruitment.

Sayfullo Saipov, the suspected driver who killed eight people in New York on Oct. 31. (St. Charles County Dept. of Corr/AFP/Getty Images)
Sayfullo Saipov, the suspected driver who killed eight people in New York on Oct. 31. (St. Charles County Dept. of Corr/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Tuesday afternoon’s rampage in Manhattan allegedly carried out by a man from Uzbekistan is shining renewed attention on the radicalization of Central Asians. But for many of them, their path to the Islamic State only began after they left home.

Thousands from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan are believed to be fighting for the Islamist group in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State has stepped up its Russian-language propaganda in recent years, with videos, social media, and translations aimed at Russian speakers.

But most of the Uzbeks and Tajiks who have joined the Islamic State were radicalized in Russia, where they went for work, said Steve Swerdlow, who is Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. “The vast majority … are coming via Russia, sometimes for many years,” he said.

Russia is home to a large Muslim minority of around 15 million, or one-tenth of the population, and has battled its own Islamist insurgencies in the North Caucasus region, sparked by two bloody wars for independence in Chechnya. Over the last two years, Russian security services have arrested several groups of Central Asians throughout the country on charges of plotting acts of terrorism.

Sayfullo Saipov, 29, who on Tuesday allegedly drove a truck into a crowded path, killing eight people and injuring 12 more, emigrated to the United States, not Russia. But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a television interview that Saipov had been “radicalized domestically” in the United States, not in Uzbekistan.

New York officials are treating the attack allegedly committed by Saipov, who came to the United States in 2010 under the State Department’s diversity program, as an act of terrorism inspired by Islamic State.

He was shot in the stomach by police and remains under custody in hospital.

Long presented by Russia as a potential tinderbox, the Central Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union will likely come under renewed scrutiny by the West after the attack in New York.

“The biggest takeaway from the terrorist attack in New York is the Central Asia element,” said Alexey Malashenko, chief researcher at the Berlin-based Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute and an expert on Islam in the region.

The attack Saipov is suspected of appears to follow an emerging pattern: New York would join Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and Istanbul as cities where Central Asians have staged deadly attacks over the last year. The New York incident also follows several arrests of Uzbek men in 2015 on suspicion of terrorism, which embarrassed a small and hard-working community in the city already wary of extremists in their midst.

The five Muslim-majority former Soviet republics stretching from the Caspian Sea to China have long been described by Russian officials as a potential danger zone for Islamist extremism. Moscow says that renewed interest in Afghanistan, which is separated from Russia by Central Asia, is aimed at stopping the spread of terrorism into what the Kremlin considers its own backyard.

Yet U.S. involvement and interest in the former Soviet parts of Central Asia has been relatively moderate. In 2014, the U.S. vacated the Manas transit center in Kyrgyzstan, its last military base in Central Asia, as combat operations in Afghanistan wound down. Kyrgyzstan, in a move aimed at pleasing former imperial master Russia, had voted on the U.S. ouster in parliament.

Decades of poverty and autocratic rule have made people from Central Asia, home to some 70 million, ripe for Islamic State recruitment. Fleeing poverty, many Central Asians, especially young men, venture to Russia for low-paying jobs, where they are often met with racism and resentment by the local population.

Under authoritarian leader Islam Karimov, who died just over a year ago, Uzbekistan maintained one of the harshest approaches to religion in the world, banning proselytizing and regulating worship in what it says was efforts to combat terrorism. Central Asia’s most notorious militant group, the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, became an ally of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But Uzbekistan’s religious persecution led to “many thousands of ordinary religious believers landing behind bars on vague and overbroad extremism statutes simply for peacefully exercising their faith,” said Swerdlow, of Human Rights Watch, adding that this led some marginalized Uzbeks to look elsewhere for religion.

Though a more reform-oriented government under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has scrapped some of the more punitive aspects of the country’s clampdown on religious freedoms, such as a blacklist of people accused of extremism, there is still a long way to go, Swerdlow said.

Critics say Kyrgyzstan, where the ethnic Uzbek suicide bomber on the St. Petersburg metro hailed from, also has a repressive religious policy. The two Tsarnaev brothers, who planted bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013, were Chechens who had grown up in Kyrgyzstan.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, Russia urged its American “partners” to continue their joint battle against international terrorism, a scourge often cited by U.S. President Donald Trump on his campaign trail as a problem the two countries should combat together. So far, Russia has stayed relatively silent on the New York attack.

But the investigation into Saipov’s alleged motives will once again turn the spotlight onto the region. “Central Asia has firmly joined the global jihad movement,” Malashenko told Foreign Policy, “and there is no way to stop it.”

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.