The alleged assailant in the New York terror attack, Sayfullo Saipov, has brought back to global attention Uzbekistan, the resource-rich, desperately poor, and wildly corrupt Central Asian state that has been largely hidden from view for over a decade.
A number of recent terror operatives and fighters for the Islamic State hail from that landlocked nation and some of its Central Asian neighbors. Why? Are the internal problems of Uzbekistan—where “stability” was maintained for decades with an iron fist and a vast, intrusive security state—now being felt outside its borders?
The answer may not be as obvious as some speculate.
Uzbekistan is a multiethnic and secularized society. “There is far less terrorism in Central Asia than in other parts of the world,” notes John Heathershaw, a specialist on Central Asia security issues at the University of Exeter.
Uzbekistan is often seen as “Muslim, authoritarian, and distant, and that therefore it produces Islamist extremism,” he notes, which is a “stereotype.”
Instead, “the radicalization process is what happens after someone like Saipov leaves.”
So, to be clear: Uzbekistan is not a swirling cauldron of jihadism. It is a secular state where the government controls religious expression, and mosque attendance is discouraged. Saipov would not even have been able to sport that full beard he wore in the U.S. The Uzbek authorities would “stop, catch, shave, fine, or arrest anybody who tried,” as one longtime resident told me.
But knowledge of this former Soviet republic in the heart of Central Asia has been hindered by the fact that most Western journalists have been shut out since 2005. Thus, in the aftermath of the attack in New York, much of the reporting has not been based on firsthand knowledge of the nation.
Westerners often seem to think of Uzbekistan—and its capital, Tashkent—as akin to their image of Pakistan or Afghanistan, all dusty chaos and backward-looking Islam, or perhaps a city of minarets from which the call to prayer rings among blue-tiled wonders, steeped in the mystery and allure of the Silk Road.
It is neither. During the Soviet period, Tashkent was the fourth-largest city of the Soviet Union. It has a heavily used subway, theaters, museums, and a city center laid out on a grid pattern. It was long considered the unofficial capital of Central Asia, and was home to a cosmopolitan mix of intellectuals and others of startlingly diverse ethnicities.
During the Soviet period, Uzbekistan was used as a place of internal exile for peoples from across the Soviet Union: Ukrainians, Turks, Jews, Poles, Germans, Tatars, and Russians, to name a few. Far from the power center of Moscow, many eventually found in the region a relaxed, more laid-back lifestyle in a warmer clime. The Uzbeks themselves are a Turko-Mongol people, and Uzbek is a Turkic language—not Arabic.
To the extent there a hotbed of religiousity, it is in eastern Uzbekistan, in the verdant Ferghana Valley, which is highly religious. There, women are covered in a way not seen elsewhere in the country—and the state security presence is high.
With over 30 million people, Uzbekistan has by far the largest population as well as the largest and most sophisticated armed forces of the region. It also sits on vast mineral wealth and is one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton.
For decades, the nation was defined by the rule of strongman Islam Karimov. Until his death last year, Karimov was the only president Uzbekistan had known since achieving independence in 1991. Before that he was the communist party chief in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.
With a watchful eye on the long border shared with Afghanistan, Karimov was proud of the calm transition to independence and his lasting rule, which avoided the instability of neighboring post-Soviet states in the region, such as the extremely poor and failing Tajikistan (with its porous border with Afghanistan) and most recently crumbling Kyrgyzstan.
That “stability” came, however, at a very high price in the densely populated and largely arid nation. A repressive police state and closed economy failed to meet the needs of its large and fast-growing population. Aggressive and omnipresent military and security forces kept the population fearful and acquiescent.
“Uzbekistan is an assertively secular state,” says Steve Swerdlow, of Human Rights Watch. Through the Karimov era, religion was tightly controlled in Uzbekistan. Its “Law on Religion,” passed in the late 1990s, carefully prescribed acceptable form of religious expression.
“Karimov really set the gold standard on restrictions on religious freedom,” says Swerdlow, with conscious irony. The government “compelled the submission of the religious establishment.”
For example, religion could not be discussed in informal groups or in the home. Possessing unauthorized religious literature was deemed a crime. Similarly, beards and hijabs were disallowed as not “traditionally” Central Asian. Proselytizing by foreigners was forbidden, including by Christian evangelical and other groups.
