(CNSNews.com) – Uzbekistan, the country of origin of the man accused of carrying out Tuesday’s deadly vehicle-ramming attack in New York City, has become an increasingly important source of recruits to ISIS and other violent groups operating in Syria and Iraq in recent years.
Former Soviet republics now account for the largest number of foreign fighters who have flowed into Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS and other violent groups in recent years, according to a report last week by the Washington-based security consultancy Soufan Group.
The report put the number of foreign fighters from the former Soviet republics at 8,717, compared to 7,054 from the Middle East, 5,718 from Western Europe and 5,319 from the Maghreb.
By contrast, a Dec. 2015 Soufan Group report found the former Soviet republics then accounting for only the fourth largest group of foreign fighters, after the Middle East, Maghreb and Western Europe.
Of the 15 countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, the new report ascribes to Uzbekistan the second-largest number of foreign fighters, with only Russia itself supplying more.
Uzbekistan is a strategically located country, slightly bigger than California, wedged between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. A formally secular country, its 29 million people are 88 percent Muslim, nine percent Eastern Orthodox.
Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union from the early 1920s until independence in 1991. Uzbek is the main language, but many speak Russian.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has been active since the 1990s, when it launched a violent campaign to establish an Islamic state in a large valley that spreads across eastern Uzbekistan and parts of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
For much of its existence it has allied itself to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, operating training bases in Afghanistan and collaborating closely with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. But in mid-2015, the IMU switched its allegiance to ISIS.
Around the same time, ISIS launched a Russian-language propaganda channel, Furat media, reflecting the greater importance of Russian-speakers in the terrorist movement.
One of Furat media’s earliest videos, in August 2015, was an Uzbek-language clip extolling the IMU, and urging Central Asians to join ISIS.
Law enforcement officials told the Associated Press that the man who drove a rented pickup truck into pedestrians and cyclists in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday is Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek who moved to the U.S. in 2010.
Saipov, who was shot and wounded by a police officer, is in custody.
Law enforcement sources told CNN and NBC that a note in the truck cab said the attack had been carried out in the name of ISIS.
ISIS and al-Qaeda have both promoted vehicle ramming as a simple yet effective way to kill, and the tactic has been used with deadly results over the past three years, especially in Israel and Europe.
On Twitter, President Trump said in response to Tuesday’s attack that the U.S. “must not allow ISIS to return, or enter, our country after defeating them in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
Trump said he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security to “step up our already Extreme Vetting Program.”
According to the DHS, 3,977 people born in Uzbekistan were granted lawful permanent residence in the U.S. in fiscal year 2015, and another 47,537 over the decade before that.
State Department refugee processing center data show that 35 Uzbeks were admitted into the U.S. as refugees in FY 2017. Most were Christians.