GUEST POST: The History of Jihadism in Finland and An Early Assessment of Finnish Foreign Fighters in Syria

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By Juha Saarinen

Radical Islam in Finland 

In August 2012, the first rumors of Finnish fighters in Syria appeared in Finnish media. Allegedly, young Finnish converts to Islam had traveled to northern Syria to support opposition forces. A year later, an Interior Ministry report stated that more than 20 foreign fighters from Finland had travelled to Syria, a majority with the intent to join radical Islamist groups.

With very little information publicly available about the Finnish foreign fighter contingent in Syria, it is difficult to examine what domestic factors that have contributed to this unprecedented development; prior to Syria there was very little evidence of Finnish foreign fighters, although few had been rumored to fight in and near Somalia. However, it cannot be separated from the evolution of Finland’s nascent radical Islamist scene. In the past two years, the number of radicalized Muslims has grown considerably and they are now more connected to like-minded individuals and organizations abroad.

This article will provide a brief introduction to radical Islam in Finland for a wider English-speaking audience as there currently exists no literature on the topic accessible to a non-Finnish speaking audience. It will focus on three themes: the radical Islamist scene in Finland, domestic terrorist activity by al-Shabab, and Muslim foreign fighters originating from Finland, particularly in Syria.

Note on research material

The material used in this article is gathered from various open sources available online, i.e. Finnish news media, various government reports and documents. Unfortunately, lack of data on the topic is a significant obstacle in researching radical Islam in Finland. While the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (FSIS, or Supo in Finnish) follows and analyzes domestic radicalization and terrorist activity constantly, vast majority of the information they collect is not publicly available for operational or legal reasons. For instance, FSIS’s files on Finnish foreign fighters in Syria will remain classified for at least 25 years, 60 at the most. Information that is made publicly available – via government documents and reports, official statements and comments– rarely offers anything more than general and ambiguous overviews.

While there is some academic literature on Muslim communities in Finland, radicalization and terrorism have been marginal topics. Of course, there has been very little to research. Radicalization is relatively recent and limited phenomenon in Finland, and there has been very little terrorist activity to research. To date there have been no terrorist attacks or failed plots in Finland by radical Islamists – despite two incidents (mis)attributed to al-Qaeda widely in Finnish media in June 2011. One notable exception to this is Suomi, Terrorismi, Supo, edited by Anssi Kullberg and published in 2011. It provides a history of terrorism and political violence in Finland, also including a chapter on radicalization and Islamist-motivated terrorist activity.

Muslim radicalization and the Radical Islamist scene in Finland

Although Finland has had Muslim minorities ever since the late 19th century, until the late 1980s only a few thousand Muslims lived in Finland. In the 1990s the Finnish Muslim population started to grow rapidly as refugees from conflict areas in the Middle East, North and East Africa arrived in Finland. By 2006, Finland had a Muslim population of approximately 40-45 000, and in 2011 it was estimated to be 50-60,000, 90% of whom were Somalis, Arabs, Kurds, Albanians, Turks, Persians, and Bosniaks. The Finnish Muslim community is predominantly Sunni, approximately only 10-15% of Finnish Muslims are Shia.

While the vast majority of Finland’s Muslim community is moderate and acts as a counterforce to radicalization, significant parts of it live in the margins of society and remain susceptible to it. 2nd generation Muslims from those ethnic groups that have had difficulties integrating and originate from conflict areas where jihadist or Islamist groups are active are particularly vulnerable. Only a small minority of those vulnerable to radicalization has actually become radicalized, and according to the latest estimate no individual ethnic group – including Finnish converts to Islam which number a little over a thousand – is particularly radicalized.  This may well be because radicalization normally occurs individually or in small social groups. The Finnish Muslim community is small and moderate, which makes it unlikely that violent radicalization is a part of a normal activity in the community, or that radicalized individuals can openly share their views – although social media has all but certainly made it easier for radicalized people to share their views. Indeed, there are no well-known radical mosques, religious figures, or organizations which promote radicalization in Finland.

