Gabriel Sjoblom-Fodor, a researcher specialising in the study of religious community work and countering violent extremism at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE)
Finland and Germany have recently become the first countries in Europe to repatriate women who were married to ISIS fighters, and their children, from Syria. The special representative for the issue of Finnish prisoners in al-Hol camp, Jussi Tanner, stated that the decision was taken to safeguard the rights of Finnish children under state laws, and that it was equally wrong to separate them from their mothers — so mothers were repatriated as well.
The issue of repatriation of Finnish citizens formally affiliated with ISIS has been a hot topic and a sensitive political question in Finland ever since the fall of Baghuz in March 2019. Until this day, no decisions have been reached except for the repatriations made in December of 2020. The issue of how to deal with the prisoners in Syria, as well as domestic jihadists, is still something of an open question, despite some action taken, such as the National Action plan or the Diakonissalaitos initiative.
Originally a Fringe Movement
In reality, the problem is quite complex and multi-layered. In Finland, jihadism or takfirism — terms which in this text will be used interchangeably — was historically considered to be a fringe phenomenon, and likely started with individuals who had been involved in such activities in their countries of origin . This is no wonder given Finland’s modest role in international conflicts and its small and diverse Muslim community.
The first takfirist groups were the Ansar-al Islam and Rawti Shax — small groups consisting mostly of Kurdish and Arab members and sympathizers . Even though these groups existed throughout the 2000s, they remained very marginal. Some attempts to rally for jihadist causes seem to have occurred, but resulted in little interest . However, this changed after the Arab Spring — in both Finland and other Western countries.
Syria Conflict Triggered Muslim Emotions
A key point in understanding the phenomena of extremism in Finland (and elsewhere) is to understand the psychology and drivers behind it. It is important to note how the conflict in Syria triggered emotional and cognitive engagement in a foreign war. The atrocities committed in Syria followed by the declaration of the ISIS “Caliphate” set in motion a transnational political and spiritual ‘awakening’ among segments of various Muslim communities — often ones already struggling with marginalization or alienation from their respective societies. Images of fellow Muslims suffering under Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s crackdown went viral on social media, stirring up the emotions of many Muslims around the world who wanted to help. This sparked the first wave of foreign fighters to Syria. These fighters were not all religiously motivated—some came on humanitarian grounds, joining various opposition groups of varying religious zeal.
The Overzealous Phase
The rise of the “Caliphate”, however, brought about an unprecedented phenomenon. The propaganda, and its use of tactical empathy, highlighted real or imagined grievances among Muslims living in the West — whether it was underemployment, discrimination, racism or other painful experiences. This outreach, along with a sophisticated propaganda campaign, created a cognitive opening and triggered a phase of strong idealism and overzealousness in many Muslims. Swedish researcher Ann-Sofie Roald called it “the love affair stage” , while British researcher Dr. Anthony Baker called it the “Idealist/Overzealous phase”.
This is also the most relevant stage when analyzing extremists. This is the stage where the individual tends to 1) intensify their devotion and 2) acquire an exaggerated sense of self-righteousness with a desire to tackle or confront the ills of society and the world. To quote Roald: “many Muslims spoke about being emotionally obsessed with the new religion. Furthermore, they wanted to practice every little detail of Islamic precepts”. In this phase, the individual has only an abstract understanding of their religion — often learning it out of context via books, social media or lectures . These individuals also tend to be very impressionable, as they are actively trying to learn their new religion. So, when they are fed victimhood stories about Muslims and Islam, they feel compelled to rise to the occasion and carry out their “duty” to defend the religion.
In the case of Finland, radicalized Muslims bought into the idealized notion of utopia in the “Islamic State”. In many instances, this overzealous phase eventually wears off over time as the individual is exposed to real-life situations, or if they live in a Muslim-majority country.
However, if the individual is only immersed in a social circle with others who share similar worldviews, the overzealous phase does not wear off as quickly and a strong ingroup dynamic forms where a small group may feel that they are chosen (or in the case of takfirists, the “only true Muslims” among hypocrites or apostates). These individuals are driven by a sense of destiny and duty. Disassociating from such tight kinships would usually result in social ostracization and could mean losing one’s entire social circle and access to resources, thus increasing the need to remain in such networks. Therefore, many foreigners who traveled to the “Caliphate” could have done so for many reasons: prestige, religious conviction or even peer-pressure.
