The Finnish Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria and Iraq
Publication: Terrorism Monitor
By: Juha Saarinen
The Jamestown Foundation
By August 2015, at least 70 individuals from Finland had travelled to Syria and Iraq (Suomen Uutiset, July 30).  According to an Interior Ministry report from August 2014, the vast majority intended to join “radical opposition groups” operating in the conflict zone.  The latest figures underline the continuing flow of fighters from Finland to Syria, and to a lesser extent, Iraq, to join jihadist groups operating in the conflict zone, particularly the Islamic State organization (Verkkouutiset, November 29, 2014).
For Finnish policymakers and security officials, the mobilization of jihadist foreign fighters has been as alarming as it has been unprecedented. Historically, cases of Finnish Muslims travelling abroad to join the caravan of global jihad have been few and far between. In the case of Syria’s protracted and brutal civil war, however, Finland has been one of the most significant Western contributors of war volunteers (and likely jihadist foreign fighters) relative to the size of its small Muslim population of approximately 60,000-65,000 (CNN, September 1, 2014). 
The flow of Finnish fighters to the Syria and Iraq region came to widespread public attention when Sayid Hussein Feisal Ali (a.k.a. “Abu Shuayb al-Somali”)—a Finnish jihadist of Somali descent—appeared in an Islamic State propaganda video in August 2014 (Helsinki Times, August 17, 2014). However, mobilization had in fact begun at least two years earlier. In August 2012, for instance, radical Finnish converts had reportedly travelled to Syria, and joined opposition groups operating in the north of the country (Turun Sanomat, August 30, 2012). Initially, the contingent included a range of individuals with various motivations. In addition to jihadist foreign fighters, who joined groups like Kataib al-Muhajireen (later known as Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar), Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, humanitarians, mercenaries and non-jihadist foreign fighters also travelled to the war-torn country (MTV Uutiset, March 5, 2014). As a result, by March 2014, over 30 individuals from Finland had found their way into Syria, although only around half could be described as foreign fighters, in the sense of individuals committed to Islamist ideologies (CTC Sentinel, March 26, 2014).
The dynamics of this mobilization, however, had begun to change by summer 2013, with the vast majority of individuals arriving in the region now seeking to join jihadist groups, particularly Islamic State (Verkkouutiset, November 29, 2014). During the last 12 months in particular, Syria and Iraq seem to have attracted nearly exclusively jihadist foreign fighters.  Indeed, since the Islamist State entered the Syrian civil war in force, most individuals traveling to the conflict zone from Finland have sought to join the group, going on to fight in its ranks on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Despite the conflict appealing to an increasingly narrow group of individuals, i.e. young radicalized Sunni Muslims, the flow of volunteers from Finland has continued unabated, highlighting the monumental impact that the conflict in Syria, and the rise of the Islamic State, has had on the militant Islamist landscape in Finland.  Demonstrating this, between September 2014 and July 2015 alone, the number of known Finland-originated individuals in Syria (and to a lesser extent, Iraq) grew from at least 44 to at least 70 (Ministry of Interior, September 10, 2014; Suomen Uutiset, July 30). 
Among the Finnish contingent fighting in Syria and Iraq, at least 19 different ethnic backgrounds are represented (Suomen Kuvalehti, August 7). This includes Somalis and Finnish converts (both groups are strongly represented among the contingents’ jihadist foreign fighters), few individuals of Arab descent, a Turk, a Pakistani, a Bangladeshi, a Finnish-Namibian and a Finnish-American. These demographics reflect the diverse ethnic character of Finland’s Muslim population and also highlight the extraordinary resonance of the conflict among Sunni Muslim communities across the globe. Despite their ethnic diversity, the majority of individuals identified by government authorities are “homegrown,” and they were either born in Finland or lived there since childhood. Subsequently, most of them are Finnish citizens (Suomen Kuvalehti, August 7).
The age range of the departed varies from 18 to 50 (Ministry of Interior, September 10, 2014). However, there have also been reports of several under-aged children in the conflict zone, who have either travelled to the region with their parents or have been born there (Iltasanomat, January 10). Unsurprisingly, however, the majority of the individuals are young men in their late teens and mid-twenties. Around one-fifth of the contingent, however, are women. At least 13 women have travelled from Finland to Syria or Iraq, some with their partners and some alone (Iltalehti, July 22; Iltasanomat, December 20, 2014). The majority of the women are either Somalis or Finnish converts, who support the Islamic State.
Geographically, there have been departures from across Finland. However, most foreign fighters originate from larger cities and suburban areas in southern and western Finland (Ministry of Interior, September 10, 2014), mainly the Helsinki metropolitan region and Turku.
