‘Terrorist Intent’: How Finland’s Justice System Struggles to Tackle Terrorism Offenders

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 14

Finnish police patrol Turku Market Square (Source: yle.fi)

On August 18, 2017, 22-year-old Abderrahman Bouanane, a Moroccan citizen, attacked pedestrians in the center of Turku, Finland’s third largest city, armed with a knife. The incident was Finland’s first jihadist-inspired terrorist attack, and it might have received more coverage internationally had it not been overshadowed by the Madrid terrorist attack the previous day.

The attack lasted three minutes, during which time Bouanane covered a distance of 465 meters, stabbing innocent pedestrians. A police patrol was able to stop him, shooting him in the thigh as he held a female hostage in front of him (MTV, April 26). While Bouanane survived—much to his disappointment—he left two female victims dead, and wounded eight other people. He was charged with two counts of murder and eight accounts of attempted murder with terrorist intent. The subsequent court case has revealed interesting details of Bouanane’s radicalization, but also highlighted some of the deficiencies within Finland’s judicial system when it comes to tackling jihadist terrorism cases.

Individuals of Interest

Bouanane arrived in Finland as an asylum seeker at the beginning of 2016 (YLE, August 21 2017; Turun Sanomat, June 17). Instrumental to his radicalization seems to have been a 23-year-old Uzbek-Finn named Zuhriddin Rashidov, who he met at a local mosque. Rashidov showed him Islamic State (IS) propaganda material and introduced him to IS-focused chatrooms on Telegram (Iltasanomat, April 22; Turun Sanomat, June 17).

Bouanane had contemplated travelling to France to commit his attack there, but Rashidov appears to have convinced him that Finland was “as guilty as France” because, he said, it had decided to send solders to Syria “to fight the caliphate” (Helsingin Sanomat, April 18). In fact, there are no Finnish troops in Syria, but since 2015 Finnish soldiers have been training Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Security forces in Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.

During the court hearings, Bouanane insisted that nobody had been aware of his attack plan beforehand and that he had acted alone. Rashidov seems to have left Finland sometime before the attack, travelling to Dubai. It is thought he continued on from there to “a conflict zone” and has joined IS either in Iraq/Syria or in Afghanistan (Aamulehti, September 1, 2017; MTV April 24; Turun Sanomat, June 17).

Until Bouanane’s attack, the first to hit Finland, many Finns had considered jihadist terrorism to be a distance threat, albeit one that had geographically been moving slowly closer. In a subsequent Europe-wide survey, Finns sided with the French in demanding that counter-terrorism be the main theme of the upcoming European Parliament elections (YLE, May 23). While the public perception of the threat has changed, the Finnish security authorities had in fact been raising the alarm for some time. Bouanane’s attack—and Rashidov’s role as his radicalizer—should be seen within the framework of a growing jihadist caseload for the Finnish authorities. That caseload—consisting of radicalized individuals, individuals with direct contacts to terrorist organizations and/or with first-hand experience in fighting in the ranks of terrorist organizations—has grown rapidly in the last few years.

Finland was not spared the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighter (FTF) mobilization that took place across Europe between 2011 and 2015. The Finnish security and intelligence service (known as SUPO) says it has identified more than 80 suspected FTFs who travelled to Syria/Iraq from Finland, and in January, it assessed that the true number could be 10-20 percent larger (YLE, January 23). A few days later, Antti Pelttari, the director of SUPO, stated his agency was in watching more than 370 persons, all categorized as radical Islamist “target individuals.” [1] In comparison to the year 2012, the number of these so-called target individuals has grown by 80 percent, an increase that appears due mainly to the mobilizing effect of the conflict in Syria-Iraq (Iltasanomat, August 27, 2017). Besides the target individuals SUPO has identified, an additional 500 asylum seekers had been assessed to have a increased “risk of violence” (Turun Sanomat, January 30).

As a result of the growth of the Finnish jihadist scene, SUPO has upgraded its terrorism threat assessment on several occasions since 2015. In January, SUPO’s Pelttari reaffirmed that the threat of terrorism to Finland was now higher than at any time in the past (YLE, January 27). A few days later, the Finnish interior ministry stated that the EU-wide refugee crisis, which has brought at least 32,000 asylum seekers to Finland, had increased the terrorism threat in the country.

