Why Crimea Could Turn into Russia’s Next Jihadist Hotbed

Crimea’s stability is under threat, and the danger is not coming from Ukraine, nor the West, but from the Tatar community. Since the peninsula was annexed to Russia in 2014, the ethnic minority has been showing increasing concern, opposition and criticism against the alleged religiously-motivated persecution campaign launched by local authorities.

Turkey, which has historic hegemonic ambitions over the peninsula, is monitoring the situation very closely, because it is trying to gain greater influence over Turkic peoples. Some factors indicate that Crimea could turn into Russia’s next Islamist hotbed.

The Tatars after the annexation

Tatars, which count for up to 15% of Crimea’s population, did not welcome warmly Russia’s annexation as they still remember a centuries-long mistreatment based on segregation, discrimination and forced population transfers. They largely boycotted the popular referendum held after the occupation to decide the destiny of the peninsula and the vast majority did not renounce to Ukrainian citizenship.

Russian authorities started a crackdown against the minority’s institutions and groups, targeting the main leaders and putting under control mosques and Islamic schools with the alleged goal of fighting political and religious extremism.

More than 20,000 Tatars fled Crimea and found refuge mostly in Ukraine and Turkey because they feared persecution. Some of them were able to escape by belonging to Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), a London-based religious organisation aiming at uniting Muslims from all over the world into a caliphate and convert non-Muslims through large-scale proselytism. HT operates legally and freely in more than 50 countries, including Ukraine and the United States, but Russia listed it as a terrorist group in 2003.

Despite the outlawing, HT keeps working underground in the country as shown by the numerous police operations that have taken place over the years. More recently, HT has been accused of plotting terrorist attacks and recruiting foreign fighters to be sent in Syria. It is noteworthy that most of the operations are focused in the Turkic-majority republic of Tatarstan.

Since Crimea’s annexation, several FSB-run operations have been carried out to target the group. Only this year, more than 30 Crimean Tatars have been jailed, accused of being HT members and sentenced on terrorism charges. During the raids many weaponswere found and seized.

Furthermore, in 2016 Mejlis, which functioned as the Tatars’ autonomous governing body since the 1990s, was outlawed because it was considered to be an extremist organisation. The body was soon replaced by the Kremlin-controlled Council of the Crimean Tatar People.

But Turkey, Ukraine and the European Union have raised growing concern and have accused Moscow of leading a campaign of repression based on illegal detentions, false charges, disappearances, and social pressure. According to them, the arrested would not be terrorists but political activists whose only fault is to protest against the annexation.

Turkey’s ambitions over Russian Tatars

Turkey is the only Muslim-majority country that has been showing interest in Crimean Tatars and the reasons are both cultural and geopolitical. Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group which was converted to Islam between the 13th and 14th century. Russians conquered the peninsula in 1783, under Catherine II’s imperial expansionist campaign, and overthrew the then-existing Ottoman-controlled Khanate.

Turkey never ceased to pay attention to Crimea, because its control is of critical importance for hegemony over the Black Sea. With the political rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, pan-Turkism and neo-Ottomanism have become the leading ideological platforms of the country’s foreign policy and many Russian-owned or -controlled regions are inevitably receiving greater attention.

Ankara focused efforts on the establishment of closer ties with countries hosting large Turkic-speaking peoples, such as the once-Soviet-ruled Turkestan republics, and is trying to pursue the same strategy in Crimea and Tatarstan. The latter is an autonomous republic that is granted the right of having a semi-free foreign policy, but in the recent years such right was limited in light of the growing influence exerted by Turkey through umbrella organizations, such as the International Organization of Turkic Culture, and the radicalization of the Muslim community.

Erdoğan has always declared that he is not going to recognize Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea since he considers the annexation as “illegal”, and some days ago discussed the Tatar question with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky during a two-day state visit in Ankara. The Turkish president defined the protection of Crimean Tatars as a priority of his foreign agenda and stressed that the peninsula is their historic homeland. 

The presidents attended the inauguration of the Crimean Tatars’ representative office in Ankara and signed several agreements to strengthen bilateral cooperation – two meaningful messages addressed to Vladimir Putin. A peninsula threatened by a foreign-fostered ethno-religious unrest would be in the interest of both countries since they are looking to outcast Moscow from the Black Sea and the potential for an insurgency is ready to be exploited.

The next jihadist hotbed?

In 2014, Mejlis leader Mustafa Dzhemilev warned that Crimea could be soon affected by Islamist insurgency as he was approached by a number of Tatars interested in fighting through Jihad what they perceived as an illegal occupation. In particular, he was concerned about the increasing influence played by the HT and Wahhabi preachers among Crimean Tatars, that would receive funds from abroad. His claims are supported by two facts; the existence of ascertained ties between local radical Muslims and global terrorist organizations and the online discussions on jihadi forums after the annexation.

Ten years ago, Dzhemilev himself was targeted by Crimea-based radical Muslims because of his activism. An assassination plot was discovered and three people linked to HT were arrested and sentenced. During the house searches the police seized explosives and assault rifles.

According to the US-based think tank American Center for Democracy about 100 Crimean Tatars have fought in Syria alongside jihadi-linked anti-Assad rebels, while only in the year 2013 at least 30 joined the Islamic State. It is precisely in Syria that Crimean fighters would have been approached to discuss the opening of a battlefront in the peninsula.

The post-annexation web monitoring showed that radical Muslims, mostly based in Saudi Arabia, were calling on volunteers to travel to Ukraine and defend the Tatars by using the hashtag #NafirforUkraine. “Nafir” is an Arabic word that Islamist terrorists use as a call to action; its usage was particularly spread and noticed during the early stages of Syrian civil war and experts believe that fostered the arrival of foreign fighters in the country.

The most important reason for which Crimea is likely to become Russia’s next Islamist problem is that all the ingredients for a conflict are present: religious revival, presence of foreign-funded radical preachers, deep-rooted hostility toward Russian rule, increasing social distance between Russians and Tatars, connections with the international Islamist network, rival powers’ interest in exploiting the discontent in order to bring instability.