Manhattan Truck Jihad Puts Radical Islam Spotlight on Uzbekistan

New York authorities have reportedly identified the terrorist behind a truck attack leaving at least eight dead on Tuesday as Uzbek national Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov – the latest in a series of attackers to hail from the extremely repressed former Soviet nation.

Saipov, according to authorities, rented a Home Depot truck and targeted the area around a school in downtown Manhattan, driving through a bicycle lane in the wrong direction and hitting anyone in sight before crashing into a school bus. The man identified as Saipov then stepped out of the truck and, witnesses say, shouted “Allahu akbar,” the rallying cry of Sunni jihadists, while brandishing a paintball gun and a pellet gun before being shot and detained by police.

Sources tell media that Saipov is 29 and has been in the United States since 2010, but that he originally hails from Uzbekistan. It is not yet clear whether Saipov has ties to the Islamic State – which has published detailed instructions on how to execute this exact kind of attack – but ISIS fanatics on Twitter have already begun celebrating.

Saipov shares a native land with several jihadis recently active in the west. In April, a terrorist identified as a 39-year-old from Uzbekistan drove a truck into a crowd of people in Stockholm, Sweden, drove four people. On the New Year’s Eve preceding 2017, Abdulkadir Masharipov, an Islamic State terrorist from Uzbekistan, entered Istanbul’s Reina nightclub and shot into the crowd, killing 39 people.

Last year, Brooklyn police charged Azizjon Rakhmatov, another Uzbek national, with helping organize and fund the voyage of two other men to Turkey and then Syria and Iraq, where they would have joined the Islamic State. Police claimed Rakhmatov’s cell “had plans to join ISIS, kill President Obama and bomb Coney Island.”

Fazliddin Kurbanov of Uzbekistan was arrested in Idaho in 2015, ultimately convicted of attempting to build and detonate a bomb with the intention of committing an act of terrorism.

As a majority-Muslim country – 88 percent of the nation is Sunni Muslim – led for most of its existence by the dictator Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan may appear fertile ground for jihadist recruitment to terrorist groups. While there are no official estimates on the number of Uzbek nationals currently engaging in radical Islamic terrorism, the International Crisis Group suggests that most of the between 2,000 and 4,000 Central Asian nationals that have joined the global jihad are from Uzbekistan.

Karimov, who ruled until his death in 2016, instituted brutal measures to oppress all ideologies threatening to him, including Islam, and made only a cursory (but lucrative) overture to cooperate with the United States following the September 11, 2001, attacks. Karimov ultimately kicked out American troops stationed there to fight the Taliban after significant human rights criticism of his regime.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Karimov – promoted from regional communist governor to head of state – presided over what Human Rights Watch once described as a “Muslim renaissance.” Karimov never openly opposed Islam, only what he deemed “unofficial” Islam, the kind he could not control.

“The campaign against ‘unofficial’ Islam began in 1994-1995, with the harassment and arbitrary detentions of men wearing beards and the ‘disappearance’ of popular independent Muslim clerics,” the Human Rights Watch report notes, “and intensified in 1997, with the closing of mosques and a broader crackdown on Islamic leaders and other practicing Muslims not affiliated with officially sanctioned Islamic institutions.”

By the mid-2010s, Karimov’s regime was notorious for boiling political dissidents to death and disappearing even the closest members of the Karimov dynasty if they presented a threat to his totalitarian rule. Paramount on that list was Gulnara Karimova, the dictator’s eccentric daughter, who had once used her leverage to launch an aborted attempt at pop stardom and held professorships and diplomatic posts before abruptly disappearing in 2014. Two years later, her son told international media outlets that Karimova had been held in isolation for years.

“To be isolated for two or three years without any even basic human rights that every person deserves on this earth, I’m sure that any person will need some kind of medical attention. But mentally she is sane. The reports she was in a mental hospital are false,” Islam Karimov, Jr. confirmed to the BBC in 2016.

It was only after Karimov died that the successor government confirmed that Karimova had been “detained” on vague corruption charges. Prior to her disappearance, many saw her as a contender to succeed her father.

Karimov’s repressive behavior towards the end of his tenure did not end with his own daughter, and much of it targeted “religious extremism.” Like his Chinese neighbors, Karimov imposed legal punishments for exposing children to Islam. In 2016, the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders published a report finding that at least 12,800 people in the 29-million-strong nation had been arrested since 2002 for political crimes that included human rights advocacy and unregulated observance of Islam.

“Suspected Islamists are routinely extradited or kidnapped by Uzbek security agents from Russia and other ex-Soviet states – even though some changed their citizenship and asked for asylum,” al-Jazeera reported at the time.

Karimov died in August 2016, leaving no clear line of succession. The man who ultimately took his place, current president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is leading an “encouraging” administration, according to the Washington Post. Unlike his predecessor, Mirziyoyev appears keen to forge ties with fellow Muslim nations, hosting a conference two weeks ago titled “Islamic solidarity: on the example of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.”

“The Head of our state, warmly welcoming the guests, especially noted that the organization of the conference and participation of representative delegations of foreign countries in its work are another evidence of the expanding international cooperation aimed at strengthening interethnic harmony and religious tolerance in society, developing interfaith dialogue,” the president’s website said of the event.

Mirziyoyev also appeared to be warming ties with Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has styled himself the cultural leader of the Sunni Muslim world. While Karimov had cut ties to Turkey in the 1990s, Mirziyoyev made time to visit Turkey last week.

“This is the first visit at the presidential level in 20 years. Therefore, it is highly significant and meaningful for us,” a pleased Erdoğan told reporters.

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