The historic mobilization of foreign fighters joining the civil war in Syria has affected many countries with little to no previous history of Muslim foreign fighting, including Finland. In March 2014, the Finnish Security and Intelligence Service (FSIS) stated that over 30 individuals had traveled to Syria, approximately half of whom left to take part in the conflict as combatants. The majority of Finnish foreign fighters have sought to join “radical Islamic” groups, and they have reportedly joined factions loyal to Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as Kataib al-Muhajirin. The FSIS is concerned about this unprecedented mobilization, as well as the prospect of radicalized and battle-hardened jihadists returning to Finland from Syria.
This article examines the factors that may have contributed to Finnish Muslim participation in the Syrian war. Additionally, it compiles publicly available data on the Finnish foreign fighter contingent, focusing on four publicly known fighters. Lastly, it examines the potential impact of returning militants on the domestic radical Islamist scene in Finland. The article finds that approximately 15 foreign fighters from Finland have joined the conflict in Syria as combatants, and that the broad appeal of the Syrian conflict, the growth of the radical Islamist scene in Finland and the relative ease of traveling to Syria are the main factors behind this mobilization. The majority of the Finnish fighters have reportedly joined jihadist groups, increasing the possibility that returning fighters will have a domestic impact. While the terrorist threat level in Finland may increase in the future as a result of the mobilization, a more immediate concern is that returning foreign fighters—and perhaps those still abroad—will seek to further expand the radical Islamist scene, strengthen the jihadist strand within it, and increase the connections between Finland’s own radical community and more developed ones abroad.
Explaining the Mobilization
The Syrian civil war is the first conflict with a notable involvement of Finnish Muslim foreign fighters. Prior to the war in Syria, there were few cases of Finnish Muslim foreign fighters, although it is difficult to analyze this trend—or lack thereof—because little public attention was paid to it prior to 2012. In addition to Syria, a small number of Finnish fighters have traveled to Somalia, while other parts of the Horn of Africa region and Yemen are also rumored destinations. One potential foreign fighter was detained by Georgian authorities en route to Chechnya. No Finnish Muslim foreign fighters have been publicly reported in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
Why have so many Finnish fighters traveled to Syria? First, the humanitarian crisis in Syria and acts of violence by the regime, including the alleged use of chemical weapons, have caused widespread outrage among the global Sunni Muslim community. The widespread online dissemination of propaganda highlighting the suffering of Syrian civilians encourages Finnish Muslims to travel to Syria. The appeal of the Syrian conflict has crossed ethnic boundaries and attracted non-radicalized Muslims, greatly widening the pool of potential foreign fighters.
Second, the conflict in Syria has resonated particularly strongly among the radical Islamist community in Finland. In August 2013, the Finnish Interior Ministry reported that out of the 20 or more Finnish individuals in Syria, a majority are “jihadist travelers” who intended to join “radical Islamic organizations” in Syria. Similarly, the recently published FSIS annual report for 2013 stated that there is an “increased willingness of persons residing in Finland to take part in the radical organizations’ armed activity in the region.”
While this does not necessarily mean that all or even most of the Finnish fighters are jihadists, or even Muslims, the significant growth of the Finnish radical Islamist scene in the past few years is a key prerequisite for the mobilization to Syria. During previous mobilizations of European Muslim foreign fighters to Afghanistan and Iraq, Finland’s radical Muslim community was virtually non-existent. By 2013, however, the number of radicalized individuals residing in Finland numbered in the hundreds, according to Finnish security officials, increasing the probability that radicalized individuals will travel abroad for foreign fighting or encourage others to do so. The scale of the mobilization to Syria suggests the jihadist strand has grown in par with the wider radical Islamist community.
