Inside the Brooklyn Uzbek Community, After Several of Its Own Were Arrested Under Suspicion of Terrorism

Neighborhood kids across the street from the Midwood Gyro King where one of the alleged ISIS aspirants worked. Photo: Joseph Michael Lopez
ISIS at the Gyro King
When two young men were arrested en route to Syria, the Uzbeks of Brooklyn felt upset, maligned, and only a little sympathetic.
Photographs by Joseph Michael Lopez
Photo: Neighborhood kids across the street from the Midwood Gyro King where one of the alleged ISIS aspirants worked.

The Brooklyn Uzbeks seemed to be in a daze, as if they had no idea what had hit them. Immigrants who’d arrived in New York during the mid-to-late aughts, until quite recently they’d hung out on Coney Island Avenue, their days largely filled with the drudgery of working in gyro stands in Midwood and Kensington and selling sunglasses to nonbelievers in tacky suburban malls. This was what they knew of the polluted realm of the kafir.

Sometime during 2014, according to federal authorities, the two young Uzbeks charted a different destiny for themselves. They began sending jihadist messages on Uzbek-language websites and watching videos of holy warriors chopping off heads. They were going to join the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. They’d get on a plane and go to Turkey, where they hoped “an elder brother” would meet them. From there, they would be escorted to the front lines, where, in the prophetic path of heroes and martyrs, they would engage the armies of the Crusaders and their proxies. Next stop was Paradise, where all people, not just the rich and connected, are free to bathe in rivers of milk, honey, and crystal-clear water.

This scenario did not come to fruition. On February 25, FBI agents arrested Akhror Saidakhmetov at Kennedy airport just before he was to board a flight to Istanbul. Later that day, Saidakhmetov and his Uzbek friend Abdurasal Juraboev (Saidakhmetov was born in neighboring Kazakhstan but grew up partly in Uzbekistan) stood in a federal courtroom. Juraboev was 24, Saidakhmetov 19, but both of them looked considerably younger. Rather than garments of fine silk and bracelets of gold, Juraboev, his black hair in a bowl cut, was attired in a green kufi cap, $3 Chinese slip-on shoes, and a gray hoodie. Saidakhmetov wore red Adidas high-tops, baggy jeans, and a green hoodie, the same clothes he had on when the Feds picked him up at JFK.

Along with their fellow Uzbek and accused co-conspirator Abror Habibov, 30, who was being held in Florida, Juraboev and Saidakhmetov faced charges that they “did knowingly and willfully attempt and conspire to provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization,” enough to land them in jail for up to 15 years. Instead of dwelling forever in Allah’s heaven, the Uzbeks found themselves in an American hell.

For the next few days, Juraboev, Saidakh­metov, and Habibov were worldwide news. TV reporters read at length from the complaint against them announced by the office of the then–U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of New York, Loretta Lynch. Saidakh­metov was recorded by an FBI informant saying that if he could not get to Syria, “I will just go and buy a machine gun, an AK-47, go out and shoot all police … It is legal in America to carry a gun. We will go and purchase one handgun … then shoot one police officer. Boom. … Then we will go to the FBI headquarters, kill the FBI people.”

Juraboev, Saidakhmetov’s roommate — they lived in Saidakhmetov’s mother’s Midwood apartment — was said to have gotten in touch with his alleged ISIS contact, avowing his willingness to kill “polytheists and infidels … even if that person is Obama!” Should Allah not require such an action, Juraboev offered to plant a bomb on Coney Island. Over the next few months, two more young Uzbeks, Dilkhayot Kasimov and Akmal Zakirov, were added to the case, charged with providing “material support” in the plot, allegedly putting up money ($1,600, in Kasimov’s case) to help buy Saidakhmetov’s plane ticket to Turkey.

Juraboev and his crew were far from alone in their supposed ardor to join the murderous fighters of ISIS. The newspapers have been full of stories of would-be jihadis lately. Only a few weeks after the arrest of the Uzbeks, two women from Queens were arraigned in the same courtroom. “Why can’t we be some real bad bitches?” Noelle Velentzas, a 28-year-old Puerto Rican, was quoted as saying in the Feds’ complaint. From now on, Velentzas reportedly added, people should refer to her and her soon-to-be co-defendant as “citizens of the Islamic State.” The cases caused an uproar. NYPD chief Bill Bratton held press conferences, vowing to meet the threat. Academics, TV commentators, and politicians blamed ISIS’s supposed social-media wizardry, as if disaffected modern youth had suddenly found themselves so entranced by the jihadists’ punkishly romantic goal of repealing 1,300 years of history that they had no choice but to click on “mass murder” instead of a BuzzFeed list.