Whether various non-radical but ultraconservative gateway organizations (e.g. Da’wah groups and Islamist movements) operating in Finland affect radicalization is unclear as there have been no research conducted on Islamism in Finland. However, some non-radical organizations and mosques are known to occasionally invite controversial speakers to visit Finland, which may promote radicalization among local Muslims. Most recent such visit was in March 2013, when Anjem Choudary and Awat Karkury attended an event honoring Mullah Krekar in Helsinki. It is not known who organized the event, but Mullah Krekar still enjoys support among the Kurdish population in Finland, particularly in Turku. In an interview after his visit, Choudary stated the concept of Sharia4Finland was born during his visit, although it is not yet clear whether such an organization has been or will be formed.

It is not known exactly how many Muslims in Finland have adopted a radical ideology or worldview, but in the past decade, according to FSIS director Antti Pelttari, the number of people in Finland with links to terrorist organizations has multiplied. This increase has been particularly visible in the past three years: In 2011, there were only “few tens” of radicalized individuals with connections to terrorist organizations or networks. This grew to “more than a hundred” in 2012 and the most recent estimate is “a few hundred” – most likely close to two hundred. The majority of radicalized individuals in Finland are Muslim, but it is still a tiny minority of the overall Muslim population.

It is likely that the majority of radicalized Muslims in Finland are not linked to jihadism and jihadi groups – at least among first generation Muslims – but to various separatist, leftist and Islamist groups with local agendas. According to Anssi Kullberg, 14 groups linked to terrorist attacks abroad have had a presence in Finland in the last twenty years. Only five of these groups were identified as radical Islamist or jihadist in Kullberg, 2011: al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Hizbul Islam, Ansar al-Islam and Hezbollah.

There are indicators that at least some radicalized Muslims have come to share al-Qaeda’s ideology and worldview. In 2010, both native-born Finns and foreign residents in Finland were reported to participate in and contribute to jihadist chat rooms and internet forums associated with al-Qaeda and al-Shabab. The exact number of individuals taking part in jihadist discussion boards is not known, nor is it is clear how many radicalized Muslims share al-Qaeda’s worldview or try to support its terrorist activities. However, it is probable they are more common among 2nd generation radicalized Muslims as they tend to neither fully identify with Finnish or their parents’ culture and society.

Terrorist activity in Finland

As the majority of radicalized Muslims are linked to actors and causes from their countries of origin, domestically, radicalization has predominantly led to non-violent forms of terrorist activity. Radical individuals mainly take part in various groups’ support operations, e.g. producing and hosting online propaganda, fundraising, and recruiting members. Finnish authorities naturally recognize al-Qaeda and jihadist radicals as the most pressing terrorist threat. The current FSIS threat assessment states the direct threat posed to Finland or the Finnish population by organized radical Islamist terrorism is low as radical Islamist or other terrorist organizations do not view Finland as a significant target for violent activities. However, Finnish foreign fighters returning from Syria may well have an impact on this estimation.

The most visible radical Islamist group operating in Finland is al-Shabab. This is largely due to Finland’s large Somali diaspora (there were a little under 15,000 Somali-speaking individuals in Finland in 2012) and al-Shabab’s active recruitment and presence in Finland’s Nordic neighbors. Although al-Shabab does not have a strong presence in Finland they still retain some support within the Somali community. In October, the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation and the FSIS were reported nearing the conclusion of Finland’s first ever criminal terrorist investigation, which began in 2011. Six Somali nationals who reside in Finland are likely facing prosecution for terrorist activity linked with al-Shabab, including financing terrorism, recruiting persons for the purposes of terrorism, and preparing for a criminal act with terrorist intent.

Al-Shabab is also known to have sent recruiters to Finland. The most high profile visit occurred in 2009 when Hassaan Hussein visited Finland, Norway, and Sweden to recruit vulnerable young Somalis and raise money. It is likely that al-Shabaab has managed to recruit few fighters from Finland between 2007 and 2009. Not much is known about who al-Shabab has been able to recruit or how, but one example of al-Shabab’s target demographic – and possibly its recruitment methods – is the case of “Ahmed”.

Ahmed is a young Somali man who moved to Finland when he was eight years old. He attended school in Helsinki, but felt alienated from Finnish society. His parents, likewise, objected to his western social mores. He fell in with the wrong crowd and started to commit crimes. He met his recruiters when he was 17 years old. In an interview, he stated he was enticed by the recruiters to travel to Somalia under the ruse of humanitarian work, ended up in a camp with other al-Shabab recruits in Somalia, but managed to escape to Kenya while the “true purpose” of his travel became clear to him.

