Ruslan Saitvaliyev, the leader of the recently revived Crimean Muftiate of Taurida, has said that as many as 500 militants from Crimea are fighting with the Islamic State (IS) group.
Speaking at a Simferopol conference on the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) , a political and economic union created in May by Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan, on November 18, the mufti of Taurida raised the specter of the "IS threat" to warn that Russian-speaking Islamic State militants posed a threat to Crimea's stability.
"We have already heard statements from Islamic State's ideologues about what their next target is -- Russia. Islamic State has a large number of fighters who know the Russian language and who can easily penetrate society. Some of them may enter Crimea and if they want to destabilize the situation, they can do so, and will find strong support from the local Wahhabis, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the like," Saitvaliyev said, referring to the pan-Islamic political organization outlawed in Russia but legal in Ukraine. Hizb ut-Tahrir has a few hundred adherents in Crimea.
Saitvaliyev's remarks reflect Russian fears that Crimea's Tatar community, which has opposed Russian annexation of the peninsula, could pose a problem for Russian governance. His comments also express concerns about radicalization of Crimean Tatars.
Who Is Saitvaliev?
Saitvaliyev became the head of the Muftiate of Taurida, the self-styled central spiritual board of Crimean Muslims, when that institution was revived in August, following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March. The revival of the body was controversial, with the deputy mufti of Crimea, Ayder Ismailov, saying the move was an attempt to split the Muslims of Crimea. Other critics of the move claimed that it was an attempt to weaken the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.
The mufti of Taurida has expressed pro-Russian views and it is clear from his comments that he considers Crimea part of the Russian Federation. In September, he was quoted as saying that the Muftiate of Taurida would "purify" Crimea's Islamic community from the Wahhabis, a term often used in Russia and other former Soviet states to refer to generic Islamist extremism.
Are The Mufti's Concerns About The IS Threat And Islamic Radicalization Justified?
Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in March, there have been concerns that raised inter-religious tensions could lead to a growth in radical Islam.
"If the Russians start pressuring the Tatars then it is natural that people will close in and, who knows, people like Hizb ut-Tahrir may start picking up support," "The Independent" quoted a 25-year-old Crimean Tatar woman, Aliya, as saying in March.
Russian fears of increasing radicalization and that Crimea could be a hotbed of radical Islam were reflected in a more recent RIA Novosti news report from November 13, which described how a Moscow court had found that hundreds of Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets had been distributed in Russia.
"Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir are regularly detained by law enforcement in various Russian regions…in addition there are a lot of supporters of this organization in Crimea, which united with Russia in the spring of 2014," RIA wrote.
Saitvaliyev's claims that Crimean Tatars are fighting in Syria are correct, although it is not possible to accurately estimate how many are there.
Crimean Tatars have been fighting in Syria since well before Russia annexed Crimea, and the main (or most vocal) Crimean Tatar group is not within Islamic State, but is part of the Chechen-led faction Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, whose military commander is a Crimean Tatar named Abdul Karim Krymsky.
Krymsky, who leads a Crimean Tatar jamaat (fighting group) within Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, called on Crimean Tatars to fight against Russia in a video address he made in May. Krymsky said that it was useless for Crimean Tatars to appeal to European institutions, and that they should carry out an open war against Russia. According to Krymsky, the success of his jamaat in waging urban warfare against the Syrian government in Aleppo proved that Crimean Tatars could fight in Crimea, too.
There is also documented evidence that a Crimean Tatar has carried out a suicide bombing attack in Syria. In April 2013, a middle-aged Crimean Tatar from Nizhnegorsk, known as Abu Khalid, carried out a suicide bombing attack against Syrian government forces at the Al-Kindi hospital in Aleppo Province.
Saitvaliyev's further comments suggest that, while there are genuine concerns to be had about radicalization in Crimea and of Crimean Tatars fighting in radical groups in Syria, the mufti is using the "IS threat" as a shorthand for a convenient enemy, in order to call for the banning of certain groups to guard against a potential future threat.
"We need to take control of those organizations that contribute to the spread of extremism and help terrorist groups, even if they are not blowing themselves up today, and are not killing. We should not sit back and wait. If these cultists can provoke clashes between Slavs and Crimean Tatars, then all they have to do is begin. So today we have to take action against these organizations, ban their activities and literatures, and not give them opportunities to spread their ideology," Saitvaliyev said.
One of the organizations that Saitvaliyev has called to ban is the Ukrainian Islamic organization Arraid, which he has said is responsible for funding extremist groups including Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Arraid was established in 1997 and, according to the group's website, comprises 20 organizations and organizes social, religious, and educational projects. According to Anna Munster, the group "traces its origins back to the Islamist movements of the Middle East and has some strong family resemblance to the Muslim Brotherhood."
-- Joanna Paraszczuk