The Clear Banner: Update on the Finnish Foreign Fighter Contingent

NOTE: For prior parts in the Clear Banner series you can view an archive of it all here.

Update on the Finnish Foreign Fighter Contingent
By Juha Saarinen
In early September, the Finnish Interior Ministry released its newest situation overview on violent extremism in Finland. The report included the most recent official estimates of the number of Finnish volunteers in Syria and Iraq. The contingent currently consists of:

  • 31 individuals with Finnish citizenship
  • 17 different ethnic backgrounds
  • individuals mainly from the larger cities in Western [e.g. Turku and Tampere] and Southern Finland Provinces [e.g. Greater Helsinki Region]

Elsewhere, it has also been revealed that…

The estimation is based on individuals who have been identified by the FSIS. However, the overall number is likely higher, as not all individuals who have travelled from Finland to Syria and Iraq have come to the authorities’ attention. According to Helsingin Sanomat (HS), a Finnish newspaper, there may be as many as 55 individuals in the conflict zone, and some – particularly those of the jihadist persuasion – have taken their families with them. According to the Foreign Ministry, there are several Finnish children in IS-controlled areas. Additionally, at least one Finnish female jihadist has given birth in Syria, while another one is currently pregnant.
It is not clear how many of the 44-55+ individuals qualify as foreign fighters – i.e. individuals without pre-existing links to the conflict zone who are seeking to take part in an armed insurgency. The estimation includes an unknown number of humanitarian aid workers, possibly mercenaries, and members of the Syrian or Iraqi diaspora based in Finland, who may have travelled back to take part in the civil war or alleviate its impact in some capacity. However, the FSIS estimates that majority of these individuals are seeking to participate in armed conflict.
Equally, it is not clear how many volunteers or foreign fighters have either joined or support the Islamic State (or why), but according MTV3 News the FSIS believes those who have joined IS are “extremely radical”. It is likely that the majority of Finnish foreign fighters have joined IS – particularly among those who have travelled to Syria after summer 2013. Other groups that Finnish foreign fighters have joined are Jabhat al-Nusra and Kataib al-Muhajireen (before they became Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar).
Some Finland-originated individuals who do not qualify as foreign fighters, e.g. women who either have accompanied their husbands or travelled to the conflict zone in an individual capacity, clearly support the IS. Out of the four women I have identified (out of eight), all identify strongly with the IS, although their connection to and any possible role within IS remain unclear.
The FSIS has recently estimated that there are around 20 individuals who have returned, although they offered no information regarding their role or affiliation in the conflict zone. The recent FSIS revelation came in the aftermath of Finnish authorities arresting and detaining four returnees (one in absentia) in early October under Chapter 34a (Terrorist offences) of the Finnish Criminal Code. They had allegedly joined and fought with the Islamic State.
Initially the four individuals were suspected by the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation for murder with terrorist intent in addition to other terrorism-related crimes. According to NBI chief investigator Mika Airaksinen, these charges were not connected to a specific homicide but rather connected to participating in the armed operations of a terrorist organization. However, the three individuals are currently detained only on suspicion of preparation of an offence to be committed with terrorist intent and provision of training for the commission of a terrorist offence, recruitment for the commission of a terrorist offence, and preparation of an offence to be committed with terrorist intent, respectively. The fourth individual, who was detained in absentia, is still suspected of committing murder with terrorist intent.
In terms of casualties, at least three Finnish casualties have been reported. These are “Marwan” (died June 2013), “Abu Anas al-Finlandi” (died February 2014) and “Muhammad” (died June 2014). However, according to HS, there may be as many as many as five or six Finnish fatalities.  
This leaves around 20-30 Finnish individuals in the conflict zone, majority of whom are likely foreign fighters affiliated with the Islamic State. It is highly likely that these individuals mainly reside and operate in Syria, although two Islamic State-affiliated Finnish jihadist foreign fighters claim to have travelled to Iraq. This information, however, cannot be independently verified at this point.

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.
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

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

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

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,