Where Is Uzbekistan? Why Young Men From This Asian Country Keep Threatening the U.S. and Europe

Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old citizen of Uzbekistan, was apprehended Tuesday in the wake of a deadly attack in New York City. He isn't the first immigrant from the Central Asian country linked to terrorism in the U.S. in recent years.

Uzbekistan is a large, majority-Muslim country located north of Afghanistan that gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, the country has been ruled by an authoritarian dictator who placed firm controls on how his citizens practice religion and who can attend mosques. This harsh environment has caused many young Uzbeks to flee the country and look for opportunities abroad, and some have appeared in Syria fighting for the Islamic State group, experts say.

“Uzbekistan is a large country and its economy is not very vibrant. It is also one of the most oppressive countries in the world, so young people are fleeing the dictatorship and at the same time aren’t able to fit in Western societies,” Erica Marat, a Central Asia expert at the College of International Security Affairs, told Newsweek. “Patterns of radicalization for Uzbeks are somewhat similar to that of migrants from other countries, an inability to fit into the society where the live, an inability to live the American dream. So they are looking for ways to belong and extremist narratives seem to be the most attractive.”

An Uzbek citizen was arrested in Sweden in April when he ran a truck into a crowd in Stockholm and killed four people. The suspect had been denied a request for residency in Sweden and expressed sympathy with the Islamic State. Two Uzbeks and a Kazakh were arrested in Brooklyn in 2015 and charged with conspiring to support ISIS.

The presence of radical Uzbeks around the world may seem damning, but Uzbekistan has been a U.S. partner in the fight against terrorism. The U.S. operated an airbase in the country from 2001 to 2005, and continued to use Uzbekistan as a strategic location to bring goods and military equipment into Afghanistan even after the base closed. Former Secretary of State John Kerry visited the country in 2015. 

Meanwhile, an al-Qaeda affiliated group of Uzbek fighters operates in Syria and has publicly denounced the Islamic State. Years of communist rule during the Soviet era saw Uzbekistan remain a relatively secular society, and punishments for extremism are harsh in the country.

“[Young Uzbeks] encounter the ISIS narrative in the U.S. through the media and other venues that are radicalized,” said Marat.

Saipov arrived legally in the U.S. in 2010 and had been living in Tampa, Florida. 

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