Once again radical Islamic terrorism has brought to both America’s and the world’s attention, another part of the world most are unfamiliar with or had not heard of, let alone find on a map. Tuesday’s attack in New York City’s lower Manhattan’s westside has accentuated the growing threat presented by radical jihadi-inspired terrorism from the region of the world know as Central Asia, aka the “Stans” — because of the names it is made up of; Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, and of course to the south Afghanistan and Pakistan, which however are geographically part of what is considered Southwest Asia. Central Asia, the one-time Soviet region located between Russia and China, has again been ignored in a number of ways over the last nearly ten years. As a result, it is a region where little economic opportunity and less political freedom have combined to drive young men toward radicalism, the hot bed lies particularly in the tri-country region of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
As a career strategic intelligence officer and special operations’ special mission intelligence officer, I spent a number of years as part of the Global War on Terrorism working in and out of Central Asia when I served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for the U.S. Central Command, which has the U.S. military responsibility for that part of the world. Our mission was to coordinate and corroborate with our other intelligence agencies and the regional governments of those countries, all of whom were friendly, or developing their friendship with the U.S. since they gained independence from the former Soviet Union in the 1990’s. Over the next decade, they were looking to cozy up to the west, particularly Europe and the United States for economic reasons. The U.S. had implemented a vigorous economic program and accompanying defense policy to encourage diplomatic relationships between the Central Asian states and the U.S. The primarily rational and focus was to influence and to gravitate their thinking to more western democratic principles and policies, rather than to those of Moscow and Beijing. Further, because of the war in Afghanistan, Central Asia became a pivotal land bridge and air bridge for various types of support logistically, for air support and intelligence collection. It resulted in the U.S. establishing a number pf military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan specifically, as well as training bases for the various nations to train their counter terrorism forces, conduct military exercises, and participate in other mil-to-mil programs in order to professionalize those countries’ militaries, interior ministry, national guard, and border guard forces.
From 2001 through 2008, the success we had as part of the mission which was covered and mitigated under the Global War on Terror program in that region was highly successful in every aspect. Unfortunately and subsequently those successes, mil-to-mil relationships and other counter intelligence and counterterrorism efforts fell to the waist side during the Obama administration and the subsequent, shortcomings in that region led to the current situation we are experiencing today and which played out on the streets of New York City on Tuesday.
The situation as it stands in that event have officials identifying the suspect who allegedly mowed a truck through a lower Manhattan bike path, killing at least eight people and injuring a dozen others, as Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old man of Uzbek origin. Mr. Saipov, now in custody and being interrogated at a New York hospital after being shot by a NYPD police, came to the U.S. in 2010 and is originally from Uzbekistan. Law enforcement officials stated that police investigators found handwritten notes in and near the rental truck that indicated the suspect carried out the attack in the name of the Islamic State, i.e.; ISIS radical Islamic terrorist group. He was previously known to have lived in Tampa, Florida since he arrived in the U.S. under the Diversity Visa program, again from Uzbekistan. Accordingly, the FBI didn’t immediately comment on whether the Uzbek national, who was a resident of Florida, was previously known to authorities.
Historically, Uzbekistan has a history of Islamist militancy, centering primarily on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or the IMU, which has splintered since its founding in the late 1990s. Likewise, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) another Uzbek jihadi group has been involved in terror attacks in Afghanistan. Many recruits from both groups were sent to Afghanistan with resulting offshoots allying with and fighting alongside the Taliban. Others were sent to Pakistan and other Middle East countries to train under al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, and of course now the Islamic State, aka ISIS. At this point it is not known nor has it yet to be revealed as to whether Sayfullo Saipov trained anywhere in the Middle East, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, or other location for ISIS. The IMU declared its support for ISIS in 2014, with formal allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi the following year.
In a series of recent reports by the Institute for the Study of War, International Crisis Group (ICG), along with other studies, the organization warned that growing numbers of Central Asians were traveling to the Middle East to support or fight for Islamic State, “prompted in part by political marginalization and bleak economic prospects that characterize their post-Soviet region.” Hence, ICG indicated that the lack of opportunity and freedom drives young men from former Soviet region to radicalism. The report said ethnic Uzbeks were most numerous among the Central Asians fighting with Islamic State. It should be noted that many fighters are experienced combat veterans. The report estimated that between 2,000 to 4,000 Central Asians in total had joined and or recruited by radical Sunni Muslim extremist groups, namely al-Qaeda, ISIS, and or the IMU.
So, since the beginning of 2017, following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, there has been a stepped up and more effective U.S. military operations against ISIS, most notably recently in Mosul and Raqqa. Because of more effective operations and reduced rules of engagement, we are now witnessing defeated ISIS fighters beginning to file out of Syria and Iraq. To the contrary, over the last eight-years of the Obama administration, U.S. gestures and commentary about the pull-out and withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the reduction and termination of the U.S. counter terrorism programs and efforts in the region of Central Asia, it has become ripe for the picking by groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda and the reinvigoration of the IMU. Similarly, as a result, radicalized Uzbek nationals now pose an added risk in many parts of the world. They have been linked to a handful of terrorist cases in recent years, including incidents both in Sweden and Russia.
