You’ve Got to Be Kidding—There Are Now Finns Fighting in Syria?
It’s a long way from Helsinki to Damascus
The Syrian conflict isn’t just a civil war. It’s an ethnic smorgasbord of combatants from around the world. Among the rebel ranks are jihadists from across the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and even the America. They battle Hezbollah’s Lebanese fighters, Iraqi Shia militants and Iranian advisers.
So yet another nationality joining the conflict shouldn’t raise eyebrows.
But Finns fighting in Syria? It’s hard to imagine. Finland conjures images of reindeer and political neutrality. Not to mention that the weather in Helsinki is a bit colder than in Damascus.
Yet Finnish jihadists are indeed fighting in Syria, according to a Finnish researcher. “In March 2014, the Finnish Security and Intelligence Service stated that over 30 individuals had traveled to Syria, approximately half of whom left to take part in the conflict as combatants,” said Juha Saarinen from the Finnish National Defense University’s Department of Strategic and Defense Studies.
Not only are they going to Syria, but most of them are joining the most radical Islamic factions such as the Al Nusrah Front, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Jaish Al Muhajireen Wal Ansar.
At least two Finnish citizens have died in the fighting, according to Saarinen. Some fighters have already returned to Finland, and others repeatedly travel back and forth between Finland and Syria.
Saarinen identified a recent casualty as a jihadist who went by the moniker “Abu Anas Al Finlandi,” a Finnish convert to Islam who traveled to Aleppo via Turkey in 2013. He apparently was killed during an inter-rebel battle between ISIL and the less radical Free Syrian Army last February.
The militants are a departure for peaceful Finland. A few jihadists had previously traveled to Somalia, and possibly the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Georgian authorities detained one apparent fighter on his way to Chechnya.
“The Syrian civil war is the first conflict with a notable involvement of Finnish Muslim foreign fighters,” Saarinen said.
Cracking down on the flow of militants will be difficult. “Finnish authorities cannot legally prevent individuals from traveling abroad, as foreign fighting and joining a terrorist group are not criminalized under Finnish terrorism legislation,” Saarinen pointed out.
What would motivate Finns to fight in Syria? Saarinen pointed to “significant growth of the Finnish radical Islamist scene.”
As for those fighting in Syria, the majority are “young Sunni Muslim men who were either born in Finland or moved there at a very young age,” Saarinen said. “Although the Finnish contingent includes ethnic Finns who have converted to Islam, most of them come from various ethnic backgrounds.”
Finnish security services have said the fighters are motivated by a mixture of nationalist, jihadist and humanitarian beliefs. Saarinen himself has collected data from social media on a few of the fighters. One had criminal and alcohol problems before traveling to Syria. Another, a convert to Islam, finished his compulsory military service in Finland before fighting in Syria.
Note that while Finnish Muslim fighters may be new, this isn’t the first time that Finns have fought for dubious causes. Most notably, a battalion of Finnish volunteers joined Hitler’s Waffen-SS during World War II.
Despite natural worries about radicals coming home to commit domestic terror attacks, “Finnish authorities do not find that likely,” Saarinen said.