Though Central Asian nations have kept terrorism relatively contained recently, more Central Asian nationals seem to be conducting attacks abroad. There are two parts to the trend: First, in cracking down on extremist elements, Central Asian states are pushing radical nationals out of the country and into other conflict zones and into more open societies. Second, Central Asian emigrant populations, confronting difficulty abroad, may be ripe for radicalization in their new settings. It is into this second category that we can file Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, who conducted a terrorist attack in New York City on Oct. 31, which killed eight people and injured 12 others.
Saipov, a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan, came to the United States legally in 2010 through a diversity visa program. According to a note left in the truck he used in the attack in lower Manhattan, Saipov was acting in the name of the Islamic State. The incident is the latest example of terrorism perpetrated by a Central Asian abroad. In April, Uzbek national and failed asylum seeker Rakhmat Akilov drove a truck through a crowded area of Stockholm, killing four people and injuring 15. Earlier the same month, Kyrgyz native Akbarzhon Dzhalilov carried out a suicide bombing at a metro station in St. Petersburg, killing more than a dozen individuals and injuring 50 others. Last year, men from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan conducted several attacks in Istanbul, and the Chechen brothers responsible for the Boston marathon attack in 2013 were born in Kyrgyzstan and the North Caucasus.
Cracking Down Hard on Terrorism
That so many Central Asians seem to be conducting attacks abroad is notable, given that terrorist attacks in the region — which comprises the former Soviet states of Kazakhastan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — have been relatively infrequent in recent years. Though attacks do occasionally occur, such as the bombing in 2016 of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, they are for the most part small and infrequent. This infrequency is largely attributable to the harsh security crackdowns that countries in Central Asia have undertaken, not only against Islamist militancy but also against any religious activity considered to be extremist and against political opposition in general.
The harsh approach has driven many militants — and people susceptible to militancy and radicalization — away from these countries and toward more lax security environments, be they conflict zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, or more open communities in Europe and the United States. There is even some indication that the emigration might be less a passive byproduct of security crackdowns and more an intentional outcome of those crackdowns. Uzbekistan in particular, which grappled with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is widely suspected of pushing militant elements out to reduce the domestic threat they pose.
This explanation, however, ignores militants like Saipov who were radicalized after leaving Central Asia. Understanding that trend will require a more nuanced view of the personal experiences of militants and how those experiences relate to both their home countries and cultures and to those they choose to attack.
The Limits of Hard Power
No matter how hard Central Asia pushes against instability, instability will prevail. Poor socio-economic conditions and the expansive effects of Russia's economic downturn will ensure it. Rapid population growth coupled with scarce resources and employment opportunities has caused millions of Central Asian nationals to seek work abroad, particularly in Russia but also in Turkey and the West. Central Asian states, in turn, rely on those economic emigrants. Roughly a quarter of Tajikistan's gross domestic product, for example, comes from remittances. The problem is that such inherent economic weakness fuels dissension and radicalization, as well as voluntary and forced migration. Thus, Central Asian nationals will continue to conduct and participate in terrorist attacks abroad, particularly unsophisticated soft-target attacks such as those conducted in New York and Stockholm.