Sayfullo Saipov: From golden boy to ISIL supporter

As Saipov pleads not guilty to charges over fatal New York truck attack, his hometown questions where he was influenced.

Sayfullo Saipov
Saipov is accused of driving a truck on a bike path that killed eight people and injured others near One World Trade Center on October 31 [File: Craig Ruttle/AP Photo]

Tashkent, Uzbekistan – Sayfullo Saipov, a national of Uzbekistan accused of killing eight people in Lower Manhattan on October 31, was supposed to be a golden boy.

His attack, the deadliest assault in New York since September 11, 2001, was described by US officials including the president as a “terrorist” incident. 

At least 12 people were injured in the violence, which has seen the 29-year-old charged with 22 counts including attempted murder and supplying material support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Nine of the counts could see him face the death penalty.

On Tuesday at a New York court, he pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The only son in an affluent family, Saipov grew up with three younger sisters, attended a private school and the prestigious Financial Studies university, played football, and wore polished shoes that made him “look like a gentleman”, according to his sister, Umida Saipova. 

What he did was an unexpected blow to us. We are waking up from a nightmare.

by Umida Saipova, suspect's sister

In Uzbekistan, his father owns a store at a construction materials market, and the family lives in the upper-middle-class neighbourhood of Uch Tepa, or Three Hills, in a home that looks luxurious in the impoverished former Soviet nation of 32 million.

“What he did was an unexpected blow to us,” Umida told Al Jazeera. “We are waking up from a nightmare.”

Their neighbourhood is traditional. Men never wear shorts, instead, they don jeans or suits. Women tend to wear long skirts; anything revealing would be frowned upon.

Although men flock to a local mosque each Friday, a government-appointed neighbourhood official said that he immediately learns about any signs of “radicalism”, from pro-Islamic law diatribes to certain styles of appearance.

Across the former Soviet Union, shorter trousers, full beards and no moustaches denote Salafis, a sect considered extreme in their beliefs in the region. Police in Central Asia know the list by heart.

“You can’t hide such things here,” Bakhtiyor Yunuskhodjayev told Al Jazeera.  As head of makhalla, a local neighbourhood, he handles daily bureaucracy such as issuing documents proving one owns an apartment or has a job. If a young man wants to become a policeman, he needs a positive “certificate” from him.

Along with Yunuskhodjayev, the neighbours are adamant that neither Saipov nor his family members showed any signs of danger.

“He is not the kind of boy who hurts people, who kills people,” said a woman who lives near Saipov’s house, on condition of anonymity. 

Islam versus Karimov

Despite his first name, Islam Karimov, a former Communist apparatchik and ex-president, resisted a religious revival in Uzbekistan and tried to root out “extremism” with draconian measures, squeezing out “radicals”. 

Hundreds escaped to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, forming the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed group that sided with the Taliban and fought against the US-led coalition. Many more fled to Turkey, where they formed a community in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district that would send many fighters to Syria and Iraq.

Uzbek authorities cracked down on Muslim groups operating outside government control, and jailed thousands of alleged “radicals” that were mostly ordinary, peaceful Muslims, human rights groups say. 

Although Saipov’s apparent “radicalisation” seems to have happened in the US, he almost certainly knew about what was happening to Muslims around him. 

Saipov is accused of a truck attack which struck down multiple people on a bike path in New York City [St. Charles County Department of Corrections/AFP]
Saipov is accused of a truck attack which struck down multiple people on a bike path in New York City [St. Charles County Department of Corrections/AFP]

Government-orchestrated trials, rights abuses and severe torture such as beatings, asphyxiation, electrocution and rape marked the crackdown for decades. Two jailed Muslims were boiled to death 2002, according to research commissioned by the British Embassy in Uzbekistan. Uzbek authorities said the men doused each other with boiling water during an argument.

In 2005, Karimov ordered his troops to mow down hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Andijan. He branded the protest “an Islamist coup” and jailed hundreds of alleged “organisers”. 

Karimov’s death last year terminated his 27-year-rule, and his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, started economic and political reforms that some hailed as “Uzbekistan’s perestroika”.