Further, there have been a number of them who also have been targeted in counterterrorism operations both in the U.S. and Europe. Likewise, in 2015 federal prosecutors in New York charged a number of Uzbeks living in Brooklyn, New York for conspiring to join or aid the Islamic State. The arrests were the result of a Federal counter terror investigation that began after one of the Uzbeks posted to an Uzbek-language website that called for visitors to join the radical extremist terrorist group ISIS.
Currently, because much of the intelligence that has been used to determine which of the countries are banned from immigrating to the U.S. was derived and assessed during the Obama administration, much of it is questionable if not flawed and perhaps politicized. Unfortunately, Uzbekistan isn’t among the 11 countries targeted by the Trump administration’s immigration policy that focuses on citizens of nations deemed to pose a high risk to U.S. national security and welfare. Worse, none of the countries on the list belong to the Central Asian region.
Fortunately, Tuesday’s New York City attack has already likely to influence further iterations of the travel ban, because President Donald Trump indicated changes are possible. “I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program,” he said in a Twitter message Tuesday evening. “Being politically correct is fine, but not for this.” Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said in a statement following the attack that the department was closely monitoring the “apparent act of terrorism” and all questions were being referred to the FBI and the New York Police Department.
We should all be cognizant that this particular attack that was chosen by the New York City suspect Mr. Saipov of driving a truck through an area crowded by pedestrian and cyclists—has been favored in recent terrorist attacks in Europe. Foreign radical Islamic terrorist organizations and affiliates have urged such attacks in the past, and as early as 2010, the al Qaeda magazine Inspire advocated using heavy vehicles like pickup trucks to run down civilians.
While there is still no immediate claims of responsibility by any group such as ISIS, Mr. Saipov had material inside the vehicle that proclaimed his allegiance to ISIS and there was an ISIS flag. Further, while some so-called experts who monitor radical movements said it was too early to attribute the attack to Islamic State.
President Trump initially tweeted that the incident “looks like another attack by a very sick and deranged person. Law enforcement is following this closely. NOT IN THE U.S.A.!” Roughly, an hour later, the President appeared to link the attack to Islamic State, perhaps because he received some undisclosed intelligence, tweeting: “We must not allow ISIS to return, or enter, our country after defeating them in the Middle East and elsewhere. Enough!” Shortly after, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the President had been briefed on the New York incident by White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly, USMC (Retired).
We also need to take into consideration other attacks that have been linked to Central Asian radical militants over at least the past year, which have taken place in Sweden, Russia and Turkey.
- In April 2017, a 39-year-old Uzbek national drove a truck into a crowd in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, who was known to the police for failing to report for his deportation. The Uzbek government linked him to Islamic State.
- Also in April 2017, Russian authorities identified an ethnic Uzbek citizen of Russia, who was born in Kyrgyzstan, as the perpetrator of a bombing on the St. Petersburg metro that killed at least 14 people. Authorities said he died in the attack.
- In early 2017, Turkish authorities identified an Uzbek national as the gunman who opened fire on Istanbul’s Reina nightclub, killing at least 39 people and wounding a number of others in the club.
- In late 2016, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Turkish authorities also said Central Asians from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were among the assailants in an attack on Istanbul’s airport, which left more than 40 people dead.
Obviously now there is more focus on Central Asia as a hot bed for radical Islamic terrorism and activity. Throughout the course of the last several years all the signs pointed to a jihadist inspired attack, especially as ISIS’ hopes fade for a promised Islamic caliphate, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula. The attacks take on a more urgent need to respond as ISIS and other groups lose more and more physical space and a set of supporters that are romanticizing the loss of the caliphate, seek to react and retaliate.
Certainly, from the President’s statements, refugees from the region seeking entry to the U.S. will face what officials described as more stringent and thorough examination of their backgrounds, in line with Trump’s “extreme vetting” policy for immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and other U.S. agencies have been reviewing the screening process during the temporary ban. They will now be put to further scrutiny.
Since March 2017, in a promising development given Uzbekistan’s central and strategic geographic location, in the heart of Central Asia and bordering Afghanistan. The Uzbekistan government welcomes the prospect of improved relations under new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and while it has reaffirmed the country’s no-foreign-bases policy and its dislike of regional military or political blocs, as well as “its self-imposed restriction against any type of expeditionary military operations.” Within those limits, the government and the administration noted that mil-to-mil efforts are focused on shared interests: border security, counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and preventing the return of foreign fighters and radicalized groups.
Similarly, with the reduction of U.S. intelligence, counter intelligence, and counter terrorism activity, operations, and training over the last eight plus years in Central Asia, primarily as a result of the Obama administrations intentional and deliberate flawed approach to radical Islam and the threat posed — we are behind. Hence, going forward starting today, the Trump Administration will need to assess the need for increased deployment of special operations forces to the region to work with those regional governments to reverse the situation and spread of radicalization in the region. There is an important strategic imperative that must be addressed and that is; “the purpose of Special Forces deployments overseas is to help to stop the morphing of the ideology of radical Islam …”