Since 2011, al-Shabab’s support is believed to have decreased among the Finnish Somali community. Close association and the 2012 merger with al-Qaeda and the use of suicide bombings have affected its popularity drastically. Now, the Somali League – an umbrella organization consisting of various Somali groups in Finland –holds events to inform its members about al-Shabab’s un-Islamic character and behavior and Somali mosques often warn at-risk youth about al-Shabab’s recruiters.

According to the FSIS, currently there exists no organized and professional recruitment activity by al-Shabab in Finland. The leader of the Somali League, Arshi Said, recently stated that no recruitment takes place in Somali mosques, and that if Finnish Somalis have been recruited, it has happened happened online. The FSIS also believes this is the case. However, it is possible that al-Shabab recruiters still visit Finland to encourage young, vulnerable Somali males to travel to the conflict area. As Norwegian journalist Lars Akerhaug states, al-Shabab’s recruiters are likely to avoid Somali mosques like they do elsewhere in the Nordic countries.

It is likely they still retain some level of support. However, it is not known whether al-Shabab has any passive or active support among radicalized Muslims outside the Somali community as a result of their merger with al-Qaeda, but it seems at least one member of Somali community may have adopted al-Qaeda’s worldview and agenda before he left to fight in Syria.

Finnish Muslim Foreign Fighters

Some radicalized Finnish Muslims or Muslims residing in Finland have opted to travel abroad to fight or acquire terrorist training. During the past decade, their numbers have been increasing. The phenomenon of traveling abroad to fight or attend terrorist training camps was unknown in Finland when its first terrorism laws were being drafted in early 2000s (which is why traveling abroad for terrorist training is not a crime in Finland). Finland’s first counterterrorism strategy (from 2010) states it is possible that “people living in Finland participate or are seeking to participate in resistance struggles in their home countries or that they are trying to recruit other people to take part in armed conflicts.”

Not much attention has been given to the foreign fighter phenomenon in Finland prior to the civil war in Syria. However, there is some evidence from Finnish Muslims traveling or trying to travel abroad to fight or train in terrorist camps at least from 2006 onwards. While the numbers of Finnish foreign fighters have been growing for a while, prior to Syria the phenomenon was extremely limited: “The number is relatively small, not in the dozens,” stated FSIS director Pelttari in September 2011.

Very little is known about who these individuals are, how many there have been exactly, where they travelled and when, and whether they were recruited or not. Nor is it known how many of these left to join various separatist, nationalist, or leftist groups and how many left to take part in the global jihad. However, in case of the latter, no Finnish foreign fighters have been reported in Afghanistan or Iraq to the author’s knowledge. Former residents are known to have traveled to terrorist training camps in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan (although no Finnish citizens apparently have).

The first recorded Finnish Foreign fighter was a Finnish convert to Islam, “Abu Ibrahim”, who tried to join the jihad in Chechnya only to be arrested by the authorities in Georgia while en route to his destination. Abu Ibrahim was a 28 year old Finnish convert to Islam from Helsinki. Abu Ibrahim states he saw armed jihad as a part of his faith, and felt Chechnya would be best as a place to join the holy war, since the oppressors are the soldiers of Finland’s neighbor, Russia (with whom Finland fought two wars, 1939-40 and 1941-44). Interestingly, Abu Ibrahim’s father was a career officer in the Finnish Defence Forces.

Apart from Syria, the only other place where foreign fighters from Finland have been officially confirmed to have travelled is Somalia. However, it is not known how many individuals from Finland have travelled to Somalia and when, or who these individuals are. It is likely they were recruited between 2007 and 2009, when al-Shabab was considered more of a national resistance movement rather than a terrorist organization among the Finnish Somali diaspora. Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian researcher focusing on al-Shabab recently confirmed having heard rumors of several Finnish-Somali foreign fighters fighting for al-Shabab from a “credible source” on a research trip to Mogadishu in 2010. There is no information about Finnish Somalis fighting for or being recruited to al-Shabab after their merger with al-Qaeda, but one Finnish Somali has likely joined a jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda in Syria.

There was also a rumor of a Finnish-speaking person sighted in Eritrea, apparently on his way to join Ogaden National Liberation Front in Ethiopia. Although the FSIS did not confirm the rumor at the time, the FSIS is particularly interested in the contacts of Finland’s Somali residents with Somalia and its neighboring countries. 