On the day after Saipov’s truck attack, Mirziyoyev said Uzbekistan “is ready to use all forces and resources to help in the investigation of this act of terror”, and offered condolences to the US.

‘10,000 behind bars’

Although hundreds of Muslims have been released this year, at least blacklisted 10,000 alleged “radicals” are still behind bars, says Nadejda Atayeva, head of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, who fled Uzbekistan and lives in France.


“This list is not getting shorter,” she told Al Jazeera. “Uzbek authorities don’t change their political attitude toward religious organisations and communities that don’t fit the [government-prescribed] format. The emigration of Uzbek believers is intensifying.”

And in jail, they still face horrendous abuse.

In early November, Mukhabbat Kholmatova, a 60-year-old woman from Andijan, claimed that her imprisoned son Alisher Kholmatov and other inmates had their genitals doused with boiling water after guards saw them praying, according to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report. 

But Saipov was not even close to being accused of “extremism”.

He was a diligent student, and started working as an accountant at a hotel in 2009, his sister said.

“He had no time to go to the mosque, he just studied, studied,” she said, adding that he never sported a beard.

In 2010, he won a Green Card.

In Uzbekistan, where most people live on $200 a month and millions work abroad, such a development is seen as a victory. Some 830,000 Uzbeks applied for the US diversity visa lottery, the official name for the Green Card, in 2015, but only 4,368 won.

Billboards and slips of paper advertising the English-speaking middlemen who help fill in the online forms for around $5 are ubiquitous in Uzbek cities.

For Saipov, the win was unexpected – he copied his friend’s application and didn’t plan to move to the US, the sister said. Yet, there it was – a ticket to the American dream.

Eight years later, the dream fizzled.

He worked as a long-haul truck driver, registered two transport companies that never grew into anything sizable, and lived in Ohio, Florida and New Jersey.

He fathered three children with an Uzbek woman he married in the US and grew a full beard. In 2015, federal agents interviewed him about possible ties to suspected fighters, according to ABC News.

Six months before the attack, he became an Uber driver.

So why could he have carried out such an attack? 

Saipov was “manipulated” into pledging allegiance to ISIL, claims Khusniddin Kutbiddinov, an Uzbek journalist who fled to the US seven years ago.

“In the past 100-plus years, Uzbeks absolutely can’t tell a friend from an enemy,” Kutbiddinov told Al Jazeera, referring to the years of propaganda during the Communist era and Karimov’s rule. “They have long lost an ability to discern. And that is why very often they are easy to manipulate.”

A change in immigrant men’s status may contribute to radicalisation, another observer noted. 

They start touting conservatism because of “the fall of their authority in the family, where they used to be breadwinners, used to be respected by their wives – and [then] became nothing”, Vladimir Chernomorsky, an Uzbekistan-born publicist living in the US, wrote on Facebook.

Radicalisation “is a way to preserve their authority and self-respect”, he added.

‘Psychological reasons need to be addressed’

Saipov was the fourth Uzbek to organise an attack this year.

In January, Abdulkadir Marsharipov, 28, gunned down 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub. Turkey said he was an ISIL fighter who had trained in Iraq and lived in Konya. 

In April, Akbarjon Jalilov, a 22-year-old ethnic Uzbek with a Russian passport blew up a subway train in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, killing 15 people. An al-Qaeda-linked group fighting against ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack.

Days later Rakhmat Akilov ploughed a truck into a crowd in Stockholm, killing four and wounding 15, months after he was denied asylum in Sweden. Like Saipov, he followed ISIL’s online how-to instructions.

Unlike homegrown Uzbek fighters, these four “converted” and began following a hardline ideology after years of living abroad – something that could be ascribed to online propaganda of radical groups, Daniil Kislov, Central Asia expert says.

“What needs to be addressed are the social and psychological reasons why boys from Uzbekistan are prone to extremist ideas in emigration,” Daniil Kislov told Al Jazeera. “In Uzbekistan, they definitely were neither religious radicals nor adversaries of the Uzbek regime.”

Many Uzbeks are indignant about what Saipov has done to their nation’s image – and to his own family.

“They are good, hard-working people,” neighbourhood official Yunuskhodjayev said. “Now they are being cursed.”

Source: Al Jazeera