The Rise of ‘Internet Sheikhs’
In Sweden and Finland, social media played an instrumental role in radicalization. “Internet sheikhs”, both foreign and domestic, took to social media or gave speeches at social gatherings to propagate their views and analysis on current events, according to their strict interpretation of Islam. As many mainstream mosques and imams avoided addressing the issue of ISIS or its ideology, many Muslims turned to the internet for guidance or answers. This is namely how “internet sheikhs” were able espouse takfirist propaganda and recruit followers.
The outsourcing of religious rulings pertaining to the lifestyle and society in Nordic societies was also an exacerbating factor. These scholars usually came from the Middle East and were not familiar with the Nordic culture . As a result, they issued rulings which made it difficult for people to assimilate into their societies. This practice ran counter to traditional Islamic jurisprudence stating that a scholar must understand the conditions under which a questioner lives in before issuing a ruling. These verdicts or advice are then taken as religious truth by followers, who then struggle to implement them in their lives, causing further incongruity or cognitive dissonance as they clash with realities around them, which may result in a pivot towards extremism .
Like in neighboring Sweden, politicized teachings of the religion propagated by Islamist actors — usually with roots in the Middle East — seem to have facilitated the spread of jihadism . This differs from other Muslim currents in the country such as the Tatars, and other mostly Sufi orientations, who have remained apolitical. The introduction of Islamist-interpreted terminology and beliefs among segments of the Muslim community and the dissemination of these views according to their interpretations privately or publicly over the years, anchored certain concepts central to both Islamism and jihadism among laypeople sympathetic to this call, such as concepts of “Caliphate”, Islamic governance, Divine Rule (hakimiyyah) and the deposition of corrupt governments or leaders through jihad.
Weak Opposition to Tafkirist Current
When ISIS rose, it simply picked up the rhetoric used by such actors for years, tapping into such narratives and beliefs already anchored in many Muslims and spreading it to those who showed interest, but had little religious knowledge . In countries such as the UK, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere, such interpretations were generally confronted or faced opposition from other Islamic or Islamist currents which tried, in response, to disseminate credible counter-narratives among Muslims and, as such, lessen the impact of takfirist propaganda.
In Finland, however, these opposing currents — while theologically knowledgeable and credible — were weak and few in number. This is not to say that no attempts were made to challenge takfirists or their ideology, but that they came from traditions outside of what takfirists considered credible actors, such as the Sufis, moderates or others. It has even been said to this author that some congregations were aware of takfirist propaganda and recruitment to violent extremism, but chose not to act for still unknown reasons. Under these circumstances, the spread of takfirism went on relatively unimpeded in relevant circles.
Takfirist currents in Finland experienced the same pitfalls as jihadist and Islamist movements in other Nordic countries, where social or cultural skepticism towards Islamic beliefs or practices became misinterpreted and incorporated into “anti-Islam” narratives . For example, in recent years, the True Finns Party (Perusuomalaiset) — well known for its critique of Islam and Muslims — have rapidly risen in the polls and are increasingly in the political spotlight. It is also important to note that for individuals or groups who self-segregate, live away from mainstream society and have little interaction with ordinary Finns or Westerners, their only access to society is through the media. Therefore, if the media negatively reports on topics relating to Muslims, and gives a platform to commentators who criticize Muslims and their beliefs, it can be interpreted by some Muslims as a true reflection of the actual attitudes in society, which can result in a siege-mentality of feeling cornered with one’s beliefs. The feeling, therefore, is that the only way to live a life according to one’s religious conscience would be to escape. And, in the 2010s, this is exactly what the takfirists did — emigrate to the “Caliphate”.
