On April 4, 2017, when 23-year old Akbarzon Jalilov has blown himself up taking 15 other innocent people lives at the St. Petersburg metro, very few people initially paid attention to his place of birth. Shortly, it turned out that him, as another eight of his friends who were detained, were ethnic Uzbeks from a Kyrgyz town of Osh. Another Uzbek man, Rakhmat Akilov, is suspected of steering a hijacked beer truck into a crowd of shoppers in Stockholm on April 7 that left four people dead and 15 others wounded. Yet another Uzbek national, Abdulkadir Masharipov, has been arrested for allegedly killing 39 people of different nationalities only two hours into the New Year in the Reina nightclub in Istanbul on January 1, 2017. All three of them believed having allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS).
While all three men shared same nationality or ethnic background, they represent three different faces of Islamic terrorism. Abfukhar Masharidov is an experienced jihadist who was trained as a militant both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and has contacts inside Syria with IS. The oldest of the three, 39-year Rakhmat Akilov had been relatively recently recruited by ISIS and did not receive any special military training. The youngest, Akbarzhon Jalilov, represents the so-called “second city” generation of the young CIS Muslims who were born or raised in large European cities, where their parents emigrated or came illegally. These three also exemplify three different categories of Uzbek expats.
St. Petersburg: Akbarzon Jalilov
Akbarzon Jalilov came from a turbulent southern Kyrgyz region of Osh (his parents still reside there in an Amir-Timur district) which has a sizeable Uzbek minority. In southern Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Uzbeks have been highly active in the local economy, especially in trade, services, and in agriculture. This region has a long history of ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbek, most recent of which, in 2010, resulted in nearly 420 people, mostly Uzbeks, killed and another 80,000 displaced. The Kyrgyz government security forces seemed to focus resources on addressing the danger presented by Uzbeks, but not by Kyrgyz, even after it became clear that Kyrgyz mobs posed an imminent threat. Subsequently, the authorities took very limited, if any, operational measures to protect the Uzbek population.
It is not surprising that Jalilov’s father left Osh to work in Russia and took his son with him. In Russia, Akbadzon worked with his father as a panel beater in a car repair shop. An acquaintance from St Petersburg said, Jalilov had also worked for about a year in a chain of sushi restaurants. While his father came back to Kyrgyzstan to join wife and younger children, Jalilov-junior continued to live in St. Petersburg for the last six years.
From information revealed by Russian authorities, one of Jalilov’s compatriots, Abror Azimov, also coming from Osh, had recruited Jalilov and gave orders for his final terrorist act execution in St. Petersburg. Azimov’s brother, Akram Azimov has also been arrested in a Moscow suburb. According to the prosecution, he initially admitted assisting his brother in planning the terrorist attack, but subsequently denied it. A further eight people, mostly from Kyrgyzstan, were detained in St Petersburg and Moscow on suspicion of assisting Jalilov.
It is less clear at this point how exactly Jalilov was connected with the radical Islamist networks and the IS proper. The prosecution and the FSB stated that that the money came from a “well known terrorist organization in Turkey”. On April 26, 2017, a group called the Imam Shamil Battalion has claimed responsibility the attack, and said that the bomber was acting on orders from al-Qaeda. Some sources even went as far as insisting that Jalilov acted on instructions from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. To date, IS has claimed thirteen attacks in Russia: ten in the North Caucasus, two in Moscow Oblast, and – a day after the St Petersburg attack – one in Astrakhan Oblast.
The reality is that the terrorist act had been planned and executed not in Kyrgyzstan, but in Russia. Such chain of events culminating in terrorist act draws parallels with similar stories of young jihadists in Western Europe. Those young Muslims either arrived at young age with their parents or were born in the West and were subsequently radicalized and recruited by Islamists. These younger radical Islamists are being referred as a “second city” generation. This phenomenon is relatively new in Russia and usually involves children whose parents arrived as refugees from Caucasus after Chechen wars in the 1990s or as “gastarbeiters” from Central Asia.
In 2011, Akbarzon Jalilov, applied and has been granted Russian citizenship. It is remarkable that Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a special statement, saying that Jalilov was “an ethnic Uzbek” and never hold Kyrgyz citizenship. Despite this faintly veiled discriminatory statement Kyrgyz Minister of Foreign Affairs, Erlan Abdylaev, claimed that his country “competent organs” extend full cooperation their Russian counterparts in their investigations.
Jalilov represents a new wave of radical Islamists who blend into local society away from existing jihadist movements – making it harder for security forces to stop their attacks. His pages on the Russian equivalent of Facebook show Jalilov’s interest in Wahhabism, but they give no indication that he might resort to violence, presenting a picture of a typical young man leading a largely secular life.
Istanbul: Abdulkadir Masharipov
An Uzbek national, Abdulkadir Masharipov, is suspected of killing 39 people on a New Year in the Reina nightclub in Istanbul. On 16 January 2017, he had been detained by Turkish security forces in a raid on an apartment in Istanbul. That happened after a long hunt, when several other Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Uighur nationals had been arrested and questioned. Islamic State (IS) in Turkey has said it was behind the attack.
