Central Asia Is Seen as Breeding Ground of Militancy


While there is no saying, for now, what may have motivated Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect who is thought to have driven the truck that plowed through a bike lane in Manhattan on Tuesday, killing eight people, Central Asia’s troubled politics and economics form a part, at least, of the back story.

The expanse of desert and mountains north of Afghanistan has a total population of about 60 million. Uzbekistan, with around 32 million people, is by far the most populous, and has a long history with Islamist militancy.


President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, who has eased the country’s iron grip over its citizens, has offered to help the American authorities investigate the New York attack.

Pavel Golovkin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A spiral of repression and radicalization that has spawned three major Islamist groups began soon after the Soviet breakup, as an Islamic revival filled the vacuum left by Communism.

Proselytizing by Saudi-financed groups advocated a particularly austere form of Islam, and a renewed interest in Islam in much of the former Soviet space, sped things along.

“Of course, when one ideology falls, another one takes over,” Shahida Tulaganova, a former producer with BBC from Uzbekistan, and a close observer of Islamist movements in the region, said in a telephone interview.

Alarmed, the country’s president at the time, Islam Karimov, a former Soviet apparatchik, cracked down, introducing government-sanctioned mosques that were tightly controlled and banning all others. Under his nearly three-decade rule, rights groups say, thousands were imprisoned for worshiping at unsanctioned mosques.

Not surprisingly, underground religious groups formed. Members of the most prominent organization, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, were driven out of the country in the late 1990s and were active in Afghanistan and Pakistan for years, though many of its members have now joined the Islamic State’s organization in Afghanistan.

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In one notorious instance, supporters of a group known as Akramia — named after its founder, Akram Yuldashev — were rounded up after an uprising and street protest in the Uzbek city of Andijan in 2005.

The crackdown and mbad arrests that swept the country were so alarming that the United States was prompted to close an air base in Uzbekistan that had supported operations in Afghanistan. The Uzbek government announced in 2016 that Mr. Yuldashev had died in prison five years earlier, from tuberculosis.


The Minor Mosque in Tashkent. The former Uzbek President Islam Karimov introduced government-sanctioned mosques that were tightly controlled and banned all others.

Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik, via Associated Press

Akramia was not clearly militant in nature, so its dismantling drove home the message that Uzbeks drawn to religion not sanctioned by the state would have to leave the country.

That in turn has helped create a large diaspora of labor migrants who represent an attractive pool of potential recruits for militant groups in other countries, particularly Russia. Recruitment videos in Uzbek and Russian play up the heroic adventure of fighting jihad in Syria, drawing an attractive contrast to the drudgery of migrant labor.

“The propaganda on YouTube is amazing,” said Ms. Tulaganova, the former television producer. “I wonder why nobody takes it down.”

The Islamic State’s success in recruiting Central Asian migrants outside their home countries has already drawn the attention of researchers. The International Crisis Group, for example, has examined recruitment among Uzbek and Kyrgyz migrant laborers since 2014, and is preparing a report on the issue.

“What is a really critical factor, and what sets the Islamic State apart from others like the Taliban, is its ability to disseminate propaganda in Russian and Central Asian languages,” Deirdre Tynan, the Central Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, said in a telephone interview. “And it is available whether you are watching as an Uzbek migrant in Russia or on the East Coast of the United States.”

“Young men who left Uzbekistan find themselves isolated, perhaps not as successful as they wanted to be, or maybe just lonely,” she said. In Syria, the Islamic State’s Central Asian recruits are often given menial jobs or used as cannon fodder. She said a disproportionate number of suicide bombers in Iraq and Syria were Tajiks.

Daniil Kislov, the Moscow-based editor of Ferghana, a website that tracks developments in Central Asia, said that Uzbek labor migrants in Russia, and possibly other countries too, had long been of keen interest to recruiters. He cautioned that Mr. Saipov had lived for many years in the West and might have become radicalized during that time.

But as many badysts have warned, growing up under a suffocatingly repressive government, particularly in its treatment of Muslims, is the sort of searing experience that could make a young man like him receptive to the militants’ lure.

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