With both Russia and the West preoccupied with settling the score over the Ukrainian crisis, radical Islamists might use this opening to start flexing their muscles in Crimea.

Refat Chubarov, Head of the Crimean Tatar mejlis, opined there were no more than 500 to 600 people loyal Hizb ut-Tahrir members. Photo: RIA Novosti / Mikhail Mokrushin

As the diplomatic war of words between Russia and the United States over Crimea gains momentum, there is one issue that both sides should not forget to take into account as a key security challenge for the peninsula: the role of the region’s radical Islamists.

Currently, for the 2.4 million people living in Crimea, there are approximately 1,330 religious communities and 1,362 religious organizations registered, with Orthodox Christianity and Islam being the two dominant denominations.

However, in recent years due to the negligence of the presidential administrations of Viktor Yushchenko and then Viktor Yanukovych, Hizb ut-Tahrir found a safe haven on the peninsula. The organization, established in 1953 by the Palestinian Islamic scholar Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, is self-identified as an “international pan-Islamic political organization” with the goal “to resume the Islamic way of life… under the umbrella of the Islamic State, which is the Khilafah State.”

In the Crimea, the group found a friendly environment to transform from a so-called “convents-and-conferences” organization into a proactive and dangerous player growing ever stronger on the basis of two primary sources: a pool of local, predominantly young Muslims who find the ideas of the organization alluring, and its growing international contingent – the Hizb ut-Tahrir “army” of over one million followers in about 40 countries. In some of these countries, the organization is banned as a radical terrorist group, including Germany and Russia (as of 2003).

The actual number of the organization’s followers has been debatable since 2009 when Crimean law enforcement authorities estimated the number of Hizb ut-Tahrir members and followers on the peninsula at between 7,000 and 10,000.

Subsequently, the Committee on Religion estimated the total at between 5,000 and 6,000, while Refat Chubarov, the head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, opined there were no more than 500 to 600 people and of that number, only 70-80 people were active members with the rest just being “curious” about the group’s ideology.

Although, unlike other extremist groups around the globe, the organization doesn’t have a record of mass terror attacks on the peninsula, hundreds of Crimean Muslims, including followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir, are believed to have joined radical forces in Syria fighting Assad.

Now that Russia has taken over its “old new territory,” it inherits this Hizb ut-Tahrir legacy and has to deal with it. Taking into account that the Crimean Tatars are cautious about their new status in the Russian Federation, Moscow has to walk a fine line not to further alienate this historical group. Otherwise, Russia may be soon facing the same type of instability it has encountered in the North Caucasus for two decades.

In fact, Russia has relatively little experience in countering Hizb ut-Tahrir in this region. Compared to other extremist ideologies, it appeared there quite late – in the mid-2000s – and, ironically, has been competing with local Salafis for the hearts and minds of young Russian Muslims as it too orients them to establish a “Global Islamic Caliphate.” But, if in the North Caucasus with its unique Islamic trends and patterns it was rather unsuccessful, its activity in the Volga region and in Central Asia has posed a severe challenge both to the authorities and societies of these territories.

Moreover, some analysts allude to another dimension to the situation: The Crimea may become another battleground between Moscow and Riyadh. Since the latter is said to support Hizb ut-Tahrir cells in Europe and has a record of supporting radical insurgency in the North Caucasus, its potential efforts to turn the peninsula into a hotbed for Russia do not look so impossible.

Other important players, such as the officials of the Crimean Tatars, refused to accept the agenda promoted by Hizb ut-Tahrir and long before the “coup-volution” in Ukraine the group has been a primary headache to them. Indeed, the agenda of the people and the pan-Islamist organization is not the same. The latter rejects the claim of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars as significant, yet occasionally they take advantage of it to support their image as “a protector of the repressed Muslims.”

The sense of the “global ummah at war” resonates with some young Tatars who find the narrative of the Islamic awakening more powerful than the pure nationalist striving for autonomy. This trend raises criticism of some senior Crimean Tatars who try to raise awareness of the organization’s activity, labeling it as a “totalitarian, anti-Islamic cult brainwashing young people encouraging them to give up on their own national traditions and instead, join the global jihadi movement.”

As for the organization itself, it considers the Crimea another “Wilayah” in its “global caliphate” and keeps its website in the Russian language aiming at a large group of sympathizers including Crimean Tatars, Russians, Ukrainians and others.

When the crisis in Ukraine was gaining momentum, Hizb ut-Tahrir convened an event in Sydney, Australia to present its own version of the situation. The line of reasoning, critical both of the West and Russia, boiled down to the following: Hizb ut-Tahrir sees Crimea as "a hostage to Russia-West confrontation" that should be “relived” by historical justice and returned to the Muslims loyal to its ideology.

In that respect, remarks from one of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s leaders send an important message both for Russia and the West: As they continue to squander their potential over the Ukranian crisis and invent better ways to retaliate against each other, they may be inadvertently overlooking a rising threat in Europe.

When larger geopolitical contexts are at stake and political trends suggesting a new world order are worrisome, it is increasingly dangerous that nobody seems not to bother about some radicals in a peninsula the size of Massachusetts.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.