Tashkent (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Sayfullo Saipov, 29, who was responsible for the terrorist attack that resulted in eight deaths and a dozen injuries last October 31 in Manhattan, was not "very religious" when he moved to the United States in 2010. Like others before him, Saipov embraced Islamic extremism through the internet.
Uzbekistan - a country known for the harsh restrictions on religious freedom and only in the last year in the process of opening up - is for the fourth time the cradle of militants inspired by terrorist groups.
On the night of October 31, Saipov drove a van into the Manhattan bicycle path, killing eight people and wounding 15. Saipov then shouted "Allah Akbar" and tried to escape. Wounded by a police officer, the assassin was questioned at the hospital where he admitted to acting on behalf of ISIS, following online videos, and of being happy with his actions.
Until his departure for the US, Saipov lived in the Uzbek capital. A neighbour of his at that time reported to FerganaNews that the family with which the attacker grew up, including three sisters, was "modern" and "secular", and that the young man did not attend the mosque.
At the time of immigration to the United States Saipov's criminal record was clean. He never returned to Uzbekistan and in 2010 won the permanent residence permit through the "lottery". In the early years in the US, Saipov lived in contact with the Uzbek community and rarely went to the mosque. In 2013 he married a fellow citizen with whom he had three children, and moved to Florida. According to some media, it is during this period that his radicalization began. In recent months, some of Saipov's acquaintances have seen a change of attitude in him, becoming more aggressive.
Observers from the former Soviet republic argue that Saipov is part of the "forgotten generation" of those who left their country of origin in search of a better future without having religious education or the tools needed to live in the West. Mirrakhmat Muminov, a truck driver and activist of the Uzbek community in Stow, Ohio, tells that the attacker began his studies in the United States. For him, Saipov was satisfied with the religious freedom enjoyed in the US, after experiencing the limitations in Uzbekistan
Islam is a very popular religion in the country with 32 million inhabitants. The government puts religions under close scrutiny, worried by radicalism. For two decades, Uzbekistan was led by Islam Karimov, leader of the communist party who died last year. The iron fist he used for religions has always been motivated by national security concerns. Some analysts argue that the threat has been "exaggerated" to allow authorities to make a living from quashing dissent. However, during the Karimov government, the country has faced a number of terrorist threats, particularly by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (Imu).
Relations between the United States and Uzbekistan have been rooted in counter-terrorism for several years. In 2000, the US called the Imu a terrorist group and since the September 11th attack, Uzbekistan was an important partner in the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Taliban. Karimov has supported US-led Afghanistan intervention, providing the Uzbek Karshi-Khanabad base area and access to space for their operations. Uzbekistan shares a 137-km border with Afghanistan. Collaboration was halted following the American condemnation of the violent repression of protests in Andijan City in 2005 when the US State Department accused Uzbek forces of killing "at least 187 unarmed civilians". The American base was closed, but the US could continue to carry its equipment across the country.
With the new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev coming to power at the end of 2016, authorities have taken a more tolerant approach to religions, freed activists and journalists, and also opened the country to economic reforms. In September, Mirziyoyev claimed to have removed 16,000 people from a blacklist of 17,000 potential religious extremists to "bring them back into society and educate them". Mirziyoyev has assured his government's full cooperation to investigate the "brutal" attack.
It is the fourth attack by an Uzbek in recent months. A citizen of Uzbekistan was the mastermind of the attack in Istanbul on New Year's that led to the death of 39 people. In April, the St. Petersburg metro bomber was a Kyrgyz citizen of Uzbek ethnicity. In the same month, a citizen of Uzbekistan perpetrated the attack in Stockholm, killing four civilians in a van. According to the Soufan Center, more than 1,500 Uzbeks have joined the files of extremist groups in the Middle East. It is the highest number of all Central Asian countries.