“This ISIS business is a problem for us, but we want everyone to know it does not define all Uzbeks in this country,” Farhod Sulton told me recently, not for the first time. Since the news broke, Sulton, a 35-year-old Tashkent-born insurance agent, had become the local go-to guy on the case. He is the head of Vatandosh, one of the very few Uzbek organizations in the city. Blessed with the dark good looks befitting the far-flung genetic legacy of his homeland, Sulton also speaks English, which the majority of Uzbeks living in Brooklyn don’t.

“We are new here, but we want to show we belong,” Sulton said. This was the purpose of today’s Vatandosh-sponsored activity, a trip down the I-95 corridor to Washington, D.C. “Uzbek immigrants need to realize that America is bigger than just Brooklyn,” he said while the bus crossed the Delaware River, just as George Washington did in 1776.

For the 40 or so Brooklyn Uzbeks on the bus, it had been a long journey. Today, if it rang any bell at all, Uzbekistan was known to most New Yorkers as a dusty (doubly) landlocked ’Stan among other Central Asian ’Stans. Yet Uzbekistan was once a great crossroads of civilization. This was Transoxiana, key pathway of the famous Silk Road, the prime conduit between the ancient marvels of East and West. It was in the fabled cities of present-day Uzbekistan — Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent — that Marco Polo stopped to water his camels. Before that, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan had overrun and ruled the place. Tamerlane rose up from its midst to conquer much of Asia, from Persia to Delhi. More recently came the conquering Turks and the Russians, who in 1924 invented the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, which would last until 1991, when Uzbekistan finally became an independent state.

There are three kinds of Uzbeks in the New York area. There are the Bukharans of Rego Park and Kew Gardens, who are mainly Jews and have done well in real estate and the Diamond District. You can spot the younger Bukharans, who are assimilated into the New York scene, tooling down Queens Boulevard in their hot cars. There are also the “Old Uzbeks,” Muslims who came to the U.S. as refugees from the Soviet Union back in the 1980s. Staunch anti-communists, they have also prospered, with many living in New Jersey’s upwardly mobile Morris County. 

“Then there’s us,” Sulton said with a half-smile, pointing to the passengers on the bus.

These are the New Uzbeks, the Brooklyn Uzbeks, the approximately 20,000 Muslim immigrants who grew up in independent Uzbekistan and arrived in New York over the past decade.

Almost everyone on the bus, Sulton said, was a “lottery winner.” This meant they had received their green cards under the State Department’s “diversity visa program,” which affords better immigration odds to “underrepresented” nationalities like Uzbeks. With only 50,000 such visas given out each year, to get one is considered a great stroke of luck, especially since the Uzbek economy is in a near-perpetual shambles. Right now, an estimated 3 million Uzbeks — or 10 percent of the country’s entire population — work in Russia, where the pay is low and the discrimination against Central Asian immigrants virulent.

“In Russia, they call us churka,” said one Uzbek on the way to Washington. “It means … you don’t want to know what it means.”

Of course, there are Russians in Brooklyn too. To find their former rulers waiting for them on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, controlling a good chunk of the economy, seemed like a cruel joke to many Brooklyn Uzbeks. Many of these recent immigrants had practiced law and medicine in Uzbekistan. But here, with the language barrier, they work long shifts as home health aides and drive taxis, crowding as many as ten in a cramped apartment. Much of the money is sent back home. But it is still better than slaving 18 hours a day in a Moscow produce market or poisoning yourself in Gazprom fields.

To listen to the Brooklyn Uzbeks, the ISIS case came out of the blue. Lips were sealed up and down Coney Island Avenue, the nonstop multinational bazaar that serves as the New Uzbek Silk Road. (It connects the two components of the community, the Samarkandliklars — those originally from Samarkand — near Ditmas Avenue, and the Tashkentliklars, who live at the south end of the thoroughfare, out by Avenues X, Y, and Z, close to the ocean.) While adhering to their Muslim heritage, Uzbeks are not particularly known for their religious zeal. There are some more conservative mosques over near the Pakistani community on Bath Avenue, but most of the Uzbeks choose to worship at the more relaxed, Turkish Eyup Sultan Mosque in Brighton Beach. But no one remembers seeing the suspects over there. Likewise, there were no reports of them frequenting popular Uzbek restaurants — Nargis on Coney Island Avenue or 1001 Nights in Sheepshead Bay. They were like ghosts, unnamed specters.

The real danger of the ISIS case, many Brooklyn Uzbeks felt, was to their image. They were new, so few in number, so powerless — the last thing they needed was, as Sulton put it, “this bad reputation.”

