Editor’s Note: Sajjan Gohel is the International Security Director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, Senior Advisor to the multilateral Partnership for Peace Consortium’s Combating Terrorism Working Group, and a Visiting Teacher in the International History Department at the London School of Economics. The views expressed in this article are solely his.
As American counter-terrorism officials piece together the planning behind Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Manhattan and possible connections between the Uzbek perpetrator and ISIS, the spotlight has fallen on the roles that Uzbekistan and Central Asia have played as recruitment bases and launch pads for transnational terrorist groups.
The Manhattan attack is not unique in terms of the tactic of turning a vehicle into a lethal weapon, but neither is it unique that an Uzbek national – 29-year-old suspect Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov – has been involved in a major terrorist attack in 2017.
In fact, the tragedy that has unfolded in New York is not an original starting point but a continuation of previous attacks in terms of scale, scope and the region from where the suspect hailed.
Five former Soviet republics – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – are considered to be potent recruiting areas for ISIS to replenish its ranks, either through the remnants of the falling caliphate or through its affiliates. It is estimated that close to 5,000 Central Asia foreign fighters have traveled to Iraq and Syria, with around 1,500 from Uzbekistan, according to a report last month from the Soufan Group.
Over a 16-month period, Uzbek nationals either inspired, directed or affiliated with ISIS have carried out numerous mass casualty attacks in the West.
In April, Rakhmat Akilov, an Uzbek national and failed asylum seeker, mowed down pedestrians with a truck in Stockholm, killing four people.
On January 1, 39 people were killed and 70 were injured in an attack at an Istanbul nightclub where hundreds of people were celebrating the New Year. The perpetrator was Abdulgadir Masharipov, an Uzbek citizen who was later captured. At his home, two guns, SIM cards, and a substantial amount of cash in dollars were discovered.
In June 2016, 45 people were killed and more than 230 people were injured in a coordinated attack at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul. The assailants were from the Russian North Caucasus region, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Not all ISIS fighters from Central Asia are cannon fodder for attacks – some have attained senior positions within the terrorist infrastructure.
Colonel Gulmurod Ghalimov from Tajikistan became one of the highest-ranking members of ISIS from the region. Previously, he was head of a Tajik police unit but defected to ISIS in 2015 and left the same year for Syria. Ghalimov has played an instrumental role in recruiting Tajiks and other foreign fighters from Central Asia to join ISIS.
ISIS’s media organs – including al-Hayat Media Center and Amaq News Agency – have released many messages acknowledging the significant number of suicide bombers from Central Asia who were deployed against Iraqi and Kurdish forces seeking to liberate the ISIS strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa.
The successes by the international coalition against ISIS as well as the ground work by the Iraqi military and Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria has led to the capture and deaths of numerous Central Asian fighters.
Those that survived and fled the battles, however, are believed to have either made their way back home through Turkey or attempted to travel westwards into Europe.
Men from Central Asia have not been the only contributors for ISIS. The al-Khansaa Brigade – the all-female enforcement division formed by ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself – also has had Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh women as members.
Increasing usage of children from Central Asia as suicide bombers has become a proliferating and disturbing trend by ISIS in grooming young impressionable minds for nefarious purposes.
In November 2016, ISIS released a video depicting four children shooting and killing Iraqi and Kurdish prisoners. One of the them was a 10-year-old boy from Uzbekistan. Another was from Kazakhstan. The children in the video are wearing military uniforms, while the prisoners are in orange prison outfits. Worryingly, this is one example of many, and other terror groups have used children from Central Asia in their propaganda material.
The decline of ISIS’s caliphate project has impacted on the movement of fighters to and from Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan. Consequently, the momentum of those leaving for the frontline in Syria and Iraq from Central Asian nations has markedly decreased.
But recruitment through encrypted messaging and the dark web is ongoing and in fact increasing, particularly amongst Uzbeks based in Europe and potentially North America too.
To assist this goal, ISIS developed “Istok,” a Russian language magazine aimed largely at Central Asians and highlighting residents of the region that have joined the terror group. ISIS is also using “Furat Media,” a Russian language social media to tap into and expand its Central Asian nexus.
ISIS’s intelligence apparatus, the Emni, also act as recruiters for Central Asia either through physical or virtual networks. They principally target poor and underdeveloped regions based in areas with large bazaars.
The government responses to radicalization in Central Asia, meanwhile, have frequently been paradoxical and ineffective. In Uzbekistan, the authoritarian government’s failure to reform, coupled with its heavy-handed security approach, has been seized upon by terrorist groups like ISIS and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to further their own recruitment agenda.
On October 30, ISIS released social media messages and banners in several languages calling for attacks on Halloween. Regardless of whether the terror group is found to have assisted in the attack in Manhattan, the incident fits with ISIS’ wider strategy and message to the West: the fall of Raqqa may lead to the dismantling of the physical caliphate, but the virtual caliphate will live on and expand.
Indeed, for the past year ISIS has managed to generate a new cadre of jihadists, prepared to wage war against the West at short notice using low tech and low cost (but high intensity) attacks. The recruitment of Uzbeks from Central Asia plays an important part in this.
ISIS’s ability to spread its tentacles within its Central Asian sphere of influence is partly dependent on its relationship with affiliates. ISIS established a branch in Afghanistan in January 2015, Wilayat Khorasan, which has attained notable momentum and notoriety whilst gaining territory from both the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Afghan government.
ISIS has suffered setbacks in this realm. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan moved away from its proximity to al Qaeda and declared its support for ISIS in 2014. But two years later, some of those that had switched allegiance to ISIS again reversed their loyalty back to al Qaeda.
As ISIS’s physical land mass continues to contract and it cedes its influence to affiliates across the world, careful attention needs to be paid to Central Asia. By ignoring the problem, it creates the potential of the region being used as a hub to recruit, train and plot terrorism globally.
This in turn has a knock-on effect for countries like Afghanistan and, from a wider perspective, for blowback in the West. History has a disturbing way of repeating itself.