Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the New York City terror attack that killed eight people and wounded 11 others, made his way to Tampa from a nation that has long provided foreign fighters for U.S. foes and, increasingly, jihadi attackers.
Saipov, 29, came to the United States from Uzbekistan around 2010 and arrived in Tampa several years later. The Central Asian nation where he grew up has produced fighters to attack Afghan and Pakistani forces and is considered a significant source of Islamic State-affiliated combatants.
The Islamic Jihad Union, or IJU, an Uzbekistan jihadi group, has been involved in attacks in Afghanistan, according to a 2009 report published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, has centered its attacks on Pakistan’s security forces.
"The Uzbek-led jihadist groups are useful allies for the Taliban," according to the report. "Many fighters are experienced combat veterans, and newer recruits will also likely have some training as conscripts in the Uzbek or other Central Asian militaries."
Uzbeks have also made up one of the largest nationalities of foreign fighters flocking to the Islamic State. More than 1,500 Uzbeks have fought for ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, according to a report released last month by the Soufan Group, which provides strategic security services to governments.
Former Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov repressed the nation’s Muslim population in the 1990s, producing an armed resistance, said David Witter, a former researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
This resistance became the IMU, which was initially focused on overthrowing the Karimov government. But Uzbek military action prompted the IMU to flee, first to Tajikistan and then to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, shortly before Sept. 11, 2001, Witter said.
The IMU fought alongside the Taliban in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz against the U.S. military and the Northern Alliance during the 2001 invasion before retreating to North and South Waziristan along with much of the remaining foreign fighters, Witter said. There, they were hosted and militarily supported by al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network in attacks against the U.S. military, as well as Afghan and Pakistani security forces.
The IMU declared its support for ISIS in 2014, according to the Soufan Group report, and its members pledged formal allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the following year.
"It is certain" that ISIS’s Afghanistan affiliate, IS-Khorasan, "will gain additional foreign members" from places like Uzbekistan because it offers "a more attractive and convenient option than trying to get to Syria or Iraq, especially as the caliphate there goes underground."
Uzbeks have also played a prominent role in recent terror attacks.
Over the past 16 months, according to CNN, Uzbek nationals inspired, directed or affiliated with ISIS have carried out numerous mass-casualty attacks.
In June 2016, 45 people were killed and more than 230 people were injured in a coordinated attack at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. The assailants were from the Russian North Caucasus region, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
On Jan. 1, 39 people were killed and 70 were injured in an attack at an Istanbul nightclub where hundreds of people were celebrating New Year. The perpetrator was Abdulgadir Masharipov, an Uzbek citizen who was later captured.
In April, Rakhmat Akilov, an Uzbek national, used a truck to mow down pedestrians in Stockholm, Sweden, killing four people.
According to the U.S. State Department, 2,895 refugees from Uzbekistan have resettled in the United States since 2002, including 21 in Florida. Saipov came here under the Diversity Visa program.
Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of CAIR Florida, said he knows of no sizable Uzbek community in the Tampa area.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.