Lastly, traveling to Syria from Finland is relatively quick and inexpensive. Notably, Finnish authorities cannot legally prevent individuals from traveling abroad, as foreign fighting and joining a terrorist group are not criminalized under Finnish terrorism legislation. This loophole leaves the Finnish authorities with limited means to stop or limit the flow of foreign fighters out of Finland and into Syria. Additionally, Turkey has functioned as a convenient logistical hub for Finnish and other European fighters. Thus far, Ankara has largely been either unwilling or unable to prevent European foreign fighters from entering Syria, and rebel groups and criminal entrepreneurs operating near the Syrian-Turkish border facilitate foreign fighters’ entry to Syria.
The Finnish Contingent and Individual Fighters in Syria
According to various publicly available statements and reports, the majority of Finnish fighters are young Sunni Muslim men who were either born in Finland or moved there at a very young age. Although the Finnish contingent includes ethnic Finns who have converted to Islam, most of them come from various ethnic backgrounds.
Little is known about why individual fighters have decided to travel to Syria, but the FSIS has stated the motives of Finnish foreign fighters vary between nationalist, jihadist and humanitarian causes. Some of the fighters radicalized before leaving, and some may have received prior training in terrorist camps or during previous fighting abroad. Despite rumors of Finnish fighters traveling to Syria in groups, the FSIS insists most fighters have either traveled to Syria alone or with a friend. In one case, however, a fighter brought his family.
Not much is known about the Finnish fighters’ activities in Syria, or how many are currently active. Finnish fighters have been reported or rumored in and around Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo. It was recently reported that Jabhat al-Nusra, the ISIL and Kataib al-Muhajirin have all attracted Finnish foreign fighters.
At least two Finnish citizens have been killed in Syria, and the FSIS believes there may be more Finnish casualties. Some fighters have reportedly returned home to Finland already, with combat experience, while others travel between Finland and Syria repeatedly.
Only four fighters have been identified by Finnish media to date, although none by their legal name. In addition to these reports, the author has collected data from social media on a few Finnish fighters in order to build more detailed profiles. This should not be viewed as a comprehensive sample of the entire contingent.
One of these individuals has been identified by the media as “Muhammad.” He 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. He lived in Espoo before traveling to Syria via Turkey in December 2012, where he joined a radical Islamist group in the north, and later identified himself on social media as a member of the ISIL operating near the Syrian-Turkish border. “Muhammad” is still active in Syria, but it is not known if he has combat experience. Since November 2012, he has occasionally shared ISIL and other jihadist propaganda on his social media accounts. He is allegedly not interested in returning to Finland.
In December 2013, the Middle East Media Research Institute reported on a Finnish jihadist, “Abu Mansour,” who answered questions about his decision to travel to Syria in a public meeting in the Raqqa area. He stated in the video that he decided to travel to Syria after witnessing Muslims being killed around the world, especially in Syria by the Bashar al-Assad regime. His goal for arriving in Syria was to bring back the caliphate. It appears likely that “Abu Mansour” is “Muhammad,” since they share similar appearances and motivations for fighting in Syria, and both profiles identify with the ISIL.
“Marwan” was a young convert to Islam, born around 1993, from Turku. 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 during the summer of 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. It is likely that the Facebook profile of a man from Turku, who had been fighting in the Idlib area in March-April 2013, belongs to “Marwan.” No information is available about his background, age, when he traveled and what group with which he fought, although he is Facebook “friends” with at least two Finnish foreign fighters: ISIL-linked jihadists “Abu Anas al-Finlandi” and “Muhammad.” His account has been inactive since April 2013.
“Rami,” born around 1992 to a Finnish mother and a father from an unidentified Arab country, lived in Helsinki before traveling to southern Turkey in July 2013. Although he has reportedly denied being in Syria, his mother believes he has traveled there. 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 criminal behavior. 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” (who was most likely born around 1993), who reportedly fought for the ISIL. He was killed in a battle between the Free Syrian Army and the ISIL in February 2014, according to a Twitter account linked to the ISIL. There are few details about his profile, but reportedly he is a Finnish convert to Islam from the Helsinki area. According to his Facebook page, he resided in Espoo and traveled to Aleppo in late 2013, reportedly via Turkey.
