• World

Uzbekistan’s History With Islam Might Explain a Lot About the New York Attack Suspect

8 minute read

Sayfullo Saipov, the suspected Islamic extremist charged with using a truck to kill eight people on Tuesday in Lower Manhattan, was still a toddler when his homeland of Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union.

Its ancient cities, like Bukhara and Samarkand, with their splendid mosaics and slim minarets, had been centers of Islamic culture for more than a millennium. But these were not especially pious places at the time of Saipov’s birth. After three generations of communist rule, his elders had grown accustomed to the government’s official adherence to atheism. It was part of a system that saw religion as a form of dissent – and sought to repress it accordingly.

Saipov’s generation was different. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, new mosques and Islamic movements began to spring up in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia. Religious observance across the region became intertwined with a renewed sense of identity and national pride, often encouraged and financed by foreign powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which sought to insert their versions of Islam into the void left behind by the Soviet collapse. In Uzbekistan, it wasn’t long before this resurgence of piety faced another round of repression.

Islam Karimov, the cunning Soviet functionary who went on to rule the country from the moment of its independence in 1991 until his death in 2016, instructed his security services to monitor religious groups and shut down any mosques deemed even potentially extremist. “So this part of society was effectively pushed out of Uzbekistan starting in 1990s,” says Sergei Abashin, an expert on the region at the European University in St. Petersburg, Russia.

By the late 1990s, an extremist underground had taken shape in the country, focused primarily on the goal of overthrowing the Karimov regime. Its deadliest and most prominent group was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, which the U.S. officially designated a terrorist organization in Sept. 2000. With dreams of creating an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia, the IMU pulled off a series of attacks in Uzbekistan in the 1990s. But the agents of Karimov’s secret police were so pervasive and violent – human rights groups have documented incidents of them boiling people alive – that many IMU fighters fled to neighboring Afghanistan in the 2000s, where they fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. and NATO forces.

Throughout that period, Uzbekistan also saw a massive exodus of migrants going abroad to seek work and opportunity. An estimated 2 million Uzbek migrants now live in Russia, where they do much of the grunt work involved in construction, road maintenance and other labor-intensive industries. But in recent years, an increasing number of Uzbek migrants have sought their fortunes in the West, and a small but thriving business has formed around the lottery system for American green cards.

Abashin, who studies migration from Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, says specialized brokers often file hundreds of applications for this lottery at a time. Uzbek Facebook pages and websites offer this service for less than $3 per application, while the lucky customers who win a green card are usually asked to pay more in order to retrieve their documents. “This sort of targeted, mass application for green cards has become really popular,” Abashin says. In total, he estimates that between 20,000 and 30,000 Uzbeks have gone to the U.S. this way. Among them, reportedly, is Saipov.

Once they arrive, their integration in American society is often harder than it would be in Russia or other parts of the former Soviet Union, where they can usually find a community that speaks their language and understands their culture. Given the cost of returning to Uzbekistan from the U.S. for visits – and the minuscule size of the Uzbek community inside the U.S. – these migrants are often drawn to religion as a source of belonging.

“Contacts with family back home is more rare than it would be for them in Russia,” says Abashin. “They feel more torn from home, more foreign, and even if they like it in the U.S, it’s often very lonely there. So they tend to look for contacts in the broader Muslim community or online. And that’s where you get the risk of radicalization.”

Both in Russia and the European Union, two acts of terrorism committed by ethnic Uzbeks have recently borne out this picture.

In April of this year, Akbarzhon Jalilov detonated a bomb in the St. Petersburg subway, killing at least 15 people. Only 22 years old at the time of the attack, he was still in his teens when he arrived in Russia in 2011 to find work. Investigators believe that his radicalization, reportedly including a trip to Syria in 2014, took place after he left his hometown of Osh, a city in Kyrgyzstan with a large community of his fellow Uzbeks.

Four days after that attack in St. Petersburg, Rakhmat Akilov, a 39-year-old Uzbek national, plowed a beer truck into a crowd of shoppers in central Stockholm, killing four people and wounding more than a dozen others in the worst terrorist attack Sweden had seen in decades. The Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan said in a statement that Akilov had been radicalized after arriving in Sweden in 2014 and had been sending ISIS propaganda videos over the Internet back to his friends in Uzbekistan. He committed the attack only after Swedish authorities denied his asylum request and ordered his deportation.

“Nobody back home thought he is an extremist, or even a Muslim,” says Danil Kislov, the editor of Ferghana News, an independent news site based in Moscow that reports on Uzbekistan and covered the Stockholm attack in detail. “He drank alcohol, he didn’t worship,” he says, referring to Akilov. “But it seems like there were a lot more personal issues once he got to Sweden. His life didn’t work out.”

After reports of the Manhattan attacker reached the Ferghana newsroom, Kislov sent his reporter in Uzbekistan to find out more about Saipov’s roots. It turned out to be a tricky assignment. After asking the authorities for the Saipov family’s address, the reporter was detained and questioned by police, who eventually gave him an address in the old city of central Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

By local standards, this was a gesture of remarkable transparency on the part of the authorities, who would typically have told the journalist to get lost. After the old dictator’s death in Sept. 2016, however, the country has shown signs of opening up to the West. The new leader of the country, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, “wants the Americans to love him,” says Kislov. “He wants to have the image of a democratic reformer.”

The morning after the attack in Manhattan, the President sent condolences to the White House along with a pledge that his country “is ready to use all forces and resources to help in the investigation of this act of terror.”

But Saipov’s loyalty or links to terrorist groups – if they even exist – are more likely to lead back to Syria than to his homeland. Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, the remnants of the Islamist underground in Uzbekistan and other parts of the former Soviet Union have largely gone to join the caliphate that ISIS declared in 2014. “In that sense it was lucky for us here,” says Maj. Gen. Apti Alaudinov, a senior counter-terrorism officer in the Russian region of Chechnya. “They mostly went to fight and die over there. Few have come back.”

As recently as 2014, the Islamist forces fighting in Syria have included a unit of Uzbeks known as the Imam Bukhari Jamaat, which released its own propaganda videos of training camps that were staffed by Uzbek-speaking commanders. The Russian intelligence services estimated in 2015 that around 2,500 fighters had gone to join ISIS from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

“There were entire units of them there,” says Saeed Mazhaev, a low-ranking ISIS fighter from Russia who returned home from Syria in 2014. In the ISIS safe house in southern Turkey where he was equipped and prepared for battle, he recalls dozens of other fighters speaking Russian and a variety of Central Asian languages. Among the tasks of ISIS commanders in Syria was recruitment, says Mazhaev, typically using online forums and messaging apps to communicate with potential jihadis in their native languages around the world.

It is still unclear whether the Manhattan attacker may have been remotely indoctrinated in this way. His arrival in the U.S. in 2010 would suggest that he sat out the war in Syria far away from the so-called Islamic State, which was declared four years later. But that does not mean he was immune to its propaganda.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com