The conflict in Syria and Iraq has left a strong mark on jihadist milieus throughout Europe. This impact has been particularly striking in Finland. The Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) has estimated that over 80 adults and about 30 minors have left from Finland to the conflict zone. While the size of the Finnish mobilisation is relatively small compared to many countries in the region, this is a high number for a country of 5.5 million inhabitants which has a small muslim population and no significant history of jihadist activism.
Jihadism continues to be a small-scale phenomenon in Finland when compared to many other Western European countries, but it has shown signs of significant development concurrent with the conflict in Syria and Iraq. The number of individuals considered by Supo as counterterrorism targets has grown from approximately 200 in 2012 to almost 400 in 2019. It is not known how many of them have been put to the list because of involvement in jihadism, but we can safely assume that the majority of them are. Additionally, while the Finnish milieu remains fragmented, extremist social networks have become more developed in recent years. Jihadist activism has mostly focused on support activities and spreading jihadist ideology. Supo also estimates that domestic activists have developed more direct and serious connections to extremist networks and jihadist groups abroad.
Most of the Finnish foreign fighters travelled to Syria and Iraq between 2012 and 2016 and are believed to have joined IS, with many participating in its administrative, propaganda and combat activities. However, detailed information about what exactly these individuals have done in the area remains scarce. Supo has told that some foreign fighters coming from Finland have risen to important positions in the group. Based on open sources, it is difficult to say what exactly this means. In the international research and public debate, none of the IS members originating from Finland have so far been described as having a key role in the organisation.
Approximately twenty percent of Finnish foreign fighters are women. While information about their activities in the conflict zone is similarly scarce, some information has come to light. They have been active in IS’s online communications and recruitment efforts. For instance, two women from Finland have appeared in feature stories in Dabiq and Rumiyah. Some have also married prominent fighters. One female Finnish convert was married to Nero Saraiva, a key IS figure of Portugal-Angolese origin who had lived in the UK for a long period before moving to Syria early on during the conflict. She and her three children are currently in the al-Hawl camp, in Syria.
It is estimated that at least 20 people from Finland have died in the conflict area. Most of the publicly reported cases are individuals who had joined IS. At least 20 but perhaps as many as 30 have returned, mostly by late 2014. These returnees appear not to have been a source of particular concern for the security authorities, although some individuals appear to have continued at least their propaganda and proselytising activities. It is known that there are men of Finnish origin imprisoned in the area, but their exact number is not publicly known. There are also 10 or 11 women and over 30 children in the al-Hawl camp.
The question surrounding the potential repatriation of Finnish women and children in the al-Hawl camp has been the main focus of public debate and policy-making in recent months. What to do with potential returnees from the conflict zone has been under consideration for a substantially longer period of time. The Minister of the Interior published its recommendations for a multi-agency model to deal with returnees in March 2017. Once the presence of women and children of Finnish origin in the al-Hawl camp became publicly known, preparations for various different scenarios was initiated. It took until December 2019 before the government took a political stance on the question. The political process was delayed by the parliamentary elections in mid-April 2019, disagreements between political parties and a strongly divided public opinion.
On 16 December 2019, the centre-left government led by Sanna Marin published its political guidelines. The main objective is to safeguard the best interests of the children in the camp and get them evacuated as quickly as possible. While there is a responsibility to help the children, the guidelines state that no such responsibility exists towards the adults. Adults may, however, be repatriated on case-by-case basis if it is deemed to be in the best interest of the child. It is also emphasised that measures have to be taken to ensure that the repatriated individuals do not pose a security threat to Finland, but it is not yet clear what this entails in practice.
How many adults or children will eventually be repatriated from the al-Hawl camp will depend on case-by-case evaluations by civil servants and the limitations that operating in a conflict area set for arranging the repatriation.
The foreign fighter mobilisation has also led to several debates about the need for legislative measures to tackle the security challenges it entails. Finnish counterterrorism legislation is in compliance with international obligations, but does not exceed them. Especially criminalising the membership in a terrorist organisation has been debated several times, but rejected as too problematic. Also the citizenship legislation has been reviewed and it is now possible for dual citizens to lose Finnish citizenship if an individual has been sentenced for a serious crime against vital interests of Finland. Evidence of crimes conducted in Syria and Iraq do not, thus, on their own provide grounds for revoking citizenship status.
Legislative issues were once again raised by the prime minister when the political guidelines about the al-Hawl case were introduced. Also the president of Finland has demanded the review of legislation to ascertain that Finland does not have a more lenient legislation than other Nordic countries.
Overall, the debate around the foreign fighter issue has revolved around the same key questions as counterterrorism policy-making in general: how to honour the strong legalist and constitutionalist tradition while making sure that Finland does not become a safe haven due to its more lenient counterterrorism measures.