Finnish foreign fighter contingent in Syria

The civil war in Syria is the first conflict that has seen a substantial amount of Finnish foreign fighters. This has been even more surprising considering the size of Finland’s Muslim population and its miniscule Syrian community.  Rumors first emerged in August 2012 when a group of Finnish converts to Islam were reported to have travelled to Northern Syria to support the rebels, although it was not clear whether they had taken part in fighting. In January 2013 information about the first Finnish foreign fighter, a 22 year old man from Espoo was published around the same time Sweden’s first “martyr”, Kamal Badri, died in Aleppo. Badri was born in Finland and his mother is a Finnish citizen.

Since then, the number of Finnish foreign fighters in Syria has consistently risen. In March, the FSIS stated approximately ten individuals had travelled to Syria and possible fought in the conflict. Interestingly in the English translation of his comments published by Yle (Finnish Broadcasting Company), this number was translated into a dozen, which is the same number that is mentioned in this report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. By June, the number was somewhere between ten and twenty according to Chief Superintendent Tuomas Portaankorva.

In August, when the first Finnish martyr was reported (his death remains unconfirmed), dozens of people from Finland had travelled to Syria to fight or provide humanitarian aid. Some individuals had allegedly even taken their families with them. One example is the unidentified man from Turku who took his pregnant wife with him when he left. Later in August, the Interior Ministry reported that the majority of approximately twenty fighters had left to Syria, majority with the intent of joining with radical Islamist groups.  This number is most likely higher now and it will continue to rise as the conflict persists.

Apart from rough estimation of the number of people that have left, very little specifics are known about the people who have left and the reasons why. Majority of those who have left are likely young, vulnerable men – although according to the FSIS few women have left too, presumably for humanitarian reasons. There are also rumors of small groups leaving and joining the conflict, although there is very little concrete evidence. The FSIS states the motives of foreign fighters vary greatly, but the key reasons for seeking involvement in a conflict are nationalist, jihadist or humanitarian. From the beginning, it has been obvious that the situation in Syria had appealed to Islamic radicals in Finland across ethnic boundaries, although no information has come to light how the conflict in Syria has affected the Finnish Shia Muslims from various ethnic groups, if at all. The vast majority of Finnish foreign fighters – unlike in Somalia and Ogaden – are likely not co-ethnic foreign fighters with a local agenda and a pre-existing connection to the conflict area. This is supported by the information that has come to light about individual Finnish foreign fighters, although out of the twenty plus foreign fighters, three profiles are hardly a comprehensive sample.

The first Finnish Foreign fighter mentioned in the media was “Muhammad”, a 22 year old Finnish Somali man from Espoo. He moved to Finland from Somalia with his family in 1992 when he was 2 years old. He grew up in Finland and went through the Finnish education system, but failed to fit in the Finnish society. Why Muhammad left to Syria is not known, but he left in December 2012 (via Turkey) and joined a radical Islamist group in Northern Syria. Based on the material he shared in social media, it is likely that he was already radicalized to some degree before leaving to Syria. Since November 2012, he has occasionally shared jihadist propaganda, particularly about Anwar al-Awlaki, on his Facebook account. In early October 2013, he shared two pictures of a recent Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) raid in Hama. It is not clear whether Muhammad is in the pictures.

The first Finnish martyr in Syria was reported in August. A young Finnish convert to Islam from Turku died in fighting between the Syrian rebels and government forces in Aleppo in late June 2013. His mother was Finnish and his father from Namibia in South-West Africa. He left to Syria with his Finnish wife, who had a baby two weeks before the man’s death. The couple is believed to have travelled to Syria – via Turkey – in the previous summer, when the man joined an unidentified rebel unit, allegedly along with some other Finnish citizens. He had recently completed his compulsory military service in Finland and expressed a desire to study Islam abroad.