The mosque-building campaigns funded by foreign religious donors seen in many others nations from the end of the Soviet period, such as in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, did not happen in Uzbekistan.
Karimov kept Uzbekistan’s economy largely closed after independence in 1991. He did not privatize state assets, including the most lucrative sectors of the economy—gold, uranium, natural gas, and cotton—which remained in state-owned monopolies that enriched a tiny few, including his own family.
Extreme corruption effectively destroyed the small- and medium-sized business sector in the country. Besides the inevitable payments required to simply set up a business and the endless hands that expect payment along the way, any successful enterprise risked outright appropriation by government agencies. Another deterrent to development: Western companies reluctant to do business in Uzbekistan because of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
This environment thwarted the natural tendencies of the extremely entrepreneurial Uzbeks, well known as hard workers and skilled traders.
With few job opportunities due to a closed economy, extreme corruption, and lack of investment, millions of Uzbek citizens flocked to Russia to work menial jobs for low wages, much of which is sent home to support extended families.
Meanwhile, the daily lives of many in Uzbekistan are an unceasing effort simply to get by. Those who can, emigrate, including to the United States.
In Russia, Uzbeks and other Central Asians do the work that others do not want to, and they often face overt discrimination and hostility, especially in the face of growing Russian nationalism, says Heathershaw. The men generally live in crowded conditions, with large groups of men often sleeping in rooms with minimal comforts.
As people from Uzbekistan often are highly educated, it is common to hear of brothers and uncles trained as lawyers and accountants driving taxis in Moscow. And many are in precarious legal situations, making them vulnerable to abuse by employers, landlords, and the police. All the while, the workers are keenly aware that many mouths back home await the next remittance.
Among these isolated young men, many never make it back. Hundreds die each year, for a variety of reasons, often unknown, says Heathershaw, and family members never learn why.
It is among the Central Asians living in Russia that ISIS has been most successful recruiting fighters. Uzbeks and other Central Asians have fought in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. But the Uzbeks and other Central Asians who have committed acts of terror while in the West are a different demographic, say academics and others observers. Central Asian men have committed terrorist acts in Europe and now the U.S., but those in the West have been radicalized while in the West, which seems to have been true of Saipov.
In Uzbekistan, people are surveilled regularly—especially those who attend the mosque — limiting mobilization. “It’s when they leave Central Asia that they are then connected to global networks,” Heathershaw notes. “It’s about being able to coalesce,” he says. “Most of the cases we see are people who have left Central Asia a long time ago.”
Many of these men are in more permissive environments without the social controls that normally modify behavior, Heathershaw notes.
Lack of official religious instruction in Uzbekistan makes them particularly vulnerable to ISIS propaganda, says Swerdlow, as they have little context into which to place it.
Saifullo entered the U.S. in 2010, a time when many Uzbeks based in Russia were forced to return to Uzbekistan as jobs there dried up because of the global recession. More returned with the drop of the ruble after the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia several years later. According to human rights observers, the government was especially suspicious of these men, limiting the rights of groups to come together and socialize.
The Uzbekistan government has long been fearful of terrorism as well as any threat to its power, and it has often conflated the two.
There have been a handful of terror attacks in Uzbekistan over the years, and these have led inevitably to increased use of the state security agencies. Human rights activists and others often say that terror incidents were routinely used as excuses to clamp down further on the population to choke off any dissent.
In Tashkent, in an apparent effort to make the city more secure over the years, streets have been closed to traffic, one-way streets imposed, ramps removed, low-rise marble barricades erected at some intersections, and stretches of major thoroughfares turned into parkland. This allowed the city center—home to the president’s White House and the Senate—to be closed off in case of emergency. When Karimov traveled to and from his government offices each day, militia members lined the major streets that he traveled.
The November 2015 attacks in Paris saw a massive surge in aggressive state activity in Uzbekistan; mosque attendance was discouraged for all but the elderly. In day-to-day interactions, there was a chilling effect, as people were aware that what they said aloud could get back to the authorities.
Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has indicated openness to much-needed economic reforms and other changes, a shift of government that has not been noted by many commentators.
“There is much more positive energy now,” according to Swerdlow, who is currently in Tashkent; Human Rights Watch issued a report last week noting there is “cautious hope for change.” The mere presence of the organization in Uzbekistan, which was expelled in 2010 along with virtually all other Western NGOs, indicates a massive shift; he considers his presence an “experiment” with the new government.