In recent years, takfirists have been self-isolating and building an underground network. Like in other Nordic countries, networking between takfirists takes place more so in secret — such as at private residences or facilities — rather than in mosques or more public places. This is very likely to continue to be the case. There was a cell in Helsinki with individuals also based in other cities of the country such as Turku and Tampere, centered around the Roihuvuori, and later the Malmi, mosque. The organization Islamin aika (“Era of Islam”, later Helsingin muslimit or “Muslims of Helsinki”) was founded in 2006 to organize Finnish youth and converts and serve their needs and interests . Ideologically, it seems to have been a somewhat diverse organization with various views represented, even though it was regarded as “radical” by outside observers and seems to have had a significant takfirist current in its ranks.
Some members have been said to have gone to Saudi Arabia to study at the Islamic University of Madina, which has been alleged as proof of a Salafist orientation. A person working at the University of Madina told this author that he met a prominent member of Helsingin muslimit studying in Madina. Upon debating with him, the university worker realized the man harbored takfirist beliefs, which he tried to hide since the university had a policy of expelling such students.
In Finland, Helsingin muslimit engaged in dawah (prosyletation) activities and also disseminated translated material by a Swedish Muslim publisher and others. In the Helsinki region, there was also a group of women following a Finnish convert who was somewhat of a leader figure in ISIS female circles, radicalizing a number of women and even matching them up with ISIS husbands in Finland and Syria/Iraq. The promises made to the women were the usual ones repeated by recruiters across western Europe, such as women and children would be safe under ISIS rule and that they would be free to live in accordance with their beliefs. While most of her followers traveled to the “Caliphate”, the leader remained in Finland where she has yet to face any repercussions for her actions. Finns who traveled to Syria/Iraq came from cities such as Turku, Tampere, Oulu and Jyväskylä, albeit in very small numbers. Many of these people were self-radicalized via online propaganda.
Along with the recent returnees, the question of trials and accountability have also been raised and debated in the country. However, due to the lack of evidence and a clear picture of what the individuals were involved in, no such processes are likely to take place. Finnish security services (SUPO) have, however, classified returnees as potential security risks and have advised against repatriation . This advisory points to the fact that the Finnish government understands very little about takfirism and the threat that it poses.
Since there is no more physical “Caliphate” to travel to, sympathizers in Finland, and other Western countries, will now likely remain in their countries, presenting an array of new national security challenges. Takfirist networks — bonded by their belief in the cause — are likely to shield and hide individuals on the run, making it very difficult for authorities to detect them. The threat of lone wolf attacks — carried out by individuals who have self-radicalized or are completely off the radar of state intelligence — is also growing.
Without solid intelligence on these radicalized individuals, it is difficult to predict what the next phase might look like, but polarized politics and continued experiences of discrimination in society continue to be risk factors. As a result, there is a need for politicians and authorities to work to rectify behavior and attitudes that might push individuals towards radicalization. Besides the takfirist threat, the rise of the True Finns Party and other far-right groups alongside the Covid-19 pandemic, are also worrisome developments. Finland is indeed facing challenges that will take serious effort and time to work through.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 Malkkinen & Saarinen. Jihadism in Finland. Publications of the Ministry of the Interior, 2019
: Roald, Ann-Sofie. “New Muslims in the European Context: The Experience of Scandinavian Converts.” Muslim Minorities, Volume: 4 2004. ISBN: 978-90-04-13679-3.
: Baker, Abdul-Haqq. Extremists in our midst – confronting terror, Palgrave Macmillan UK 2011. ISBN 978-0-230-31690-4.
 Olsson, Susanne. “Swedish Puritan Salafism – a hijrah within.” Comparative Islamic Studies, 8(1-2), 71–92. https://doi.org/10.1558/cis.v8i1-2.71
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 Sjöblom-Fodor, Gabriel & Speckhard, Anne. “Exceptionalism at the Extremes – a brief historical overview of Sweden’s ISIS foreign terrorist fighter problem.” CSVE report, 2021.
 Malkkinen & Saarinen. Jihadism in Finland. Publications of the Ministry of the Interior, 2019
 Finnish Security police (Supo) – Terrorist threat assessment (retrieved February 2021) – https://supo.fi/en/terrorist-threat-assessment