Crimean Tatars, wary of Russia after Stalin deported their entire population from Crimea in 1944, are warning that any Russian annexation of Crimea could lead to a new “jihadi front.”
There are roughly 280,000 Tatars in Crimea and Mustafa Jemilev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, has warned that a number of them have approached him with promises they would fight any Russian occupation.
Guy Chazan, writing for the Financial Times, reports:
“We have Islamists, Wahhabis, Salafis . . . groups who have fought [with the opposition] in Syria,” [Jemilev] said in an interview in Simferopol, the Crimean capital. “They say: ‘an enemy has entered our land and we are ready’.
“We can’t stop people who want to die with honour,” he said, making he clear he did not endorse a jihadist campaign.
Tatars make up an estimated 12% of the population of Crimea. During the Soviet Union, Tatars were brutally oppressed and were forcefully sent to Central Asia on crowded trains without provisions on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis.
The new Crimean parliament has already voted unanimously to join Russia and a popular referendum on the issue is scheduled for March 16.
Any possible jihad in Crimea would only further complicate the Ukrainian crisis while further internationalizing the conflict. An ongoing Islamic separatist conflict in the Caucasus against Russia was the paramount security concern during the Sochi Olympics, and the insurgency there is often a major training ground for jihadists in other conflicts.
A number of Crimean Tatars have formed connections with the global jihadist network, having fought alongside rebels against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
There is already chatter on jihadi internet forums and social media as to whether Russia’s invasion of Crimea legitimises it as a new militant front.
Although the new Russian-backed Crimean parliament has offered extensive power-sharing deals with the Tatars, they remain sceptical of any deals with politicians they see as Russian puppets.
“This agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on,” Jemilev told the Financial Times. “Everything can change tomorrow.”
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