The Potential Domestic Impact of Returning Foreign Fighters
The lack of information about the Finnish fighters’ motivations for traveling to Syria and their activities in the country make it difficult to estimate the impact they may have on Finland’s radical Islamist scene. There are several ways, however, that Finnish foreign fighters may pose a threat domestically.
First, returning fighters—particularly those who fought for jihadist groups—may seek to participate in domestic terrorist plots. While only a small minority of returning foreign fighters generally participate in domestic attacks, they tend to be more capable than those without foreign fighting experience. To date, there have been no jihadist attacks or plots in Finland. The current Finnish government threat assessment states that “Finland is not a primary target for violent radical Islamist or other terrorist organizations” and the terrorist threat is considered low. Nevertheless, the domestic terrorist threat in Finland is gradually changing, and the Syrian conflict will undoubtedly accelerate its evolution. Although the FSIS argues that returning foreign fighters do not pose an imminent threat, the threat of returning foreign fighters is reflected in the current threat assessment, which states that “it is difficult to predict the threat posed by radicalized individuals or small groups.”
The threat is made all the more acute by reports that jihadist groups in Syria have trained fighters to undertake domestic plots when they return to their home country. Even if they choose not to attack Finland, they could attempt to attack targets in other Scandinavian countries or in Europe.
Second, returning fighters may seek to expand the Finnish radical Islamist scene. While the domestic radical Islamist community in Finland continues to grow regardless of the Syrian conflict, the returning foreign fighters are likely to further increase its size: past evidence suggests that jihadist veterans will enjoy an elevated status among more radical Muslims and they may seek to promote their adopted ideologies and agendas within it by radicalizing others. Returning foreign fighters will also likely strengthen the jihadist strand within the radical Islamist scene. According to recent reports, there are indications of an emerging multi-ethnic jihadist network in Finland, which has connections to jihadist groups operating in conflict areas abroad.
Additionally, returning fighters may attempt to recruit radical or more moderate Muslims residing in Finland for foreign fighting or domestic operations. There have already been reported cases of returning fighters recruiting others in Finland to fight in Syria. Moreover, Finnish jihadist fighters do not necessarily need to return to constitute a threat through radicalization and recruitment efforts. Those foreign fighters-cum-jihadists who opt to continue fighting for jihadist groups may try to promote radicalization, inspire domestic plots, and recruit foreign fighters among Muslims residing in Finland from abroad.
Lastly, the sizeable Finnish contingent in Syria may also transform Finland into a more visible and appealing target for foreign recruiters and groups. Foreign terrorist organizations have tried to recruit within Finland in the past, and there have been unsubstantiated rumors of foreign recruiting of Finnish Muslims to participate in the Syrian civil war. For example, two figures associated with the UK-based al-Muhajiroun have been publicly linked to the radical Islamist scene in Finland recently. Omar Bakri Mohammad was reported to know Finnish fighters in Syria and Somalia, and Anjem Choudary’s visit to Helsinki in March 2013 raised concerns about the potential formation of Sharia4Finland. There is no data, however, to suggest that either has played any role in the mobilization of Finnish foreign fighters, or in facilitating their entry into Syria.
Finland has seen an unprecedented mobilization of Muslim foreign fighters as a result of Syria’s descent into civil war. While there is some information on the composition of the Finnish foreign fighter contingent, it is often too generic and vague—since not enough data on individual fighters is available—to provide a thorough analysis of the causes of the mobilization or the domestic impact of returning fighters. A deeper analysis would require further information on what groups the fighters have joined, what originally motivated them to travel to Syria, and how the fighters perceive themselves in relation to the conflict in Syria.
