U.S. federal prosecutors have filed terrorism charges against Sayfullo Saipov, 29, an Uzbek immigrant accused of carrying out Tuesday’s deadly terror attack in New York.
The suspect is accused of using a rented truck to run down people on a busy bike path in Manhattan, killing eight and injuring 12 others.
The attack raised concerns about increasing extremism among some ethnic Uzbeks, originating from the Central Asia region.
“The last 18 to 24 months show that Uzbeks or Uzbek-speaking Kyrgyz and Tajiks are disproportionally involved in these ‘lone wolf’ terror strikes,” Thomas Lynch, a research fellow at the Washington-based National Defense University (NDU) who has done research on extremism in Central Asia, told VOA.
Other attacks by ethnic Uzbeks
Since the beginning of 2017, there have been several terror attacks on the West that were allegedly carried out by ethnic Uzbeks with ties to terror organizations.
In January 2017, Abdulkadir Masharipov, 34, an ethnic Uzbek, is suspected in a deadly attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, where at least 39 people were killed. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack.
In April, Russian officials said Akbarzhon Jalilov, 22, an ethnic Uzbek originally from Kyrgyzstan, died in a suicide attack at a metro center in St. Petersburg, Russia, that killed at least 14 people and injured more than 50 others.
A few days later, Rakhmat Akilov, an ethnic Uzbek from Uzbekistan, is accused of carrying out a truck attack on a street in Stockholm, Sweden, killing four people and injuring several others. He reportedly pledged allegiance to IS.
Last week, Abdurasul Juraboev, a 27-year-old Uzbek in New York, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State terror group.
At least seven Uzbeks are serving time behind bars in the U.S. on charges of attempting to provide material support to terrorist organizations.
While U.S authorities are attempting to learn the motives of Saipov and whether he was indeed radicalized by IS or acted alone, the series of terror attacks carried out in recent months by ethnic Uzbeks in Europe and the U.S have had analysts working to find answers for what could possibly be the reasons behind the rise and whether there is an issue that has potentially managed to move into the blind spot of the Western intelligence community.
Khalid Majidyar, a Washington-based analyst, believes the rise has something to do with IS’s ability to disseminate its propaganda online.
“Over the past three years, IS has created a vast online propaganda network to radicalize young men and recruit them. The diaspora Central Asia communities, albeit a small number of them, appear to be particularly susceptible to IS propaganda,” Majidyar said.
Lynch, of NDU, believes that influx of Uzbek-speaking Central Asians to IS battlefields in Iraq and Syria in recent years has allowed IS to make inroads in the region and increase its influence.
Of the more than 4,000 fighters from Central Asia who fought for IS in the Middle East, an estimated 500 to 1,500 were ethnic Uzbeks, a vast majority of them former migrant workers in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, Lynch said.
“These people joined IS in large numbers, not from Uzbekistan directly, but rather from positions of minority and lower work level conditions and very isolated conditions in Russia and in selected other eastern European countries, but primarily Russia,” Lynch said.
Some blame the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) for linking IS to Central Asia. Initially established as a socio-religious group in the mid-1990s, IMU morphed into a militant organization and recruited fighters from several Central Asia states. The group maintained close ties with al-Qaida and pledged allegiance to IS in 2015.
IS reliance on the Uzbek language to convey its message may have also caught the Western intelligence community off guard.
“Europe did not realize that the language of radicalization of Central Asians was the Uzbek language,” NDU’s Lynch said, adding that Europe’s fight against IS’s propaganda was solely focused on Arabic language with little to no focus on Uzbek.
Uzbek language is one of Central Asia’s widely spoken languages. Besides Uzbekistan, the language is also spoken in parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Some of the radicalization is being tied to the “repressive state security apparatus” in Central Asian countries, which allegedly contributed to the radicalization of youth in the region, experts say.
“There is more risk of radicalization the way which Uzbeks oppress religious activity in their country and they brand any non-state sponsored religious activity as being a political opponent,” Lynch said.
The government in Uzbekistan has been accused by rights groups of violating the human and political rights of its citizens.
“Thousands of people are imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Torture is endemic in the criminal justice system. Authorities continue to crack down on civil society activists, opposition members and journalists,” Human Right Watch said. “Muslims and Christians who practice their religion outside strict state control are persecuted and freedom of expression is severely limited.”
Sukhrobjon Ismoilov, a New York-based Uzbek lawyer, also blames the repressive regimes in the region for the spread of extremist ideology in the region.
“Today’s incident [New York attack] is one of the side effects of the past mistakes, including against political and religious freedom, by the previous regimes,” Ismoilov told VOA.
Ismoilov added that some Uzbek immigrants in the U.S. have been unable to fully integrate into the American society because of language barriers and an unwillingness to adjust to the new culture. Over time, that led to their marginalization, he said.
Edward Lemon, a Central Asian scholar at Columbia University, warned that despite the fact that several of Europe’s terror attacks in recent years were carried out by Uzbeks, efforts should be made to avoid painting the entire population with the same brush.
“They do not represent all Uzbeks and only a tiny number have joined radical groups,” Lemon emphasized.
VOA’s Navbahor Imamova and Mehdi Jedinia contributed to this report.