While radicalization of young people from Central Asia is not unusual, and more than 4,000 people are believed to have travelled from the region to Syria in recent years, there is a strong evidence suggesting that the suspect might have been used by the IS as a hired gun. According to Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin, Abdulkadir Masharipov is a 34-year-old Uzbek who speaks four foreign languages – Chinese, Russian, Arabic and Turkish. Mr. Sahin said Masharipov had been „very well trained“. Officials believe he received training as a militant both in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has contacts inside Syria with IS. It is also believed that Masharipov entered Turkey in January 2016, crossing the Iranian border illegally.
Masharipov was arrested at a Kyrgyz friend’s apartment in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul. Firearms, ammunition, two drones and about $200,000 were found there. Police also detained four other people – a man of Iraqi origin and three women from Senegal, Egypt and Somali. Masharipov is alleged to have moved to the flat after carrying out the nightclub attack. It is not yet clear what links, if any, the other people in the flat have to IS.
In an interview with police, Masharipov stated he was initially directed by ISIL to stage an attack at Taksim Square, but dropped the plan after conducting surveillance of the area and concluding there was too much security. Afterwards, Masharipov passed the Reina and decided it would be a good target to attack due to a lack of security. According to Turkish police, Masharipov received assistance from Islamist Uyghur group, which has a large presence in Istanbul district of Zeytinburnu. Turkish government sources claim that Uyghurs used Kyrgyz passports to go to Turkey with both ISIS and Al-Qaeda being joined in Syria by Uyghurs.
Thus, in Masharipov’s case we most likely deal with the new type of Central Asian terrorism –“Jihadist for hire”. These are people who gained considerable experience fighting in IS and Al-Qaeda and willing to commit terrorist act, if the price is right. They have a widespread support network in countries like Turkey and possibly also in Russia.
Stockholm: Rahmat Akilov
39-year old father of four children, Rahmat Akilov, has been born in the nominally Uzbek town of Samarkand. It is also known that this historical town was mostly populated by Tajiks (it is very likely that Akilov might have changed his nationality from Tajik to Uzbek to avoid discrimination by Uzbek authorities). He confessed to the crime (April 7 attack that left four people dead and 15 others wounded) during a first questioning by the authorities and appeared to be a person whose motivation be both indoctrination and frustration with Swedish authorities. During his confession, Akilov also declared the he “is very happy with the achieved outcome and is proud of his crime”.
Rahmat Akilov also did not fit an image of the fanatic believer. A close acquaintance of the attacker told Radio Sweden that Akilov “did not know how to pray properly the first time he went to a mosque in Sweden. I heard him say, ‘Our Muslim brothers in Syria are doing the right thing. They are saving the lives of Muslims.’” Another acquaintance of Akilov added that he was not very knowledgeable about Islam nor pious, but expressed an affinity for the Islamic State and advocated violent extremism.
Akilov visited Turkey frequently moved to the country in 2012 due to his wife’s business dealings and formed ties with extremist religious groups. According to the Stockholm Aftonbladet paper report, in 2015, Akilov applied for the Swedish asylum under the name of Rahmatjon Kurbonov( Tajik name) claiming that he had been arrested for taking part in political demonstration and allegedly paying $10,000 bribe to be released. However, Swedish authorities denied his request and on June 15, 2016 asked him to leave country in four weeks.
Akilov remained in Sweden and went underground, working illegally and staying with his friends from Uzbekistan. According to his friends, Akilov became frustrated after his asylum claim was rejected in 2016, sometimes behaved “strangely” and started taking drugs. He also began expressing views in support of IS. Swedish paper Expressen reported that Akilov were attending services at the underground mosque in one of the Stockholm suburbs, where he could possible made contact with the Islamic State recruiters. Akilov’s relatives suspected that he had been radicalized by the IS Tajik cell in Sweden and even wanted to go fight in Syria( According to the Uzbek government, he tried to cross into Syria in 2015 but was deported to Sweden by Turkish authorities).
Swedish authorities do not believe that terror act in Stockholm had been a case of a newly borne jihadist frustrated at his asylum appeal rejected. The prosecutor’s office stated that there are other groups, which “activities need to be examined”. The police already questioned 600 people. Former Swedish Prime Minister, Karl Bildt, said that there are at least 137 people in his country who are under extradition orders to Uzbekistan, “most of these people are at large”.
These are just three examples of Uzbek nationals committing terrorist acts in three different countries, far away from their homeland. They had different motives for their actions, but represent a growing trend: people are not becoming terrorists overnight, terrorists from Uzbekistan are result of many years of political, religious and ethnic repressions by Karimov’s regime in in their country. Similar circumstances forced other Uzbeks to leave their ethnic enclave in Kyrgyzstan.
IS propaganda also finds fertile ground inside Russia among the millions of Muslims from Russia’s North Caucasus and ex-Soviet central Asia. Many do menial, low-paid jobs; police for document checks regularly stop them, and they often face racial discrimination. There are number of examples of young men from central Asia who fought alongside Islamist radicals in Syria described how they had been radicalized while they were working in Russia.
Recent military conflicts in Syria and Iraq have brought a new influx of largely young generation of volunteers from across the Soviet space. Official statements on how many people from the CIS/Central Asia are fighting there are impossible to verify. In one of his recent statement, Mr. Putin put their number to 4,000 from Russia and up to 5,000 from former Soviet countries. Russian recruits mostly come from the North Caucasus region, but also from across Russia and even Ukraine. Those from Central Asia have often come from gastarbeiter communities in Russia, particularly Moscow and St Petersburg. Continues Russia support of Assad regime is likely to strengthen this trend.