Naturally, the most serious threat to Finland is from returning fighters who may have the intent to commit domestic terrorist attacks, although Finnish authorities do not find that likely. The extent of this threat, however, may increase when fighters return from Syria, so it should not be discounted. A more likely outcome, however, is the further expansion of the radical Islamist scene in Finland and increasing jihadist activity within it. Returning fighters may seek to radicalize, inspire and recruit vulnerable Finnish Muslims. Finland may also increasingly become a target for foreign jihadist recruiters. Consequently, Finnish authorities should continue to closely monitor Finnish fighters who have returned and those still abroad—particularly if they identify with jihadist groups operating in Syria—and also adopt more stringent measures to respond to the foreign fighting trend among Finnish Muslims.
Juha Saarinen is an Assistant Researcher at the Finnish National Defence University’s Department of Strategic and Defence Studies and a Partner at the Finnish Middle East Consulting Group. His research focuses on political violence, armed conflict and violent non-state actors in the Middle East. He holds Master’s degrees in Middle East and Central Asian Security Studies from St. Andrews University and International Relations from the London School of Economics.
 For Thomas Hegghammer’s definition of a foreign fighter as an agent “who 1) has joined, and operates within the confines of, an insurgency, 2) lacks citizenship of the conflict state or kinship links to its warring factions, 3) lacks affiliation to an official military organization, and 4) is unpaid,” see Thomas Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad,” International Security 35:3 (2010/11), pp. 53-94, 57-58.
 Paula Ropponen, “Supo: Syyrian taistelut vetävät joitakin puoleensa magneetin lailla,” Aamulehti, March 5, 2014; Tuomas Portaankorva (@TPSupo), “Matkustaneita yhteensä yli 30, aseelliseen toimintaan pyrkijöitä n. puolet.,” Twitter, March 12, 2014.
 “Violent Extremism in Finland – Situation Overview 2/2013,” Finland Ministry of the Interior, August 26, 2013. The reports do not clarify whether Finnish foreign fighters only joined Kataib al-Muhajirin before it merged with two other groups in Spring 2013 and changed its name to Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar or whether the group’s older name was used erroneously.
 Jarkko Sipilä, “Supo: Syyrian suomalaisjihadisteissa muhii terrorismimongelma,” MTV, March 5, 2014.
 “Violent Extremism in Finland – Situation Overview 2/2013”; “Security Police Eyeball Fighters Returning from Syrian Conflict,” YLE, January 10, 2014.
 In September 2011, FSIS director Antti Pelttari stated that the overall number of Finnish foreign fighters was “relatively small, not in the dozens.” See “Supo: Terrorist Fighters Have Tried to Enter Finland,” Helsingin Sanomat International Edition, September 22, 2011.
 Juha Saarinen, “The History of Jihadism in Finland and an Early Assessment of Finnish Foreign Fighters in Syria,” Jihadology, November 21, 2013.
 “Finnish Security and Intelligence Service Annual Report 2012,” Finnish Security Intelligence Service, March 1, 2013.
 Kristiina Markkanen, “Suomalainenkin separatisti saattaa taistella Somaliassa,” Helsingin Sanomat, May 6, 2010.
 Heidi Vaalisto, “Kaksi suomalaista kuollut Syyriassa,” Ilta-Sanomat, August 2, 2013.
 Mika Parkkonen, “Finn Arrested in Georgia Wanted to Join War in Chechnya,” Helsingin Sanomat International Edition, September 19, 2006.
 This question is all the more pertinent since, according to government reports and recent comments by Finnish security officials, there is no organized recruitment organization or network in Finland. See “Violent Extremism in Finland – Situation Overview 2/2013”; Antti Honkamaa, “Supo: Yli 30 lähti Suomesta sotimaan Syyriaan – ‘mukana kantasuomalaisia,’” Ilta-Sanomat, March 5, 2014.
 “Suomesta lähtenyt nuoria taistelijoiksi Syyriaan: ‘Kun aamulla lähtee, illalla on jo ase kädessä,’” Ilta-Sanomat, March 1, 2013.
 It is not known, however, whether any Finnish Shi`a Muslims, who comprise approximately 10-15% of the Finnish Muslim population, are fighting in Syria.
