A terrorist attack committed by a 29-year-old national of Uzbekistan, Sayfullo Saipov, in the downtown of New York City, which killed 8 civilians has set a new task of forecasting and preventing future attacks that can be committed by the immigrants from the post-Soviet states of Central Asia for the Western intelligence agencies.

It is worth mentioning that the states of the former Soviet empire, compared to some Middle East and Arab countries, have been considered as the region least exposed to the Islamic radicalism. However, the following acts of terror have made experts search for the roots of the “Central Asian-specific” Islamic extremism:

The blast in the subway of St. Petersburg, which was committed by an Uzbek terrorist from southern Kyrgyzstan Akbarzhon Dzhalilov in April 2017;

The truck attack in the center of Stockholm Sweden by an immigrant from Uzbekistan, Rakhmat Akilov, rammed through the crowd last April;

The terrorist attack by a native of the Fergana Valley of Central Asia, Abdulkadir Masharipov, on December 31, 2016 murdered 39 people in the Reina nightclub in Istanbul;

The terrorist attack at the international airport of Ataturk in Turkey by citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in June 2016;

Another Uzbek terrorist, Ulugbek Kodirov, tried to kill even US President Barack Obama in July 2011 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison;

More than a dozen Uzbeks have been charged with terrorism between 2012 and 2016 in the USA and are now involved in continuing legal proceedings, which is evidence of the growing Islamic terrorism among immigrants from Central Asia.

Western countries need to understand that the idea of establishing the Caliphate will never disappear from the agenda. Modern Salafites and Wahhabis willing to clean Islam from innovations want to turn back time to the days when four Caliphs ruled the Islamic world. The establishment of the Caliphate, the fight against kafirs, and the desire to become a Shahid (to die as martyr for the sake of Allah) are the eternal ideas that inspires radicals around the globe to commit terrorist attacks. Therefore, Western countries should amplify the activities of the special service for counter-terrorism in order to identify Islamic terrorist at an early stage by studying the jihadist ideology. Their officers should have deep and analytical insight into the historical roots and causes of the radicalization of immigrants from Central Asia. The comprehensive study of religious views, social networks and family values can help draw initial conclusion about a suspect.

The identification of Islamic radicals among the crowd and the prevention of future attacks are the most important elements of the fight against religious extremism. The object of research should be the national diaspora centers, or religious communities in the country of domicile, where an immigrant could catch the ideas of the Caliphate. The activity of mosques attended by the immigrant should be analyzed deeper. The lives of immigrants from Central Asia in Russia, Europe and the USA have shown that it is there where they are exposed to the influence of radical ideas of the Salafism and Wahhabism.

Experts in religion need to know that the peoples of Central Asia, especially from the Fergana Valley, have a historical memory of the greatness of Islam, which the communist government failed to erase during a period of more than 70 years. It is no coincidence that the first extremist groups in Central Asia, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, appeared in the Fergana Valley. Extremists have named their terrorist groups by the name of famous Islamic scholar Imam al-Bukhari, whose hadiths “Sahih al-Bukhari” are considered in Islam as the second most holy book after the Quran. This proves that radicals use the Sacred Book to achieve their criminal purposes.

Today the core of terrorist groups of Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, The Islamic Jihad Union and ISIS’s Horasan, who are pursuing jihad in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, is made up of ethnic Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks from the Fergana Valley. Therefore, the counterterrorism officers should know the environment and origin of the religious views of those, whom they would place under observation. Also, they should investigate thoroughly the works of Islamic thinkers that have shaped the radical views of suspect immigrants. As a result, only experienced experts in the religion of Islam, who can analyze the complex world of Islam will likely be able to identify a radical among the crowd and prevent a terrorist attack at the initial stage.

What are the signs that can help identify a religious radical who has taken the path of jihad out of a crowd of immigrants? First of all, radical Islamists can be sometimes identified by their appearance. Usually, the followers of Salafism and Wahhabism in Central Asia have a long shaggy beard and no moustache. The beard is considered by the Salafis as the symbol of the manhood. According to the hadiths, Prophet Muhammad has called the Muslims for wearing the beard and not shaving it, “Differ from the polytheists: let your beards (grow), and trim your moustache.” Radical extremists interpret the Quran literally and try to live under the Sharia law that existed during the times of Prophet Muhammad.

Second, the Salafis usually wear short pants (above ankles) and knee-long shirts. Their heads are often shaved smooth. The women of Wahhabis wear tightly closed dark clothes, with scarves covering their faces. It does not mean however that all those who wear such clothes belong to the Islamic radical movements. Yet the counterterrorism officers may pay attention to this and pick up the right trail.

