The Paradox of Uzbek Terror

Peace at Home, Violence Abroad

Police block off a street following Tuesday's terrorist attack in New York City, October 2017. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

This week’s terrorist attack in Manhattan, carried out by a citizen of Uzbekistan, Sayfullo Saipov, followed several assaults and bombings also involving people from that country: the New Year’s shooting in Istanbul was executed by Abdulkadir Masharipov, an Uzbek citizen; Rakhmat Akilov, an Uzbek whose application for asylum was rejected, was responsible for the Stockholm attack in April; and the bombing in the St. Petersburg metro a few days earlier was led by Akbarzhon Jalilov, an ethnic Uzbek born in Kyrgyzstan who held Russian citizenship.

In light of the strikes, Western media outlets have grappled with the relationship between Uzbekistan and religious terrorism, discussing for instance the problem of “Central Asian Militancy” and “How Uzbekistan Became A Hotbed For Violent Extremism And Radicalism.” But such analysis is too simplistic.

Since its independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has been one of the most repressive countries in Central Asia in terms of religion. Several thousand people have been imprisoned—and some tortured—for alleged Islamist convictions. Friday prayers are written by the state, and imams are encouraged to repeat them verbatim, without adding personal commentary. Religious education is kept to a minimum, and forbidden for minors. Imported religious literature is banned. Those who study Islamic theology abroad have trouble finding jobs when they return home.

It might seem logical that such repression would lead to an increase in Islamist violence at home: for years, many NGOs and self-proclaimed security experts claimed that radicalization was on its way. But, so far, there has been no such uptick. The last terrorist attacks date back to the first half of the 2000s. The security services have been well able to control and dismantle underground politicized religious groups. Even when the country hosted the NATO-funded Northern Distribution Network (2009–2014), which transported equipment for NATO troops into and out of Afghanistan, no terrorist attacks were reported along the railway—in stark contrast to the steady attacks on NATO lines in Pakistan.

Police photo of Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek national accused of killing eight people in New York City, November 2017.
Police photo of Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek national accused of killing eight people in New York City, November 2017. Reuters

Rather, indigenous Islamist movements, such as the infamous

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