 “Finnish Security Intelligence Service Annual Report 2013,” Finnish Security Intelligence Service, March 5, 2014.
 “Violent Extremism in Finland – Situation Overview 2/2013,” p. 9.
 “Finnish Security Intelligence Service Annual Report 2013,” p. 6.
 It is currently not known exactly how many Finnish Muslims were radicalized before traveling to Syria. The strong presence of various Islamist groups in Syria may have allowed the jihadist faction to attract individuals who do not share their views.
 There are reports of Finnish mercenaries—i.e., individuals with military training and/or experience who travel to Syria to become soldiers of fortune. Although they differ from foreign fighters as they are paid for their services, it is not entirely clear whether these individuals are included in the Finnish authorities’ estimate on Finnish combatants in Syria.
 In 2010, there were reportedly only a handful of radicalized individuals in Finland with connections to international terrorist organizations. See “Supo: Terrori-iskulla ei yhteyksiä Suomeen – tarkkailussa kourallinen henkilöitä,” YLE, December 12, 2010.
 “Supo: Suomesta lähdetty Syyrian taisteluihin, sadoilla epäilyttäviä yhteyksiä,” Aamulehti, March 1, 2013.
 According to the FSIS, there have been rumors of individuals taking instant loans to finance their journey and arriving in Syria within 24 hours. See Tommi Nieminen, ”Espoolainen nuori mies lähti salaa Syyrian sotaan,” Helsingin Sanomat, June 9, 2013.
 “Security Police Eyeball Fighters Returning from Syrian Conflict.”
 Most Finnish fighters reportedly traveled to Syria via Turkey. See Sipilä.
 Thomas Hegghammer, “Syria’s Foreign Fighters,” Foreign Policy, December 9, 2013.
 Husein Muhammed, “Suomalaisia Syyrian sodassa,” Maailman Kuvalehti, February 2013; Jukka Huusko, “Islamistit väittävät suomalaisen kuolleen Syyrian taisteluissa,” Helsingin Sanomat, February 22, 2014.
 Nieminen; Honkamaa.
 Although individuals with a pre-existing connection to the conflict area—either in the form of citizenship in the conflict state or kinship links to its warring factions—should be considered as rebels rather than foreign fighters, it is not entirely clear whether such individuals have traveled to Syria or if they are included in the Finnish authorities’ estimate of Finnish combatants in Syria.
 “Violent Extremism in Finland – Situation Overview 2/2013.”
 Aishi Zidan, “Rami tyhjensi huoneensa ja taistelee nyt ehkä Syyriassa,” Helsingin Sanomat, October 27, 2013.
 “Huoli heräsi: Militantti anti-fasistinen liike kasvamassa Suomessa,” Talouselämä, January 13, 2014; ”Suomesta lähti taistelijoita Syyriaan,” Turun Sanomat, August 30, 2012.
 Tuomas Portaankorva (@TPSupo), “Ei nyt suoraan. Meidän muutamasta kymmenestä ei isoja ryhmiä saa. Yksin ja kaverin kanssa useimmiten,” Twitter, January 13, 2014.
 Heikki Kauhanen, ”Suomalainen kaatui Syyriassa – uusia lähtijöitä kymmenittäin,” Turun Sanomat, August 1, 2013.
 “Finnish National Fighting with Al-Qaeda in Syria: I Have Come to Establish the Caliphate in the Levant,” Midle East Media Research Institute, December 11, 2013.
 Sipilä; Kauhanen; Nieminen.
 Tatu Airo, “Supo: Ainakin kaksi Suomen kansalaista kuollut Syyrian sodassa,” Aamulehti, March 5, 2014.
 No fighters, however, have returned to receive medical care for injuries sustained in Syria. See “Syyriassa haavoittuneita taistelijoita ei ole vielä hoidettu Suomessa,” YLE, January 10, 2014.
