New York truck attack renews concern about extremism in central Asia

The attack is the latest in a series by Uzbek citizens and ethnic Uzbeks this year including the nightclub attack in Istanbul on New Year’s Day and the bombing of a metro train in St Petersburg in April

Amir Ganiev, age 27, looks at a picture of the Uzbek suspect in the deadly truck attack while working in an Uzbek restaurant in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, U.S., November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE

The arrest of Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant to the United States accused of killing eight people in the New York truck attack, has led to renewed attention towards the threat of radicalism in Central Asia.

The attack is the latest in a series by Uzbek citizens and ethnic Uzbeks this year including the nightclub attack in Istanbul on New Year’s Day, the bombing of a metro train in St Petersburg in April and the fatal truck attack in Stockholm in the same month.

Inspired by a single motivating cause, the involvement of Uzbeks in these attacks suggests that Central Asia may be increasingly susceptible to the radical message spread by ISIL. Since the emergence of the region’s countries from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, they have had to cope with severe social and economic dislocation stemming partly from the legacy of Moscow’s rule. In particular, the Fergana Valley, a relatively fertile and ethnically diverse area in a generally arid and sparsely populated region, has been subject to instability since being divided arbitrarily between the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the early 20th century.


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In recent years, recurring bouts of unrest have been compounded by tensions among the area’s fragmented ethnic composition. In addition, there are fears that radicalisation has taken hold in some parts of the region due to an absence of opportunities, ethnic rivalry and endemic corruption and clientelism. Protests against President Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan in May 2005 and political conflict surrounding the fall of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010 led to hundreds of dead and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

In Uzbekistan, Karimov gained a negative international reputation for his harsh repression of political opponents and religious groups, jailing hundreds of practicing Muslims and imposing strict censorship and travel restrictions. Karimov’s oppressive rule may have had opposite effects from those intended, as dissent against the Tashkent government was manifested in the emergence of the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). An elusive network alleged to have links with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the IMU gained greater international prominence in 2014 when it announced its allegiance to ISIL.

Since the death of Karimov in September 2016, the new Uzbek government has made tentative moves towards liberalising the country’s economy and easing political repression.  Despite these efforts, the extent to which internal security may be relaxed in Uzbekistan will remain subject to the potential threat posed by returning ISIL fighters. The risk to the Fergana Valley is especially acute given that area is the place of origin of a large proportion of the thousands of recruits known to have travelled to join ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

Nevertheless, the relationship between potential radicalisation in Central Asia and the attack in New York is questionable. Initial reports on Saipov allege that he only become interested in religion after he arrived in the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010. The irony is that Saipov may have taken advantage of the freedoms of the United States to access information and pave the way to his radicalisation after being prevented from doing so in his home country.

The fact that Uzbekistan was not included in the list of countries targeted by President Trump’s recent attempt to impose a travel ban on selected Muslim majority countries raises questions over the White House’s policy. The New York incident suggests that the Trump administration’s calls for stricter screening of immigrants from specified countries to prevent an influx of terrorism has little relevance to the real home-grown threat that the United States actually faces.

The evidence rather suggests that ISIL-inspired attacks in the United States have been carried out by extremists who have succumbed to propaganda issued by ISIL after having lived in the country for some time. Investigators of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 later determined that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the two brothers responsible for the attack, only became radicalised after gaining political asylum in the United States in 2002.

Suggested links between Central Asian extremists and domestic terrorism in the United States are therefore tenuous to say the least. The key issue in the aftermath of the New York attack is the continued validity of a travel ban that has done much to alienate world opinion while doing little to safeguard the United States from rogue loners seduced by the warped appeal of ISIL propaganda. Sayfullo Saipov’s premeditated act of mayhem suggests that travel bans cannot keep out extremist ideas, and that it is these that must be defeated at source.