Manhattan truck attack shines spotlight on terror threat in Uzbekistan and Central Asia

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WATCH ABOVE: Authorities search New Jersey home of New York City attacker – Nov 1, 2017

The Uzbek national accused of mowing down people with a truck in New York City has renewed concern about the threat of terrorism posed by countries in Central Asia.

U.S. officials identified Sayfullo Saipov, who legally immigrated from Uzbekistan in 2010, as the alleged attacker who drove a truck into several cyclists along a popular bike path near the World Trade Center, killing 8 and injuring another 12. The 29-year-old was shot in the abdomen by police after he exited the vehicle carrying air guns and yelling “God is great” in Arabic, authorities said.

READ MORE: 8 dead after truck hits cyclists in New York City ‘act of terror’

Officials allege he left behind handwritten notes pledging his loyalty to the so-called Islamic State.

Security experts say that Uzbekistan, a majority-Muslim country located north of Afghanistan, and other countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have long had issues with domestic extremism.

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“There’s no question that [Uzebekistan and central Asian countries] are disproportionately represented in the foreign fighter phenomenon with the Islamic State,” said former CSIS analyst Phil Gurski.

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Gurski, president and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting, says the authoritarian governments have exacerbated the problem of terrorism in Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan. The country’s most notorious jihadist group is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has moved from supporting al-Qaida to aligning itself with ISIS in recent years.

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“You do have this big area of the world that’s obviously a scenario of great unrest, you’ve got repressive regimes, you have links to the Islamic State,” he said.

A 2015 report from the International Crisis Group said a repressive political environment combined with a struggling economy has led to growing numbers of Central Asians citizens, male and female, travelling to the Middle East to support the so-called Islamic State.

READ MORE: Terrorism has evolved from bombs and planes, to cars and knives

“Prompted in part by political marginalization and bleak economic prospects that characterize their post-Soviet region, 2,000-4,000 have in the past three years turned their back on their secular states to seek a radical alternative,” the report said. “The appeal of jihadism in the region is also rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change.”

There has been a recent string of attacks linked to Uzbek nationals. On Jan. 1, an Uzbek gunman opened fire at a nightclub in Istanbul, killing 39 people.

In April, an Uzbek man born in Kyrgyzstan blew up a subway train in Russia killing at least 14 people. Also in April, an Uzbek citizen was arrested in Sweden after he drove a truck into a crowd in Stockholm, killing four people.

READ MORE: A timeline of vehicle attacks from 2006 to now

In 2015, two Uzbeks and a Kazakh were arrested in Brooklyn and charged with conspiring to support ISIS.

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However, Gurski cautioned about drawing a direct link between Uzbekistan and the attack in Manhattan.

“When this gentleman came to the states in 2010 there’s nothing that I’m aware of that should have flagged him as an extremist,” he said.

U.S. authorities have said Saipov entered the U.S. legally under the Diversity Visa Program. Records indicate he was a commercial truck driver who launched two businesses in Ohio and had driven for ride-hailing company Uber.

“Did he come to the States having been radicalized in Uzbekistan or did he come to the States as a normal immigrant?” Gurski said. “That’s the question we don’t know.”

U.S. President Donald Trump seized on the attack to criticize the country’s immigration laws, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the suspect was radicalized in the U.S. and called him a “depraved coward” who tried to create terror.

“He was associated with ISIS and he was radicalized domestically,” he told CNN. “It’s not the first time. It’s a global phenomenon now.”

Meanwhile, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said Wednesday that Uzbekistan was ready to use “all its resources” to help investigate the New York attack.

— With files from Reuters

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