Uzbek Radicalization: Pattern or Placebo?

The recent October 31 terror attack in Manhattan, during which eight people were killed and eleven seriously injured, has again raised the question of Central Asian involvement in Jihadist activity. Few details about the chief suspect, 29-year old Sayfullo Saipov, have emerged so far but some general observations can be made.

Saipov has been identified as an Uzbek national who traveled to the United States legally in 2010, then in his early twenties. During his time in the United States he appears to have moved several times, residing in Ohio, Florida and New Jersey. During this time he worked mainly in transportation – holding jobs as a truck driver and Uber freelancer. Most recently he appears to have lived in Paterson, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City with a large Muslim population that for years has struggled with an image of being a hotbed of Islamic radicalism.

The attack unfolded on Tuesday afternoon, when a rented pick-up truck was driven down a crowded bicycle lane and pedestrian walk-way. Witnesses report that the perpetrator yelled “Allahu akbar” in a manner consistent with jihadist activity, before being shot and injured by police officers.

An emerging pattern?

This is not the first time Central Asian nationals have been involved in terror incidents, and it is tempting to link disparate attacks into a single narrative, as indeed some media outlets are already doing. Both the suspect’s nationality and modus operandi echo an attack in Stockholm earlier in the year, as well as attacks in in Istanbul and St. Petersburg, all of which appear to have been inspired by pro-ISIS propaganda. Similarly, in 2015 two Uzbekistani and one Kazakhstani citizen residing in Brooklyn were arrested under suspicion of preparing to travel to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS.

Terrorism courts a disproportionate amount of attention. Within hours of the attack the private and official twitter account of President Donald Trump linked the attack to ISIS and was quick to embed the incident in his executive policy platform.

Further attacks involving citizens of Central Asian states in Russia and Turkey have contributed to a view which paints the Muslim states of the former Soviet Union as a hotbed of jihadist activity. A more visible presence of Central Asians, especially Uzbeks and Tajiks, in militant Islamist organizations and an aggressive state media campaign from Russia have contributed to this narrative.

While it is very tempting to link pieces of information into a pattern, rapid and under-researched reporting feeds into pre-existing misconceptions and distorted narratives. In the hours after the attack news reports emerged indicating the current existence of “two large jihadist groups in [Uzbekistan],” which is a dangerous mischaracterization of the issue.

The problem is that there is no simple solution to the complex problem of violent extremism. Terrorism elicits a disproportionate psychological response, and there is high demand on the part of the public for explanations. At best simplistic explanations serve as a placebo, at worst they aggravate existing problems.

Uzbekistan in Context

To most Americans and Europeans, Uzbekistan is a remote and largely unknown country. The region is home to diverse ethnic and religious communities, as well as its own governance traditions. While it has moved away from Soviet-era atheism, just like its Central Asian neighbors it has replaced it with a commitment to secular government.

While there are Central Asians active on social media linked to jihadist content, far more men and women have been drawn to Syria and Iraq from the EU and Russia than from Uzbekistan or Central Asia. And among those Uzbeks who are radicalized, the vast majority who end up in Syria have been exposed to extremist material outside of Uzbekistan.

Key to this is the phenomenon of Uzbek and Tajik labor migration. Today there are believed to be over two million labor migrants in Russia, predominately young men from rural backgrounds who are vulnerable to exploitation and racial discrimination.

Isolated from parental and religious authority structures, these migrants are more vulnerable to extremist material propagated online than their counterparts back in Central Asia. Jihadist organizations like ISIS appear to have developed strategies to target suggestable individuals by promoting narratives of empowerment or social justice.

It is also worth noting that in the days following the Manhattan Attack there have been news items implying that Uzbeks travel to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. In fact a majority of Uzbeks in Syria are affiliated with Islamist movements that are independent of or hostile to ISIS – at least in theory.

Home Grown Terror

Although at present very little about the case has been confirmed, there are clear indications that Sayfullo Saipov was a home-grown terrorist. Contrary to depictions of terrorism in film and television, the majority of terror attacks in western countries are not meticulously planned. Considering that Saipov is reported to have entered the United States in 2010, it seems highly unlikely that he infiltrated the country for the purposes of carrying out attacks.

Available information does not indicate an operational link between Saipov and ISIS or other Uzbek terrorists, certainly not the Stockholm or St. Petersburg attackers. Apart from witness accounts that the suspect carried out the attack in a manner consistent with the unsophisticated tactics promoted by ISIS, there is little to connect him to a larger network. It should be noted that Uzbek material in particular can elude superficial search algorithms due to the use of three writing systems (latin, cyrcillic and perso-arabic) and that Saipov appears to have been exposed to some of this.

Should it emerge that Saipov was radicalized while in the United States, it will have a number of implications for policy makers and law enforcement. Firstly, it will undermine the notion that travel bans or limiting access will solve the problem of terrorism. Unfortunately, the Manhattan Attack has already entered into the U.S.’s immensely polarized political discourse. Secondly, the realization that radicalization is a global governance issue may in the long-run lead to more cooperation on the international scale – that is, ideally taking an approach that works with vulnerable groups instead of against them.

New and more effective strategies will need to be developed based on a nuanced understanding of the threats posed by vectors of radicalization. This process should not be based on simplistic narratives, which misdiagnose the problem for political or journalistic expediency.