New York attack shows focus on Middle East terror risks is misplaced

By Ariel Cohen

Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year old, married father of two from a far-away land many Americans haven’t heard about (let alone can find on a map) is the alleged perpetrator of yet another blood-curdling terror attack in the U.S. — this time, in New York City, where he allegedly drove a bus down a busy bicycle path and, in a note, expressed support for the Islamic state. But unlike the stereotypical terrorist often portrayed in the American media, Saipov comes from Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia.

The profile of terrorism, and of terrorists, is quickly evolving, and the Middle East is no longer the point of origin. Individuals and groups willing to commit violence to promote various extremist interpretations of Islam may also come from Eurasia, from South and East Asia, or from Africa.

Saipov’s alleged attack is not the first on U.S. soil carried by radicalized immigrants from the former Soviet Union: that happened when the Chechen/Dagestani Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013.

Like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, violent Islamists from Uzbekistan and neighboring mountainous Kyrgyzstan have been increasingly involved in terror attacks around the world. In Istanbul, men allegedly from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia planned and executed a terror attack at the Ataturk Airport, and Uzbek Abdulgadir Masharipov allegedly shot up a night club there over New Year’s 2017. In an April 2017 suicide bombing on Russia’s St. Petersburg metro, Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Russian citizen born in Kyrgyzstan, was named. In Stockholm that same month, another Uzbek, Rakhmat Akilov, allegedly drove a truck down a crowded street.

The origin of these attackers demonstrates that the threat is more diverse than eight countries that the Trump Administration has focused on in promoting its travel ban, which initially included Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, Somalia, and North Korea.

And yet, the majority of Central Asian Muslims are not jihadi terrorists; on the contrary, many are moderate or secular. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have co-existed for centuries in the region. But, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which punished the observance of every religion, the locals re-discovered their Islamic roots, and today the level of observance varies from strict in the villages to lax in the big cities.

Many Uzbeks once joined their ethnic brethren in the ranks of the Northern Alliance in neighboring Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban before 9/11; more recently, however, Uzbeks swarmed the ranks of al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist organization aimed at subverting all of the governments of Central Asia.

Beyond those organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood (which originated in Egypt and has branches of adherents in many other countries, including Hamas in the Gaza Strip) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (a secretive global organization that strives to overthrow existing regimes and re-establish the califate, a militant theocratic state) have both been active in the region.

However, when ISIS began its bloody takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria, thousands from the former Soviet Union answered the self-styled caliphate’s call, and Russian became the third most common language among the jihadis in that region, after Arabic and English.

Now that Raqqa has fallen, these ISIS “foreign fighters” — as well as radicalized fellow travelers — have seemingly begun following the pattern seen in Nice, France and Berlin, Germany in 2016: using trucks as weapons.

Which brings us back to Saipov and his alleged attack on New York City: U.S. authorities will have to drill deep to analyze the Saipov case and its circumstances. They still aren’t sure how he was radicalized, and by whom, though they currently suspect self-radicalization. Law enforcement currently says that he was not being monitored or under surveillance, though he may have contact with people who were.

But more broadly, to address the risks and investigate the origins of this attack, the U.S. law enforcement and national security community need a capability they currently lack: an in-depth knowledge of the Islamic religion, as well as history, geography, and politics in the regions beyond those stereotypically associated with terror, post-9/11. A program to address this systemic failure of expertise is long overdue, especially after the Boston Marathon bombing.

And, while we need to preserve our liberties and individual rights, domestic intelligence work, including within closely-knit immigrant communities, in mosques and Islamic centers, needs to improve. What Saipov and people like him are doing casts a dark shadow over the whole American Muslim community, and twists the intention of faith, so Muslim leaders and clergy in the U.S. need to send the broadest anti-extremism messages to their communities.

Plus, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence services need to improve their cooperation with secular Central Asian governments — including in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and others — to prevent future terrorist attacks, and to collect information on those who are already in the U.S. Though terrorists do not recognize state borders, some governments (including in Europe) have at times balked at sharing information with the U.S. because of privacy considerations. There needs to be greater efforts on both sides to balance these legitimate concerns against the need for public safety.

Finally, a coherent and sustained public information campaign — in English and in the many languages of Muslim communities, including Uzbek and other Central Asian languages — aimed at exposing the militant organizations and their recruiters and countering their messages, would go a long way to help prevent tragedies like the one that struck New York on a sunny Halloween Day.

Our government should recognize the writing on the wall: in the era of ISIS, the terror risks have spread well beyond the Arab world. We are dealing with a “Jihad International,” which requires international cooperation and a multi-faceted, all-government approach, with the stress on prevention — not reaction.

Ariel Cohen, PhD, is non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Director, Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. He is the author of seven books and monographs, including “Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis” (Praeger, 1996), and “Russia’s Counterinsurgency in North Caucasus” (U.S. Army War College, 2014).

This article was originally published on NBC News’ Think The views expressed do not reflect those of Euronews.

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