Current State of the Contingent
It is not entirely clear how many Finland-originated individuals are currently active in Syria and Iraq. From the approximately 70 confirmed cases that have travelled to the conflict zone, at least 8-11 are believed to have died (Kouvolan Sanomat, April 6).  In addition, around 20 individuals have been confirmed to have returned from the conflict zone. (Helsingin Sanomat, June 2). This last estimate, however, has remained the same since late 2014, although there is some evidence that suggests there have been new returnees since (YLE, October 13). A minimum estimate would therefore be that around half of the 70 or so Finland-originated individuals are still in the conflict zone, mostly if not nearly exclusively in areas controlled by the Islamic State. While it is exceedingly difficult to confirm the role and activity of these individuals, the vast majority of the men likely are, or seek to become, jihadist foreign fighters while several women seem to have adopted propaganda and recruitment roles to support the group’s social media activities. 
Will the Mobilization Continue?
The flow of individuals from Finland to Syria, and to a lesser extent Iraq, will likely continue as long as both the conflict in Syria and the Islamic State group attract foreign fighters. There are also two domestic issues that increase the likelihood of further Finnish jihadists travelling to the conflict zone.
First, the domestic militant Islamist landscape in Finland has grown significantly and become more organized during the last two years in particular, increasing the likelihood of radicalized individuals either travelling abroad for foreign fighting or encouraging others to do so (Verkkouutiset, November 29, 2014). According to the officials, there have been signs of emerging multi-ethnic radical social networks in Finland (MTV Uutiset, March 5, 2014). Likewise, online social networks seem to have played a significant role in the mobilization to Syria and Iraq, although more research on social networks is required (The Ulkopolitist, March 10).
Secondly, the Finnish authorities have only limited means to effectively prevent or discourage individuals from traveling to the conflict zone, as neither foreign fighting nor joining jihadist groups classified as terrorist organizations have been criminalized. Although the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (FSIS) have actively sought to discourage people from leaving for the conflict zone by talking with those individuals suspected of planning to leave, there have only been a few cases where such efforts were successful. One such case occurred in 2013, when the FSIS was able to discourage “Abdullah”—a former Islamic State online cheerleader better known through his former twitter account @Mujahid4Life—from travelling to Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra (Newsweek, June 5). However, with only limited means to tackle emerging mobilization, cases like that of “Abdullah” will likely be few and far between, while the contingent of domestic radicals and of fighters in Iraq and Syria continues to grow.
Juha Saarinen is a researcher focusing on violent Islamism and Middle Eastern politics. He currently works at the Finnish Middle East Consulting Group and the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism at Helsinki University.
- The actual number of individuals who have travelled from Finland to Syria or Iraq is likely higher as not everyone who travels to the conflict zone is known to the authorities. There have been speculations that over 100 individuals from Finland have left for the conflict zone (YLE, March 20).
- “Violent extremism in Finland – situation overview 2/2014,” (Helsinki: Interior Ministry, Internal Security Programme, September 10, 2014).
- It should be mentioned that CNN relied on inaccurate data. First, while there are no official statistics available, Finland’s Muslim population is estimated to be around 60,000-65,000, not 42,000. Second, at the time, over 40 individuals had gone from Finland to the conflict zone, although not all who had travelled to Syria could be considered jihadists (Iltasanomat, March 5, 2014; CTC Sentinel, March 26, 2014). However, considering the estimated size of Finland’s current Muslim population and the approximate number of Finland-originated jihadist foreign fighters, their overall assertion is accurate.
- In addition, an unknown number of individuals from Finland who have travelled to the conflict zone to fight against the Islamic State (Talouselämä, August 26).
- While there are no official, openly available reports on the size and structure of militant Islamist scene in Finland, the number of radicalised individuals with connections to known radicalised individuals, terrorist networks, or groups operating abroad, and who are actively under surveillance by the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (FSIS), has grown from a mere handful in late 2010 to approximately 300 in early 2015, the majority of whom are radicalized Sunni Muslims(YLE, December 12, 2010, Savon Sanomat, February 20).
- However, it is not clear whether the latter estimation includes individuals who had travelled to the region earlier, but who were only identified after September 2014.
- Only three casualties have been reported in Finnish media, Abu Salamah al-Finlandi in June 2013, Abu Anas al-Finlandi in February 2014 and Abu Mansour al-Somali in June 2014 (YLE, August 1, 2013; Helsingin Sanomat, February 22, 2014; Helsingin Sanomat, June 9, 2014).
- Research by this author suggests that at least six of the thirteen women who have travelled in the conflict zone have either openly identified as the Islamic State supporters online, or have shared the group’s message in social media or discussion forums.
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 18 – The Jamestown Foundation
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Photo: Screenshot of an Islamic State video featuring Abu Shuayb al-Somali, a Somali-Finnish foreign fighter