National

Origins of New York terror attack suspect put focus on Central Asia battle with extremism

MOSCOW - The president of Uzbekistan on Wednesday extended his condolences to President Donald Trump and promised his country’s assistance after an Uzbek immigrant driving a rental truck plowed down people on a Manhattan bike path Tuesday, killing eight and injuring 11.

Sayfullo Saipov, 29, the main suspect in what authorities are calling a terrorist attack, is believed to be from Uzbekistan, casting a new spotlight on the tumultuous republic in Central Asia that has been a prominent source of fighters for the extremist Islamic State group.

In a statement Wednesday, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev also offered condolences to families of the victims. Separately, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry said it is ‘‘determining the identify and citizenship’’ of the attacker, who was shot and arrested by police shortly after the attack.

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Uzbekistan is one of five predominantly Muslim former Soviet republics in Central Asia that overnight became independent countries in 1991. Wracked by poverty and corruption and ruled by autocratic leaders, the region has seen a growth of conservative versions of Islam and the recruitment of hundreds of militants to fight for the Islamic State group.

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Governments in these countries tightly regulate religious expression, censor literature and arbitrarily ban activities by any who oppose the ruling regimes. Human Rights Watch has documented the imprisonment and torture of thousands of Muslims for exercising their religious faith.

Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, was a former Communist Party apparatchik who ruled Uzbekistan as his personal fiefdom while reaping political and economic benefits from the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

To maintain his rule, Karimov fostered Uzbek nationalism, filled prisons with political opponents, and targeted independent religious groups, justifying mass arrests of Muslims as necessary in the struggle against Islamist radicalism.

Observers believe that such oppression in fact encouraged the growth of radicalism among some Muslims, who then went on to join the ranks of homegrown groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, as well as international terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State.

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A recent report by the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that monitors conflict, estimated that between 2,000 and 4,000 people in Central Asia have become radicalized.

The nexus of Islamic radicalism in Central Asia is the Ferghana Valley, where Uzbekistan borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

‘‘Lack of opportunities and access to good education among youth, a poor labor market, conflict tensions among ethnic groups, political turbulence and widespread corruption in the government system leave a large part of the population vulnerable and marginalized,’’ Akylai Karimova, who runs a U.N.-funded project to reduce radicalism among young people in the Ferghana Valley city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, told The Washington Post in an interview earlier this year. ‘‘These, in turn, become a perfect base for radical elements to spread among them.’’

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has faced a radical Islamic rebellion in the North Caucasus region of his own country, recently estimated that several thousand people have left Central Asia to join the Islamic State in the Middle East.

Russia arrested and charged a number of ethnic Uzbeks with ties to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the investigation of the bombing of a St. Petersburg subway train, which killed 16 people.

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While Trump on Tuesday cited the New York City attack as cause to tighten immigration to the United States, authorities have not released any information on where Saipov became radicalized.

Terrorism experts say people who have carried out attacks later claimed by the Islamic State are more often radicalized inside their newly adopted country, rather than foreign fighters sent on a mission.

The Boston Marathon bombing was carried out by two brothers from southern Russia who, investigators determined, became radicalized while living in the United States.

‘‘The old idea is that terrorist organizations are trying to infiltrate the United States, and this is just simply out of date,’’ said Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. ‘‘This doesn’t capture ISIS is trying to radicalize people who are already living here.’’

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