Third, the majority of Wahhabis stand against all forms of innovations and developments calling them a “biddat”, which comprises photography, television and modern music. Islamic radicals consider those who create the “biddat” great sinners. The Quran calls the music the devil’s whisper that calls for sin and crime. During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, music was forbidden, musicians were shot and those who listened to music on the radio had their ear cut off.  There is another hadith in Islam that forbids keeping photos at home, “The angels do not enter a house which contains a picture.” In this respect, we should pay attention to the following fact: in June 2017 at the JFK Airport Sayfullo Saipov refused to take a picture with Kobiljon Matkarov. This is the evidence of his adherence to the radical ideology of Salafism. Therefore, a follower of the Takfiri ideology can be identified by his/her attitude to “biddat.”

Fourth, however trite it may sound, the followers of the Wahhabism can be identified by their extremely unfriendly and hostile attitude to pet dogs. Dogs in Islam are traditionally seen as unclean animals that may not be contacted by the Muslims. The hadith says that “prayer is annulled by a dog if it passes in front of the praying people.” In the Western countries, such a hostile attitude of a religious radical towards a dog is easily seen by neighbors and others.

Fifth, the aggressive attitude towards the representatives of other religions can point out the Islamic radical who nourishes the idea of committing a terrorist attack. The followers of the Wahhabism and Salafism typically have zero tolerance for non-Muslims, which can result in conflict situations. Radicals often have aggressive behavior when it comes to the relationship between the Islam and other religions. Extreme Wahhabis are committed to pursuing jihad against non-Muslims.

Sixth, a distinctive feature of Central Asian Wahhabis is the denial to worship the deceased. In recent years, they have obsessively destroyed epitaphs and gravestones, have been fervently fighting against the historical past by destroying relics and cultural artifacts. Both the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS militants in ancient Palmyra in Syria have engaged in historical and archaeological destruction campaigns. Thus, they deny their ethnic background and try to create the new historical community of Muslims. This sign is an additional clue that can be used by counterterrorism officers to find religious radicals among the crowd. It can be seen during the funerals among immigrants living in the West.

All of the above signs are additional clues that can be used to find “lone wolves.” However, Islamist radicals try not to stand out from the immigration crowd. They live in social isolation, work alone, which makes it hard to identify them. Terrorist attacks in the USA organized by the immigrants from Central Asia – the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, Omar Mateen in Orlando and Sayfullo Saipov in NYC – are the evidence of the self-radicalization of “lone wolves” via the internet. The jihadist ideology of ISIS and al-Qaeda has become the motivating force that pushes them to terror. However, they didn’t receive any material support from external entities or didn’t have any direct contacts with them.

There are two additional ways that a religious radical could be recognized out of a crowd of immigrants, which is related to technology and not to his or her outward appearance or activities. The ability to perform the following recommendations may not be possible in all countries.

First of all, this is electronic tracking of websites and social media often visited by a suspect. ISIS and al-Qaeda keep on recruiting their new adherents over the internet, teach their militants how to make bombs at home, where to commit terrorist attacks, and what tools to use to kill Western kafirs. In July 2017, the Islamic State published the e-book on Telegram Lone Wolf’s Handbook in Turkish, whose purpose is to increase the number of attacks on civilian targets in the United States and Europe. A migrant from Uzbekistan, Sayfullo Saipov, who committed a terrorist attack in New York City in October 2017, strictly followed the instructions given in the Lone Wolf’s Handbook. The fourth chapter of the book reads, “Attackers are advised to choose the most crowded places and drive over people as fast as possible to exact the most damage.” The driver assassins are also instructed to leave a note behind claiming the attack in the name of ISIS, which Saipov did. Therefore, Western countries need to take specific measures to block and destroy the calls for jihad from Salafi groups on the internet and in social media.

Second, cell phones of suspects should be scanned online for apps and videos downloaded by them. Therefore, officers of antiterrorism branches will need the consent and support of internet companies and social media to decode the private part of platforms. According to the FBI, Saipov had about 90 videos and 3,800 images on a cell phone featuring ISIS propaganda, including video of a beheading. The internet jihad has played a major role in the radicalization of his religious views. If his cell phone had been monitored, it might have been possible to prevent the terrorist attack in NYC.

In such situations, when a radical Islamist does not speak to anyone, doesn’t use internet or other modern technology, acts alone, and law enforcement bodies have no other evidence that would allow them to find the prospective terrorist, there’s nothing else to do but to rely on the additional indicators we have specified above.

Uran Botobekov

Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam