After an Uzbek national allegedly drove a truck down a Manhattan bike lane, killing eight people and injuring 12 others on Tuesday, commentators seized on the man’s citizenship to argue that Uzbekistan – and Central Asia as a whole – is the “new vanguard” of global “terrorism”.
As evidence, many cited a string of recent attacks carried out by individuals of Central Asian origin in Istanbul, Saint Petersburg and Stockholm. The region’s lack of opportunity and harsh repression, especially of religious groups, has “sown extremism in fertile ground”, many claimed.
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Michal Kraz, writing in Business Insider, said Central Asia has been an “extremist hotbed” since the fall of the Soviet Union. He cited “economic hardship, a lack of political identity, and repressive state power” as reasons why the region has become “ripe for recruitment”.
But Central Asia experts caution against using sporadic attacks to malign a region of some 70 million people, saying that the fact Tuesday’s alleged attacker, Sayfullo Saipov hailed from Uzbekistan likely explains little about his motives.
According to court documents, Saipov, who entered the US legally in 2010, told police he carried out the attack in lower Manhattan, in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
ISIL claimed Tuesday’s attack, but provided no evidence to back up the claim, according to the US-based SITE Intelligence Group.
While small numbers of Central Asians have carried out attacks on civilians or joined the fight in Syria on behalf of armed groups, most are recruited only after they have left home, said Edward Lemon, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University who studies security in Central Asia.
“The vast majority of them seemingly have been recruited outside of Central Asia,” Lemon said, adding that “they’re living as migrants in a non-Muslim country and they’re facing marginalisation”.
“This narrative that now we should be looking for threats emanating from Uzbekistan is misplaced,” he told Al Jazeera.
Given what is known about Saipov so far suggests that he followed the pattern laid out by Lemon.
Acquaintances described Saipov as not particularly religious when he moved to the United States in 2010, US media have reported.
Only in more recent years did he begin espousing “extremist views”.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo echoed this in an interview with CNN on Wednesday, saying that Saipov was “radicalised domestically”.
One path of “radicalisation” Central Asians fall victim to is when they become migrant workers in Russia or Turkey, said Alisher Ilkhamov, a research associate at SOAS University of London and programme officer at Open Society Foundations.
There, they endure low-paying and dangerous jobs, poor living conditions and isolation from their families and neighbourhoods, Ilkhamov told Al Jazeera.
Ilkhamov also said that although life for US green card holders is less extreme, intense competition for work, cultural differences and loneliness may alienate some.
He also blamed the government of Uzbekistan for pursuing policies that force Uzbeks to seek work abroad.
“If you look at the statistics of how many people applied for this [diversity] lottery over the past decade, the curve is going sharply up,” Ilkhamov said, referring to the visa programme in which Saipov entered the US.
“I think [this] indicates a very unhealthy situation from an economic point of view in Uzbekistan, so many people being forced to leave the country,” he added.
“They often find themselves in very marginal conditions.”
Nate Schenkkan, director of the Nations In Transit survey at Freedom House, said that while Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries have not been immune to global trends of “radicalisation”, there is not yet evidence of a new, Central Asian brand of “violent extremism”.
“We have enough data I think and enough information to say that Islamic extremism as a social movement has grown and strengthened in Central Asia, as it has in most of the Muslim world,” Schenkkan said.
“We don’t yet have strong indications that those have resulted in the formation of new and effective specifically Central Asian violent Islamic extremist movements,” he added.
Schenkkan explained that several thousand Central Asians have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIL and other armed groups – but so have citizens throughout the former Soviet Union, with significant numbers flowing from Chechnya and Dagestan within the Russian Federation.
There are signs that a few of these Central Asian volunteers have been sent abroad to carry out attacks, including Abdulgadir Masharipov, who admitted responsibility for the Reina nightclub attack in Istanbul.
“But that doesn’t mean they are taking some sort of training or some kind of capacities and using them to mobilise and organise back in Central Asia,” Schenkkan said “That is what we haven’t really seen.”
Schenkkan also noted that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an armed group formed in the 1990s with the hopes of implementing Islamic law in the country, has been marginalised for years, with different strands absorbed into the Taliban and ISIL.
The IMU was outlawed in the 1990s by then-President Islam Karimov, who cracked down on the group, as well as thousands of Muslims who prayed outside of government-sanctioned mosques.
Fears of US crackdown
Responses to Tuesday’s attack have characterised Central Asia as a “hotbed of extremism” and “ripe recruiting territory for ISIS” as one CNN headline put it – which has raised fears that the Trump administration might crack down on immigration from the region.
Lemon said that even before the attack, he had heard from Uzbeks who were worried that the Trump administration might include them in its travel bans, which have targeted primarily Muslim-majority countries.
Trump has already called for an end to the diversity lottery visa programme under which thousands of Uzbek citizens have travelled to the US, according to the state department.
Noah Tucker, the Central Asia editor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a research associate at George Washington University, said that he has noticed a new trend in which Central Asians, particularly Uzbeks, have participated in attacks on “soft”, civilian targets around the world. Until recently, Central Asian recruits had struck “hard” targets such as police and military posts, Tucker explained, citing attacks on police stations in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
Yet, Tucker, who researches “violent extremism” in Central Asia, said that this likely has more to do with the priorities of established armed groups than a tendency emerging from Central Asia itself.
Central Asian recruits to armed groups, like ISIL, are asked to sacrifice their own interests on behalf of the group, Tucker said, and, despite propaganda to the contrary, there is no sign that ISIL or other groups are invested in waging a violent campaign inside Central Asia.
“We haven’t seen any evidence that ISIS cares very much about what’s happening in Bishkek or in Astana,” Tucker said. “Their interests are tied up in specific conflicts.”
Tucker also emphasised that, other than a tendency to “radicalise” away from home, Central Asians take few clear paths to “extremism”.
“People join on a hundred different pathways. And to look for some point that we call ‘radicalisation’ often doesn’t work as an explanatory model,” Tucker said.
“For every case you find where you can give some sort of overarching narrative or guess at a larger pattern, the next case that you look at will not fit.”
Analysts, including Columbia University’s Lemon, agreed that Saipov’s alleged attack was not representative of the overwhelming majority of Central Asians.
“The story overall from the region is one of resilience and one of people surviving and using Islam in particular as a way to negotiate the difficulties of life since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Lemon said.