A U.S. federal grand jury this week indicted the man accused of driving a truck down a crowded bike path in Lower Manhattan on charges of terrorism and murder. The attack last month killed eight people and injured 12 others.
U.S. authorities charge that Sayfullo Saipov, 29, of Paterson, New Jersey, was inspired by Islamic State (IS) militants’ online propaganda and admitted that his goal was “to kill as many people as he could.”
During his stay at the hospital, Saipov reportedly requested to have an IS flag in his room while he was recovering from wounds he suffered during the October 31 attack. He was shot and wounded by police after he crashed his truck into a school bus.
Saipov came from Uzbekistan to the United States through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program in 2010.
Media coverage of the attack and subsequent stories of Saipov’s time in the U.S. have repeatedly referenced his ethnicity, engendering heated public debates among Uzbeks about how Saipov should be identified.
The Uzbek-American community has struggled with the idea that someone from their homeland is facing terror-related charges in their adopted country.
Many, however, are unhappy with how the media seem to be giving more attention to his ethnicity and place of origin than to his alleged actions. Their argument: A terrorist is a terrorist; nationality or ethnicity should not factor into the debate, lest it cast aspersions on an entire community.
“Terrorists have no country, no religion and no national identity,” Olim Sharipov, head of the Uzbek American Association in Chicago, said.
Sharipov added that by committing evil acts, people like Saipov strip themselves of all identities — in Saipov’s case, both American and Uzbek.
Some Uzbeks inside Uzbekistan are distancing themselves from Saipov as well.
“We have no terrorists. This guy left Uzbekistan a long time ago. He is an American now, so his actions should be analyzed in that context,” a young researcher from Tashkent, the country’s capital, who requested not to be named for security reasons, said.
Steve Swerdlow, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, maintains that it is important to view the issue of terrorism and ethnicity through the right lenses and in the right context.
“Obviously, we should not overemphasize his Uzbek nationality, but it is important to understand the circumstances of the country he comes from,” Swerdlow said.
He is critical of Uzbekistan’s counterterrorism methods, such as torture, and argues the government’s harsh approaches over time have contributed to the growth of extremism. He also believes that lack of justice, widespread corruption and complex socioeconomic conditions drive millions of vulnerable young Uzbeks to look for opportunities overseas. In the process, some fall victim to terror groups, he said.
Since 2015, there have been at least seven Uzbek-related terror cases in New York.
The Uzbek community in the U.S. is worried that the acts of the few will overshadow the great stories of the many who have gone on to do great things in their adopted homeland.
With at least 40,000 green card winners over the past two decades and thousands still seeking a brighter future in the lottery each year, many Uzbeks fear the small number of Uzbeks who have been accused of supporting terrorism or arrested in the U.S. on charges of terrorism may jeopardize their chances of traveling to the U.S., much less immigrating to the country.
“With so many successful compatriots here, we’d like to think that we are the best of both worlds. So, this and other cases from the recent years really hit us hard,” said Norkhoja Sodikov, an Uzbek community leader in New York.
Sodikov came to the U.S. 12 years ago after receiving a green card through the U.S. visa program that makes up to 55,000 permanent resident cards available each year to people from “underrepresented countries.” It is often referred to as the green card lottery.
Following last month’s terror attack and the revelation that the alleged attacker had come to the U.S. through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, U.S President Donald Trump hinted at ending it.
There also have been rumors that the administration is considering adding Uzbekistan to the list of countries on the controversial travel ban.
Nate Schenkkan of Freedom House argues that painting entire communities with the same broad brush should be avoided.
“At this point, it is difficult to say whether there is something unique about this case or something uniquely Uzbek or Central Asian,” Schenkkan said.
Instead, he said, efforts should be made to look into the tactics being used by terrorists and whether there are any commonalities.
“We have an increasing body of evidence or set of examples of different kinds of terrorist attacks committed by different ethnicities in different countries, using similar tactics that are spread by jihadist groups and networks, including ISIS, and instructions that are sent out on social media channels or ISIS publications that reach all sorts of different ethnicities,” he said, using an acronym for the militant group.
Schenkkan urges the West, particularly the United States, not to take disproportionate steps to punish the community as a whole for the acts of a few individuals.
Own the issue
Some Uzbeks, however, argue that the community should try to own the issue and help resolve it.
“The reality is that there are Uzbeks who support terrorism, extremism and violent methods to achieve goals. They exist, and by not recognizing that bitter truth, Uzbeks only fool themselves,” Alisher Siddique, director of Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, said.
Last week, a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation visited Uzbekistan and met with the country’s leaders. Tashkent said it was ready to support the investigation and strengthen the cooperation against terrorism and extremism.