The Clear Banner: Update on Finnish Foreign Fighters

NOTE: For prior parts in the Clear Banner series you can view an archive of it all here. For Juha’s first post at Jihadology on the history, background, and the early mobilization of the Finnish contingent click here.

Update on Finnish Foreign Fighters

By Juha Saarinen

Despite the fact that an unprecedented number of foreign fighters from Finland traveled to Syria since 2012, very little is known about the individuals who have taken part in the conflict. When I previously wrote about the Finnish foreign fighter contingent in Syria in March, only four out of the 30+ “war volunteers”  who had travelled to Syria had been covered in the Finnish media.Since then, information on only two new individuals – a Finnish-Syrian humanitarian worker regularly travelling to Syria to deliver aid, and a Finnish convert to Islam doing humanitarian work in Aleppo who was allegedly imprisoned by the FSA in early 2014 – has come to light. According to the most recent estimates from late March, this still leaves at least 24-34 foreign fighters completely unaccounted for.

Over the past eight months, I have collected data on Finnish foreign fighters. This has led to a list of 11 individual profiles of confirmed foreign fighters, most of whom identify with ISIS. These profiles are listed below, and they contain at least some information on individual fighters’ background, activity in Syria, and group affiliation. However, the list is hardly exhaustive as it includes around a fourth of the 30-40+ individuals currently estimated to have travelled to Syria from Finland.

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The already known individuals

Muhammad” moved to Finland from Somalia with his family in 1993 when he was two-years-old. He grew up in Finland, where he received his education, most recently attending a vocational school in the Helsinki Metropolitan area. He lived in Espoo and exhibited some signs of radicalization before traveling to Syria via Turkey in December 2012, where he joined a radical Islamist group operating in north Syria. He is an ISIS fighter and still active in Syria – most recently near Al-Hasakah in early May. He is allegedly not interested in returning to Finland.

Marwan” was a young convert to Islam from Turku in his early twenties. His mother was Finnish and his father was from Namibia. Before leaving for Syria, he had recently finished his compulsory military service in Finland and expressed a desire to study Islam abroad. He traveled to Syria via Turkey with his wife “Aisha” during summer 2012, when he joined an unidentified rebel unit in northern Aleppo—allegedly with other Finns. He was reportedly killed in a clash between Syrian rebels and Syrian government forces in Aleppo in June 2013. Prior to his death, he had likely fought at least near Idlib in spring 2013.

Rami” was born in early 1990s to a Finnish mother and a father from an unidentified Arab country. He lived in Helsinki before traveling to southern Turkey in July 2013 – and presumably continuing to Syria. He grew up and was educated in Finland, converting to Islam as a teenager. Prior to his conversion, he had problems at school, suffered from alcohol abuse, and had exhibited some criminal behavior. Although he has reportedly denied being in Syria, his mother believes he has traveled there. Before traveling abroad, he had asked the imam at his local mosque about traveling to Syria.

The most recent Finnish casualty is “Abu Anas al-Finlandi”. He was born in the early 1990s and resided in Espoo. He traveled to Syria in late 2013, most likely via Turkey. He was killed in a battle between the Free Syrian Army and ISIS in February 2014, according to a Twitter account linked to ISIS. There are few details about his profile, but he likely converted to Islam either late 2011 or during 2012. It is likely he held some extremist political views prior to his conversion to Islam, and he was connected to the anarchist community in the Helsinki region.

New Additions to the Contingent

“Guhaad” is a Finnish-Somali man in his early 20s. He lived in Espoo before traveling to Syria, most likely via Turkey between spring and fall 2013, and he had joined ISIS by winter. He presumably has a combat role and has travelled at least to Raqqah and Manbij in 2014, and he is presently living in the latter. He and “Muhammad” are close friends.

Lauri” is a Finnish convert to Islam from Espoo who travelled to Aleppo in June 2013. He was allegedly imprisoned in January 2014 for two weeks by FSA troops. In an interview in late April he stated his intention to continue his work in Syria, most likely in and around Aleppo. However, his current status or whereabouts are unknown. Lauri traveled to Syria with his wife, but nothing is known of her.

“Aisha” is “Marwan’s” widow. She had a baby two weeks before Marwan’s death while in Syria. Not much is known about her background, other than she too was a convert to Islam, around 20 years old, and originally from Espoo even though she lived in Turku with her husband prior to traveling to Syria. It was reported in August 2013 she was looking to return to Finland, but her current whereabouts are unknown. She re-activated on social media in spring 2014 and has occasionally shared jihadist propaganda. She presently identifies with ISIS, which suggests her husband – whose affiliation in Syria is unknown – may have joined and fought for ISIS and/or other jihadist groups prior to his death.

