The many faces of violent extremism in Finland

Whereas violent attacks motivated by religious terrorism have over and over again targeted several European countries in the recent years, Finland has factually remained safe and secure. However, in a news article on national security that was published shortly after the most recent attack on civilians in Stockholm, a representative of Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO) noted that factors that used to safeguard Finland are breaking down.

The change can be observed affecting the general public. A recent survey conducted by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE says that a fear of a danger of violence and terrorism has increased among Finnish people, and that this change in attitudes is particular since in early April a radicalized asylum seeker crashed a truck into the entrance of a shopping mall in Sweden’s capital, a heinous act that was very similar to previous attacks in Nice and Berlin in 2016. According to the survey’s results, Finnish perception of potential threats to the country due to growing strength of global extremist movements and due to terror have bypassed the threat image of economic downturn when compared to perceptions before the Stockholm attack.

Finnish media’s recent reports on jihadist networks in the country and the on-going discussions on the central mosque project’s possible effects in spreading radical Islamic preaching have certainly not put the public discourse at ease in terms of Islam’s role in the country. In their recent article for the online magazine of international politics The Ulkopolitist researchers Otso Iho and Juha Saarinen analyzed the nature of ISIS propaganda that targets Finnish speaking audiences. Their research shows that up until January 2017 one of the blogs operated by ISIS had translated into Finnish 15 publications that mainly focus on theological issues. The nation-wide newspaper Helsingin Sanomat had as well followed a Finnish Telegram-channel used by ISIS followers, and reported in a news article how the Finnish propaganda content found on the channel incites to attacks against civilians, “even if they were just on their way home from a walk”. The image of homegrown terrorism is strengthened by the analysis of Iho and Saarinen about the high quality of the translations; it indicates that the writers are either native Finnish speakers or individuals who have grown up in the country and learned the language and possibly have also received higher education.

However, public discourse on terrorism is sometimes misleading and causes essentialized images, as has been argued by Leena Malkki, who is a researcher of terrorism at the University of Helsinki. According to Malkki, coffee table talk is at times very generalizing, as in the discourse anyone who has left to Syria or Iraq can be stigmatized as a terrorist. Similarly, Tarja Mankkinen from the Ministry of the Interior commented on a news article on returning foreign fighters that not all of the individuals coming back to Finland bring with them jihadist views and thus pose a threat as they might have well abandoned the ideology.  Therefore, it can be said, that in order to maintain a rather balanced and unloaded public discourse, media’s careful use of terms related to terrorism is crucial.

Coming back to the survey on security perceptions, it has to be mentioned, that the results on threat images of extremist movements cannot be taken as a clear-cut indication of increasing fear towards jihadist violence. Namely, the survey did not specify the type of the extremist movements, and thus other sorts of extremist violence have to be considered in the current socio-political context of the country as well. In the recent years, especially the Finnish chapter of the Nordic Resistance Movement has been in the news headlines for their violent behavior. Also security officials have noticed the increase of such Neo-Nazi violence, as can be inspected from the 2016 Yearbook of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO) and the situation report of the Ministry of the Interior (February 2017). While the report states that the presence of so called “new right-wing extremism” with Muslims and Islam as a particular target is still minimal in Finland, the right-wing extremist movements’ violence against individuals opposing their ideology is a concrete threat according to the Ministry of the Interior. Whereas Finland has not yet witnessed any violent attack by jihadists, members in the Finnish chapter of the Nordic Resistance Movement have shown violent behavior towards civilians and in September 2016, a young man died after having been physically assaulted by a participant in the movement’s demonstration.

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  1. Situation report of the Ministry of the Interior (in Finnish), permanent address

2. 2016 Yearbook of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (in English),