Sulton knew the stakes. When he first arrived in America (“I went to Omaha, because I knew someone there. To me, there was no difference between Omaha and Florida”), his goal was to get an American law degree to go with the one he holds in Islamic law. He got a job selling insurance at New York Life, where, as “a typical Uzbek workaholic,” he quickly became one of the top brokers in his office, he boasted. Much of his clientele is Central Asian. “I go into people’s homes and we talk about their future,” Sulton said. “Everyone thinks one day they’ll go back to Uzbekistan. That’s the dream. At home, things make sense. You’re with your family, you can eat horse meat. But that sort of thinking can really screw you up. Because most people, they’re not going back.”

The dilemma became clearer when the Uzbeks got to Washington. The Capitol Dome might not have had the majesty of the tiled mosaics of the Registan in Samarkand or the 1,000-year-old grandeur of Itchan Kala, the walled city in Khiva, but, as one Uzbek visitor said, it did look “strong,” as in unlikely to fall down anytime soon.

A stop at the Uzbeki Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue near Dupont Circle was more complicated, especially for those who still had family back in Uzbekistan. This owed to the political climate of the regime headed by Islam Karimov, the 77-year-old former Communist Party chief who took over the country when the Soviet Union collapsed. Reelected once again this past March with his usual 90-plus percent of the vote, Karimov is the only leader independent Uzbekistan has ever had. His rule, by most accounts, has been harsh, with mass shootings of protesters and one of the world’s worst reputations for corruption.

Although the Karimov government has often painted émigrés as ungrateful abandoners of the motherland, the Brooklyn Uzbeks were warmly welcomed by Ambassador Bakhtiyar Gulyamov, who graciously praised their “outstanding” contributions. He did, however, bring up the recent arrests, calling them “unfortunate.” As was well known, the Karimov government took a dim view when it came to Islamic extremism. With jihadism in the air, it was best to be watchful, Gulyamov advised the Brooklyn Uzbeks.

Men pray at Brooklyn’s Eyup Sultan Mosque. Photo: Joseph Michael Lopez

“Those guys are morons, a bunch of punks, losers,” said Ruslan, a 25-year-old limousine driver from Tashkent, as he stood on Avenue X, not far from the travel agency where Akhror Saidakhmetov purchased his fateful plane ticket. Since coming to Brooklyn, the Uzbeks have distinguished themselves as stars on high-school wrestling teams. It wasn’t because Uzbeks are such great athletes, the limo driver said: “We win because we never, ever stop.” 

The would-be ISIS fighters currently locked up in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park did not possess that toughness, many thought. It was considered amusing that Saidakhmetov’s mother had reportedly hidden her son’s passport to keep him from leaving the country. “Big terrorist, his mother took his passport” was the mock.

Still, to have come from Uzbekistan, where many believed the KGB lurked around every corner, and wind up getting arrested in America, supposed land of the free, seemed a grim irony.

This was the common opinion along Coney Island Avenue. What was happening with the guys in jail was “sad, just sad,” said Nilufar Salimova as we chatted in the Dunkin’ Donuts near 18th Avenue. A 22-year-old Samarkandliklar, Nilu, as everyone called her, said she wasn’t defending the arrested Uzbeks. Far from it. You couldn’t go around talking about blowing up Coney Island, where hardworking people went to gaze out at the ocean from the top of the Wonder Wheel. Anyone who did that belonged in jail or in a mental institution.

Nilu felt she’d been lucky, certainly in comparison to those guys. Arriving in Brooklyn after her family won that lottery in 2009, she learned English in part by working as a young teen in a Borough Park shoe store. A little more than five years later, she graduated from NYU with a nursing degree. Smart and funny, she seemed a perfect new New Yorker, circa 2015. She had big plans but also would never imagine eating dinner before her father got home from work, no matter how late, because Uzbek families always eat together.

But she knew what it must have been like to come to Brooklyn not knowing the language, without supportive family or friends. “You feel like you’re in a box and you can’t get out. You’re helpless, desperate,” she said.

Nilu said she was curious about the FBI’s complaint, so I gave her a copy. It was no secret, anyone could get it on the internet. Studiously reading it over, she had a question about the “CI,” the designation in the complaint for the government’s confidential informant.

“This person, he’s an Uzbek?” Nilu asked. Then, answering her own question: “He’d have to be an Uzbek, otherwise no one would trust him.” 

Nilu was appalled. “When you’re from somewhere else and you meet someone from your country, that person is like a part of you.” She understood the necessity of rounding up potential terrorists, but an Uzbek informing on another Uzbek struck her as unthinkable.

