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Central Asia's terror attackers were radicalised abroad

AFP , Friday 3 Nov 2017

When Sayfullo Saipov used a truck to mow people down on a New York street, ultimately killing eight according to terror charges, he guaranteed his former homeland Uzbekistan would receive the worst kind of headlines.

People from ex-Soviet Central Asia have been at the heart of high-profile attacks this year in the United States, Russia, Sweden and Turkey.

Yet Saipov, according to official accounts, came into contact with radical Islamic ideologies not in the country of his birth, but in the one he adopted seven years ago: the US.

Saipov moved to America in 2010 under a visa programme -- President Donald Trump's response to Tuesday's attack was to announce tougher vetting for immigrants.

"Most of these attackers come from rather secular backgrounds and tend to radicalise in their country of destination rather than origin," said Yan Matusevich, research officer at the Vienna-headquartered International Centre for Migration Policy Development.

Thousands of former residents of the region's five countries known as the "stans" -- -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- have joined the ranks of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq since 2011.

However incidents involving violent extremism at home have been relatively rare.

But if one single theme does link the Central Asia-born assailants of very different backgrounds accused of attacks this year in New York, Istanbul, Saint Petersburg and Stockholm, it is migration.

Uzbek national Abdulgadir Masharipov, who killed 39 people in a January 1 attack on a nightclub in Istanbul had lived and trained as a militant in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Turkish authorities.

Another Uzbek, Rakhmat Akilov, who ploughed a truck into a crowd of pedestrians in Stockholm in April, killing five, was a failed asylum seeker reportedly at risk of deportation.

Akbarjon Djalilov, identified as the 22-year-old bomber behind the Saint Petersburg metro blast in April that killed 16 people including himself was born in Kyrgyzstan but left for Russia with his family aged 17.

While the series of attacks appear to form a "Central Asian pattern" Matusevich argues they are part of "a broader, more global form of radicalisation" and the attackers' "actual life situations were quite diverse".

Saipov worked as an Uber driver in New Jersey. Uzbekistan's government has said that there was nothing to indicate he was an extremist before leaving.

Saipov was described by his former neighbours in the capital Tashkent "in very positive terms", said the government's statement on Wednesday.

"His parents followed traditional Islam and were never seen in connection with any extremist branches," it added.

Looking for a common thread, analysts focus on exposure to online extremist content, particularly produced by the Islamic State group in whose name Saipov committed the attack, according to New York police.

"The only thing we can say about commonalities between Saipov and (Istanbul attacker) Masharipov is that they were Uzbeks living outside the country with access to Islamic State propaganda material," said Deirdre Tynan, Central Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group.

While stressing it is "too early" to say if Saipov had direct contact with IS, Tynan says the organisation has been adept at delivering its message in Russian and Central Asian languages across a variety of platforms.

Sleek IS propaganda appearing to target Central Asians gained international attention in 2015 when a child identifying as a Kazakh IS recruit was shown in a video executing an alleged Russian spy.

Another video released months later featured a former special forces chief from Tajikistan who defected to IS.

IS's sophisticated media strategy has been critical in helping recruit Central Asians, setting it apart from other radical organisations operating in the region, Tynan says.

But rights monitors say the group's global prominence has also given former Soviet governments a pretext to intensify crackdowns on devout Muslims.

Likewise in Russia, since the April bombing in Saint Petersburg, security services have visibly increased raids targeting Central Asian migrants, sometimes claiming to have foiled extremist plots.

"You get the impression that some of these arrests have a political thrust, to identify (to the public) an enemy of sorts," Svetlana Gannushkina, a renowned Russian rights defender whose work focuses on migration, told AFP.

"And who are Russia's enemies? Well, the external enemy is the United States, but the internal enemy is (Central Asian) migrants," Gannushkina said.

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