The New York truck attack that took place this week and left eight dead is another grim reminder of the danger Islamist terrorism poses for the Western countries. The 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, a ‘green card’ holder from Uzbekistan, has been named as the suspect behind the Halloween attack that crushed cyclists and pedestrians. He is believed to have arrived to the USA in 2010 and have been living in Florida, Ohio and New Jersey. Later, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack announcing Saipov as ‘one of the caliphate soldiers’ in its weekly al-Naba newspaper. Although it is still not confirmed whether Saipov had direct links to extremists overseas, it is clear that he had been inspired by violent ISIS propaganda videos found on his phone.
While the suspect’s ethnicity might be a surprise to some, it is not the first time Uzbek nationals have been involved in Islamist terrorist attacks this year. Another man from Uzbekistan, Rakhmat Akilov, carried out a similar truck attack on a busy street in Stockholm in April, killing four and injuring 15. He was a father of four kids and a construction worker who had been denied a permanent residency in Sweden.
Just a few days before the Stockholm tragedy, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device in the St Petersburg metro killing 14 people and injuring at least 45 others. The perpetrator was identified as Akbarzhon Jalilov, a 22-year-old ethnic Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan and a naturalised Russian citizen.
Similarly, a massacre at the nightclub in Istanbul that took place on the New Year’s Eve was carried out by ISIS followers from Central Asia. According to Turkish security services, those arrested as alleged accomplices are known to include Uighurs, Kyrgyzs, and Turkmen.
These separate seemingly unconnected massacres offer a glimpse into a trend that has so far received a relatively little international exposure – the increasing role of the Central Asian terrorism in the global jihadist movement. Previous analysis of ISIS propaganda demonstrates that the group’s outreach is disproportionately slanted towards foreigners, and Russian is one of the languages used for translation of ISIS materials and social media messages.
According to the report released last week by the Soufan Group, Russia and the former Soviet region more broadly is the single largest destination for returning militants from Iraq and Syria. More than 8,700 from the former Soviet Union have traveled to fight on the side of ISIS, and an estimated 3,417 individuals departed from Russia alone, primarily from North Caucasus. North Caucasians, including Chechens and Dagestanis, have had a visible presence among ISIS foot soldiers, and ISIS has its own affiliate in Russia’s Northern Caucasus. Chechnya is a region affected by ruthless political violence and a narrative of injustice since the 1990s, so it is not surprising that it would be providing a significant support to ISIS. But how can we explain radicalisation in the former Soviet Central Asia, a region that was not marked by ethno-political grievances and a struggle for self-determination?
For starters, many Central Asians have found themselves in a constant circle of marginalisation because of their internal economic struggles. Central Asian countries are known as steady suppliers of Russian-speaking labour force in Moscow or St Petersburg, and the narrative of socio-economic exploitation could be used as a means of radicalisation. Moreover, besides absence of economic opportunities, Central Asian countries are ruled by repressive authoritarian regimes with a low level of political freedom.
But what makes Uzbekistan stand out among other Central Asian states? In an effort to combat extremism, Uzbekistan is known for a long controversial practice of restricting the religious practices of its Muslim population: all clerics are vetted by the government, and all madrassas are infiltrated by undercover informants. The government regularly oppresses and imprisons individuals who do not conform to officially prescribed practices. At the same time, these punitive measures implemented by the Karimov regime which were meant to decrease the appeal of radical ideology have not eradicated the problem but displaced it abroad. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is still an active organisation that declared its support for ISIS in 2014. The group later claimed that Uzbeks were responsible for some of the most high-profile suicide attacks in Iraq. Beyond Islamic State, Uzbeks are believed to have strong links with terrorist networks in Afghanistan.
Central Asia is a region that received its notoriety among security experts because of cross-border drug smuggling, particularly opiates. Arguably, the same routes such as Ferghana valley in Tajikistan could be used for smuggling radioactive materials for ISIS from Russia. A possible nexus between terrorism and organised crime becomes particularly alarming against the backdrop of recent terrorist attacks carried out by Central Asian nationals in the United States, Europe and Turkey.
While the New York attacker’s links to the bigger terrorist plot are yet to be verified, the recent trend of ‘lone wolf’ terrorism from Central Asia symbolises a shifting strategy of recruitment by ISIS that would aim at including non-Arab ‘born-again’ Muslims form the post-Soviet countries capitalising on their regional grievances.