 ”Supo: Syyriasta palaavien jihadistiveteraanien määrä kasvaa,” Savon Sanomat, March 5, 2014; Ropponen; Honkamaa.
 Nieminen; “Security Police Eyeball Fighters Returning from Syrian Conflict.”
 This article purposely provides pseudonyms for individual fighters. Being a member of a terrorist organization or traveling abroad to take part in a civil war are not considered crimes in Finland.
 He studied at a vocational school, but it is not clear if he graduated.
 His family believes there were other Finnish fighters in the group. See Nieminen.
 His behavior on social media suggests he had at least partly adopted a jihadist worldview prior to his departure to Syria. On a phone call with his sister, he stated he wanted to help Muslims who were being killed by the al-Assad regime. See ibid.
 “Finnish National Fighting with Al-Qaeda in Syria: I Have Come to Establish the Caliphate in the Levant.”
 “TS: Finnish Volunteer Killed in Syrian Conflict,” YLE, August 1, 2013.
 His wife had a baby two weeks before the man’s death. See ibid.
 He was the first reported Finnish casualty in the Syrian conflict. See Kauhanen.
 He cleaned out his room, meticulously deleted the electronic trail of his travel arrangements, and disappeared to Turkey. See Zidan.
 After his conversion, he became a devout Muslim, turned away from Western culture and social mores, and started meticulously studying Islamic dietary laws. See ibid.
 The imam opposed the idea of traveling to Syria, leading Rami to change mosques before his departure. See ibid.
 Doula News English (@Doula_news2), “Abu Anas finlandi killed by the fsa, may Allah swt accept them,” Twitter, February 19, 2014.
 Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review 107:1 (2013).
 Two incidents were erroneously attributed to al-Qa`ida in the summer of 2011. See Saarinen.
 “Finnish Security Intelligence Service Annual Report 2013.”
 “Finnish Security Intelligence Service Annual Report 2013.”
 For example, see Michael Schmidt and Eric Schmitt, “Syria Militants Said to Recruit Visiting Americans to Attack U.S.,” New York Times, January 9, 2014; Ruth Sherlock and Tom Whitehead, “Al-Qaeda Training British and European ‘Jihadists’ in Syria to Set Up Terror Cells at Home,” Telegraph, January 19, 2014.
 Particularly those among the disenfranchised and alienated second and third generation Finnish Muslims who neither identify with their parents’ culture nor with Finnish society.
 Particularly as radicalized Finnish foreign fighters bring with them information on the radical Islamist scene in Finland, and can act as nodes between the Finnish radical Islamist scene and foreign individuals or groups. See ibid.
 Hizb Allah, al-Shabab, Hizb ul-Islam, al-Qa`ida and Ansar al-Islam are known to have had supporters and supporting activity in Finland. Al-Shabab supporters have been particularly active in Finland in recent years. See Saarinen.
 A member of the Muslim community in Turku stated in an interview that there are individuals in Finland who are recruiting people to fight in conflicts taking place abroad. He stated he knew at least four people in Turku who had recently left to become foreign fighters in Syria and Yemen. See Vaalisto.
 Kari Ahlberg, “Radikaali muslimisaarnaaja Libanonissa Yle uutisille: Syyriassa kymmenittäin suomalaistaistelijoita,” YLE, October 29, 2013.
 Laura Halminen, “Radikaali muslimisaarnaaja esiintyi Helsingissä,” Helsingin Sanomat, March 28, 2013.
 The “Sharia4” are anti-Western, radical Islamist groups promoting the implementation of Shari`a law. While they do not openly encourage violent forms of Islamist activism among their supporters, they are often linked with radicalization, violent extremism and foreign fighting. There are Sharia4 groups operating at least in Belgium and the Netherlands, where they are linked with foreign fighter mobilizations. See Pieter Van Ostaeyen, “Belgium’s Syria Fighters – An Overview of 2012 and 2013 (II),” Jihadology, January 25, 2014; Samar Batrawi, “The Dutch Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:10 (2013).