A 21 year old man, “Rami” may well be one of the latest additions to Finnish foreign fighter contingent. Like the man from Turku, Rami’s mother is Finnish, but his father is from an Arab country. Rami grew up and was educated in Finland, and converted to Islam as a teenager. Before that, he had problems with his education, had alcohol issues, and committed some crimes. According to his mother, after his conversion he became a devout Muslim, finished his education, turned away from western culture, and became obsessed about Islamic dietary laws. In July 2013, he cleaned out his room, his computer, and disappeared to Turkey according to the officials. While he has contacted his family since then and claims he is not in Syria, his family believes the contrary, and there are some indicators to support their suspicions. He meticulously deleted the electronic trail of his travel arrangements, and he had enquired about traveling to Syria from the Imam at his mosque – who opposed the idea. Before leaving Finland, Rami had changed mosques.

Concluding remarks

Unfortunately, the lack of data and existing research is a considerable obstacle in analyzing the radical Islamic landscape in Finland, be the focus on radicalization, terrorist activity among various Muslim communities in Finland, or Muslims originating from Finland fighting abroad. This makes it very difficult to identify the causes and consequences of the recent developments in Finnish radical Islamic landscape. While answering the former is virtually impossible due to lack of data, two observations can be made about the latter: First, domestically, radicalization has mainly led to non-violent terrorist behavior linked to actors and causes in various conflict areas from where Finland’s Muslim communities originate. However, as the number of second generation Muslims increases, al-Qaeda’s brand of global jihadism may well become more common at the expense of local causes as those most vulnerable to radicalization often reject their parents’ society and culture as well as Finnish.

Second, those who have radicalized to the point of using extremist violence have opted to travel abroad, and their numbers are increasing. Whereas in 2003 the phenomenon was unknown in Finland according to the FSIS, now there are now more than 20 foreign fighters in Syria. However, it is important to note that not all Finnish foreign fighters who travelled abroad to join Islamist or jihadist groups, are radicalized let alone share al-Qaeda’s worldview or agenda. Yet, what has been novel about the Finnish foreign fighter in Syria is in addition to its size, it has been the fact that the vast majority come from various ethnic groups and likely do not have a pre-existing connection to the conflict area, which was not the case with Finnish foreign fighters in Somalia and Ogaden. An important research question for the future is why so many Finnish foreign fighters have travelled to Syria? External factors – Syria’s status as the cause célèbre for the global jihadi community and the relative ease of traveling to Syria compared to other conflict areas – are unlikely to explain it alone.

However, the lack of information on the foreign fighter phenomenon prior to 2012, and on individual fighters in Syria, makes it virtually impossible to form a cohesive and conclusive picture on who the Finnish foreign fighters are, and why they have gone abroad to fight, Finland now has foreign fighters that may have an impact on how the radical Islamist community evolves in Finland. Apart from the concrete security threat of radicalized Muslims with the skills and potentially the intent to undertake terrorist plots in Finland, the Nordic countries, or Europe, they have created networks with foreign radicals that may well outlast the Syrian civil war and be put to use elsewhere. Likewise, after Syria it is possible that former foreign fighters may seek to radicalize others. However, equally possible is that returning foreign fighters will return to their lives. Without understanding their motives or experiences in Syria, we can merely speculate.

What does the unprecedented number of Finnish foreign fighters in Syria say about Finland radical Islamist scene? It is evolving, growing and becoming more connected to other, more developed radicalized communities and organizations abroad. As Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp stated in 2011, Finland has not faced a similar threat of jihadist terrorism as Denmark or Sweden. However, it seems that Finland may be on a comparable trajectory. As the radicalized parts of this community are now growing and becoming increasingly interconnected, trends that have been observed elsewhere in Europe and the Nordic countries – e.g. terrorism trials, foreign fighters joining radical Islamist groups abroad, and the formation of organizations promoting radicalization among the Muslim community in the past decade are likely to become more visible in Finland in the future.

This means it is all the more important to study radical Islam in Finland. The lack of data and pre-existing literature are major obstacles that independent researchers and journalists cannot overcome alone. There are few universities, research institutions, or think tanks in Finland that focus on these issues. Instead, Islamism, radicalization, and terrorism are mainly studied as phenomena affecting others and occurring elsewhere.  However, Finland is no more immune to radical Islam than its Nordic neighbors, giving greater urgency to educate professionals – researchers, academics, and journalists – outside the FSIS who can publicaly contribute to the topic and the very polarizing public debates surrounding it.

Juha Saarinen is an independent researcher who studied at the London School of Economics and the University of St. Andrew. His research focuses on international relations, the Middle East, war, and Finnish foreign policy.