The suspect in yesterday's terrorist attack in New York City that left eight people dead and at least a dozen injured came to the United States from Uzbekistan, but the country should not be seen as a hotbed for terrorism, experts say.
Uzbeks have been involved in other terrorist acts, but most of the perpetrators appear to have been radicalized after they left the region, according to professors who study Central Asia.
The country, north of Afghanistan, is 88 percent Muslim, though relatively secular because its previous leader, Islam Karimov, cracked down on what he considered "extremist" Islam. Karimov served as president from 1991 until his death last year.
"You would not be able to find someone who did not know someone who was put in jail by him under some charges of Islamic terrorism or radicalism," said David Montgomery, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. "Many people, if they went to the mosque too often, they were seen as Islamic radicals."
U.S. & World
The day's top national and international news.
Karimov often called his opposition Muslim extremists, even when there was little evidence to back up the charge, experts say. The international community criticized Karimov for human rights abuses.
Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, a 29-year-old who came to the U.S. from Uzbekistan in 2010, allegedly drove a rented pickup truck down a bicycle lane in Lower Manhattan Tuesday afternoon, mowing people down and crashing into a school bus. According to authorities, he shouted "Allahu akbar," Arabic for "God is great."
Saipov, who on Wednesday was charged by the U.S. Attorney's office with one count of material support to a terrorist organization and violence with a motor vehicle, was inspired by the Islamic State, police say. He had just "recently" started consuming ISIS propaganda and he appears to have "self-radicalized," a federal law enforcement official told NBC News.
After Sept. 11, Uzbekistan volunteered to assist the U.S. in the "war on terror," said Scott Radnitz, an associate professor of Central Asian Studies at the University of Washington.
"The government saw Islam as a threat to the regime and was happy to help repress its opponents," Radnitz said. "There was no serious threat internally from Islamic organizations, despite what some reports may say. The government exaggerated these groups but actual evidence of their activities is scant or nonexistent."
Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan's new president, condemned yesterday’s terror attack in a letter to President Donald Trump. Since Mirziyoyev took office last year, the country has begun to open up and become more optimistic, experts say.
"Uzbekistan, for its part, is ready to use all the forces and means to assist in the investigation of this terrorist act," Mirziyoyev wrote in the letter to Trump.
Several Uzbeks have been linked to terror plots in the U.S. and other countries in recent years, including a truck attack in Sweden in April and a nightclub shooting in Istanbul in January.
"I think we’re seeing a trend here, and it's an unwelcome one," said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We are seeing not just in Uzbekistan, but in former Soviet states in Central Asia, there seem to be more people involved in global terrorist incidents. They tend to be more lone wolf than anything else."
It is after people move out of the region that they seem to become radicalized, Stronski said.
"To associate Uzbekistan with terrorism is not the way to see the country, because it really represents a tiny fraction of what's going on there," Russell Zanca, a professor of anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University, told NBC. "I'd say there’s probably just as many, if not more, Islamic militants in the U.S. as in Uzbekistan. No majority of Uzbeks would support this."
Although its relationship with the U.S. has been shaky in part because of the human right records of its government, Uzbekistan has, in some ways, been a partner of the U.S. in fighting terrorism, even when the authoritarian Karimov was still in power. The U.S. had an air base in the country to support the war in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005.
"Right now, and this is another shame in this situation, Uzbek American relations right now are probably the best in a while, and that's because of the new leader since September 2016," Zanca said. "Uzbekistan is becoming more open and the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent working hard to improve relations."
Zanca said most Uzbeks are pro-American and grateful for the opportunities they have in the U.S.
"They're so livid and upset that this is all what they'll be known for," he said.
Navbahor Imamova, a journalist who reports on the Uzbek community in the U.S. for the Voice of America Uzbek service, said Uzbeks are very proud of their culture and often frustrated that Americans don’t know about the country. Now they will, but in a negative context.
"It's a shock to many because this guy grew up after the years of independence in Uzbekistan," she said. "If anyone visits Uzbekistan, they will see how secular the country is."
Uzbeks in the U.S. were left stunned and afraid after Tuesday's attack, especially after President Trump said Tuesday that he wanted to eliminate the "Diversity Visa Lottery Program," which provides up to 50,000 visas annually by lottery. Trump said Saipov entered the U.S. through the lottery program.
"They’re very worried and incredibly scared because when they hear President Trump saying we have to stop this program, they are freaking out, because when you’re on a green card, it takes a while for your family to join you," Imamova said. "So it's a long process and their futures depend on the U.S. immigration system."
Uzbekistan is not one of the countries listed on Trump's immigrant ban.