“Maryam” is a young Finnish Somali woman from Vantaa. She had attended a polytechnic school around Helsinki metropolitan area before travelling to Syria at some point between December 2013 and March 2014.Maryam is married, but it is not entirely clear whether her husband has accompanied her to Syria. She strongly identifies with ISIS, and has at least travelled to Manbij and Raqqah while in Syria.

“Isra” is a young Finnish woman, presumably of Somali descent. Not much is known about her, other than she identifies with ISIS, and may have travelled to Syria between winter 2013 and spring 2014. She also often shares graphic content depicting the suffering of civilians in Syria on social media.

Rami A.” is a member of the Syrian diaspora in Finland who has regularly traveled to Syria in the past 18 months to deliver humanitarian aid, mainly in and around Aleppo and Idlib. According to him, he moves in Syria with Liwa al-Tawheed. At least in the last trip which took place in spring 2014, he was accompanied by “Hashim,” presumably another member of the Syrian diaspora in Finland from the Helsinki metropolitan area, but not much is known about him.

What do we know about the Contingent?

Overall, the tally of identified foreign fighters is now eleven, which is a significant increase but still leaves the majority of the contingent unaccounted for. However, the possibility that the list may include false positives cannot be excluded, as in most cases available or shared information cannot be independently verified.

These findings correlate with official statements. The majority of Finnish fighters are young Sunni Muslim men who were either born in Finland or moved there at a very young age, and there are also young Finnish men who have converted to Islam. Also, entire families have likely departed Finland to travel to the conflict zone, “Aisha” and “Marwan” being one such case. It is also possible that “Maryam” has travelled to Syria with her husband, while the marital status of “Isra” is unknown. It is also possible that some women from Finland have traveled to Syria alone, but it cannot be confirmed at this time.

Most the foreign fighters are from the Helsinki metropolitan area, and at least two are from Turku. This is hardly surprising as majority of the Muslims living in Finland live in or around the Helsinki region. There are known radicalized Muslims in Helsinki, as well as other large Finnish cities such as Tampere and Turku. Interestingly, no foreign fighters from Tampere have been identified thus far.

Again, not much is known about the Finnish fighters’ activities in Syria. However, majority of the fighters included here identify with ISIS, and thus live and/or operate around areas either controlled or contested by ISIS, mainly in or near Manbij and Raqqah. Previously, Idlib and Aleppo have been popular destinations. Out of the five identified foreign fighters with combat roles, only one has joined an unidentified group, but his wife presently identifies with ISIS, which may suggest her husband had joined and fought with a jihadist group in Syria, presumably affiliated with ISIS.

Majority of the foreign fighters identified here identify with ISIS, and majority of these are Somali. It is likely that ISIS-affiliated foreign fighters (and Finnish-Somali foreign fighters) are over-represented among this list compared to the entire contingent. Although we cannot say for sure whether these individuals have joined groups other than ISIS during their stay in Syria, it is still noticeable how foreign fighters who presently identify with other groups – e.g. Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, erroneously referred to as Kataib al-Muhajireen by the FSIS earlier, or non-jihadist groups – are missing (apart from Liwa al-Tawheed) as are mercenaries, and the Syrian diaspora in Finland is likely underrepresented.

The majority of the foreign fighters identified here are at least aware of each other, although the nature of their relationship can rarely be established. Some relationships, however, are clearer. “Marwan” and “Aisha” are husband and wife (or were until “Marwan’s” death in summer 2013), “Guhaad” and “Mohammad” are friends and their relationship pre-dates the conflict (“Muhammad” had befriended at least two other Finnish foreign fighters before traveling to Syria), and “Hashim” and “Rami A.” have travelled to Syria together at least once to deliver humanitarian aid.

Further research on the contingent as a whole, individual foreign fighters and connections between them is needed. Currently, we know at least some details only on 11 out of 30-40+ individuals. Out of the identified individuals, at least two have died (“Abu Anas” and “Marwan”) and two have returned (“Rami A.” and “Hashim”), while the status and current whereabouts of two individuals (“Lauri” and “Aisha”) are unknown. Two ISIS-affiliated foreign fighters (“Muhammad” and “Guhaad”) were still active in early May, and operating in ISIS controlled territory, near al-Hasakah and Manbij, respectively. “Isra’s” and “Maryam’s” current whereabouts and activities in Syria are unknown, although the latter has likely settled in either Raqqah or Manbij. No new information on “Rami” has come to light since last summer, leaving more questions than answers.