The idea that the Feds, through the use of paid informants, have engaged in a widespread program of entrapping dim-bulbed, loudmouthed, but otherwise potentially harmless young Muslims has become a sub-meme in the overall Americans-join-ISIS narrative. In 2014, lawyers from Human Rights Watch and the Columbia Law School published “Illusion of Justice,” a report that found that “at times, in aggressively pursuing terrorism threats before they even materialize,” the government had “overstepped its role by effectively participating in developing terrorism plots.” Reading the various complaints, you can see what they’re talking about. The CI often appears to be egging on the suspect, encouraging the prospective terrorist, even taking the lead in the plotting. Legalistically, the issue often turns on the notion of “predisposition,” i.e., whether the government can prove that someone was predisposed to commit a terrorist act as determined by his background, opinions — or, in the case of Akhror Saidakhmetov, buying a plane ticket to Istanbul with the intention of going to Syria. It doesn’t matter whether he actually goes or what role the informant plays in the act.

The application of the predisposition principle, striking the proper balance between the protection of civil rights and the potential threat to public safety, is perhaps the most vexing issue in responsible post-9/11 policing, a veteran NYPD anti-terror cop told me. You wanted to stay within the law, but “you don’t want to be trying to arrest these people when they’re in the plane heading toward the building.”

A few days later, I visited Saidakhmetov’s lawyer Adam Perlmutter at his midtown office. A well-known figure around the federal-court system with his jaunty bow tie and buffed cranium, Perlmutter had cast doubts about the legitimacy of the government’s case against his client. Appearing on CNN shortly after the arrest, Perlmutter complained about the possible role of the confidential informant, saying he only had “snippets of conversation … we don’t know the context, we don’t know how this confidential informant manipulated my client.”

Weeks later, Perlmutter was sticking to his guns, although he wasn’t about to say anything more about the case. He couldn’t, really. Despite holding the proper security clearances, he hadn’t yet seen the government’s classified evidence; when that would happen was up to the Feds, Perlmutter said.

We chatted awhile, and I asked him if he’d seen Upon the Prophetic Methodology, the ISIS video mentioned in the complaint as influencing his client to do jihad. He said no, so we put it up on the web and watched a bit.

So this was the great genius of the vaunted ISIS media machine, this film-school-quality snuff porn: slo-mo guerrilla-troop movements, exhortations from the self-ordained Caliph al-Baghdadi, the blowing up of a Shia mosque in ancient Samarra, a boys’ choir of holy singing. There were a couple of POV, through-the-telescopic-site shootings that could have been lifted from American Sniper. Then came the money shots, the defeated lying in the sand, bullets pumped into their heads, one by one. This was followed by a line of prisoners led to the edge of the blood-covered concrete dock, where they were shot, their bodies tossed into the water with numbing choreography. It could have been simulated, as some say, a twisted piece of post–death metal for the alienated adolescent mind. But I didn’t think so.

“Rough stuff,” said Perlmutter. Still, he pointed out, it wasn’t a crime to watch such a video, no matter how heinous.

It was rush hour when I got on the train after leaving Perlmutter’s office. It always seems to be rush hour these days. Usually this doesn’t bother me. Being crowded together in a sea of faces from all parts of world is part of the grand sweep of the city I love despite everything. But today was different; suddenly everyone seemed uptight, close to the edge. All along, I’d derided ISIS’s so-called social-media mastery, but now the brilliance of Upon the Prophetic Methodology clicked in. 

In a statement mourning the onscreen beheading of journalist James Foley in August 2014, President Obama said if there was one thing everyone could agree on, it was that ISIS had “no place in the 21st century.”

This was totally wrong, I thought. In an ever more brutal, if technically sleek, world where the skies are filled with killer drones, ISIS seems an inevitable, wholly understandable response. If the enemy can’t stomach the sight of blood, show him as much of it as possible. ISIS’s long-range political prospects are uncertain, thank God, but as representatives of the modern mind-set, its members are world-class, the most far gone of the so-called extremists. Pudgy American Evangelicals talk about Armageddon, the ultimate battlefield where the forces of Good and Evil will clash in a struggle at the end of time. But you know that in the meantime they’re going to work at the Dodge dealership the next day. When ISIS invokes the glory of death in the impending cataclysm at Dabiq, this is an eschatology to fear. These are people who, at the end of the day, just want to break things up and leave a smoking hole. Given the limited view of the American Dream afforded to Abdurasal Juraboev from the windowless basement of the Gyro King where he worked for Pakistanis cutting up lettuce ten hours a day, such an endgame might have seemed irresistible. 

ISIS was a reckless, heedless, possibly unavoidable chip in the system, I decided, feeling myself getting into a really bad mood. Who, after all, were these people all around me, these F-train multitudes I once took to be my own? I don’t know them, they don’t know me; that’s what I was thinking as the train rolled into the darkness.

The Uzbek case ground on through the summer and into the fall. In mid-August, Juraboev entered a guilty plea. Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Carlin hailed the turn of events. “The National Security Division’s highest priority is counterterrorism,” he said, congratulating the officers involved. 

Farhod Sulton monitored the developments carefully, trying to make sense of what was happening. When he had decided to leave Tashkent, his father gave him his blessing, with two caveats. “He said, ‘Don’t become an American citizen, and only marry an Uzbek girl.’ ”

Sulton loved his father and was trying to honor his wishes, but it was getting harder. Like everyone else, he’d always thought he’d go back to Uzbekistan, where he’d bought an apartment. But it was empty. His career at New York Life was going well. He’d reached his goal of getting into a top law school and was studying hard. But there was still the matter of what to do about the case against the young Uzbeks and its effect on the community.

“The relatives of these [accused] kids, they’ve reached out to me. They don’t know what’s happening,” he said. People didn’t understand why the last two Uzbeks to be indicted, Dilkhayot Kasimov and Akmal Zakirov, were being held for giving Saidakhmetov money. Uzbeks often gave money to people traveling to Tashkent to deliver to their family. They didn’t necessarily have to know them, he explained. “We trust each other,” Sulton said.

In the beginning, in the weeks following the initial arrests, Sulton had been hopeful. Suddenly the Brooklyn Uzbeks were no longer one more anonymous immigrant group on the outer ring of the political system. People from Bill de Blasio’s office had come to Coney Island Avenue to meet with Sulton and others to see what could be done to better integrate the Uzbeks into New York’s glorious pan-ethnic mosaic. Issues like establishing a community center with an Uzbek-speaking imam who might better guide the youth were discussed. Gaining confidence, Sulton began to say things like “This isn’t an Uzbek problem, it is an American problem,” and joke about one day running for City Council.

Over the succeeding months, however, as the Uzbek case further faded from the news cycle, it seemed as if “everyone lost interest,” Sulton said. He didn’t claim to be surprised. He’d been living in New York long enough now to know how things worked, the way the squeaky wheel got the grease. Nonetheless, it was “very disappointing.” The case had deeply affected the community, and now the Uzbeks felt as if they’d be an afterthought again, “until the next news comes,” Sulton said. He was very busy with law school and his job, but was still working on a “four-to-five-page business plan” to improve the lot of the Brooklyn Uzbeks.

On this particular night, however, there was good news on Coney Island Avenue. Yulduz Usmonova was in town. “She’s the greatest traditional Uzbek singer,” everyone said, the Uzbek Madonna.

Usmonova was playing at Brighton Beach’s Master Theatre, which, in another Brooklyn life, was the Oceana movie house where I’d passed many an air-conditioned afternoon when my family was renting a cabana across the street at the long-gone Brighton Beach Bath and Racquet Club. Now the place had been renovated, with a Russian gourmet supermarket on the first floor. The theater is upstairs, where I waited to talk to Usmonova, whose name in Uzbek translates to “Star.”

“The diva will speak with you now,” a gentleman said with a flourish, and I was whisked into the dressing room. Wearing a shiny silver jumpsuit, the singer was in the midst of being made up for the show. “Forget the diva,” she said with a mischievous smile, “we’re just talking.”

People say Usmonova is “the soul” of the Uzbek people, and there is no reason not to believe it. Born in 1963 during Soviet times in the Fergana Valley near the Tajikistan border, she worked in a silk-weaving factory as a young girl, which “could have been it for me” — except one day her father walked into the room perplexed at who was singing so sweetly. “It was me,” Usmonova said. She’s been one of the top-drawing Uzbek acts for 25 years. Always outspoken, she was elected to Parliament for a time, but soon went into exile in Turkey. Now she was back living in Tashkent, hoping for the best.

Traveling around the world to visit Uzbek communities was very important to her, she said, “because people feel a connection to home through me when I sing these songs.”

Speaking about the Brooklyn Uzbeks who thought it was a good idea to join ISIS, Usmonova sighed. “You know,” she said, “people ask me what I sing, and I say, ‘I sing the blues.’ Which may sound funny for someone from Uzbekistan. But it’s true. Life can be very sad. There are always problems. It is important to keep going,” she continued. “But when you’re an Uzbek, it is also important to know where the exit door is.”

*This article appears in the November 2, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.