Heightened Risk From Asylum Seekers

Besides Bouanane’s attack, the hybrid nature of the risk Finland is facing was shown by three other cases, all involving asylum seekers. In March 2016, a 29-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker was convicted on war crime charges for acts he committed as a fighter in a Shia militia in Iraq. The asylum seeker had uploaded pictures of himself posing with a severed head, allegedly belonging to an IS-fighter. The man was given a 16-month suspended jail sentence (Keskisuomalainen, March 18, 2016). A week later, another Iraqi asylum seeker, a 23-year-old former Iraqi soldier, was convicted for posing in a similar picture and given a 15-month suspended sentence (MTV, March 30, 2016).

On December 8, 2015, Finnish police arrested Iraqi twin brothers who had come to Finland as asylum seekers. The authorities suspected the pair of participating in the 2014 Camp Speicker massacre in Iraq, where as many as 1,700 Iraqi army cadets were murdered by IS fighters. The brothers were held on “probable grounds” for committing 11 terrorist-related killings during the massacre. As evidence, the prosecution had video footage of the massacre and eyewitness testimonies conducted in Iraq (YLE, December 10, 2015).

All the material appeared to confirm the participation of at least one brother in the killings, however the Tampere district court acquitted both of the accused on May 24, 2017, claiming insufficient evidence. According to the ruling, the evidence presented was inadequate to prove guilt. There were additional problems with identification and the court also saw it as problematic that witnesses gave their testimonies anonymously via video-link from Iraq, hampering the defense (YLE, May 24, 2017). The Finnish justice system has struggled with terrorism offences, a new legal territory for Finnish prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers alike. The situation has lead Finland to be, until June 2018, one of the few countries in Europe without any successful prosecution of terrorism offences.

Failing Judicial Response

On June 15, the Turku district court handed down a life sentence to Bouanane (Turun Käräjäoikeus, June 15). His imprisonment was considered an indication that the Finnish justice system was competent and an updated penal code was working effectively (Kaleva, June 15). However, it is worth noting that prosecuting Bouanane was relatively easy because of the concrete form of his crime and as a result of his own behavior and statements during the trial, which hampered the efforts of his lawyer.

The evidence against Bouanane was persuasive—his confession to have committed the murders, claims that he acted as a “Daesh soldier” and evidence that he produced a video claiming responsibility and posted it to an IS Telegram chat rooms prior to the attack. Nonetheless, his lawyer was still able to question whether the motive behind the attack had been “terroristic” in nature and query whether Bouanane’s actions were really able to threaten the Finnish state—a legal requirement that the prosecution claimed stemmed from a translation error and which should, they said, be more properly interpreted as “society” (Helsingin Sanomat, April 8; MTV, May 15). According to his lawyer, since Bouanane was not intending to “terrorize” the Finnish population, the killings were therefore not “terroristic” in nature (YLE, June 19; Turun Sanomat, June 19).   The Turku district court disagreed, taking the view that Bouanane’s attack was terrorism, but the verdict will now be tested at the appeals court.

While it remains to be seen (probably sometime next year) whether Bouanane’s appeal will be successful, in the case of more abstract terrorism crimes—such as terrorism financing or participation in the activities of a terrorist group abroad—the Finnish judicial response has been weak. As well as the case of the brothers suspected of involvement in the Camp Speicher massacre, two other Finnish counter-terrorism prosecutions have ended with the suspects being acquitted.

In 2011, four Somalis from the diaspora community in Finland were prosecuted for suspected terrorism financing. They were accused of sending thousands of euros to the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group al-Shabaab. The main perpetrator was additionally suspected of recruiting his brother to join al-Shabaab, and for planning the kidnap of his nephews, in a chilling form of forced recruitment, in order to take them to an al-Shabaab training camp in Somalia. The Helsinki district court—in what was Finland’s first terrorism prosecution—sentenced all four to suspended jail sentences in December 2014. All four appealed the verdict and farcically the alleged ringleader, named only as “O” in media reports, did not stay to see the result of his appeal but fled with his Finnish convert-wife and their children to Syria, where the family settled in the IS-controlled territory (YLE, March 4, 2017).

The court nevertheless proceeded to hear the appeals of all sentenced individuals, and in March 2016 overruled the district court sentences, taking the view that while the accused had most likely supported al-Shabaab, the prosecution had not shown to which specific terrorist offences in Somalia the funding had contributed, a legal requirement in place at the time the crimes had taken place (Helsingin Hovioikeus, March 23, 2016). Meanwhile in Syria, O’s wife, using the pseudonym Umm Khalid al-Finlandiyyah, threatened Finland in an interview published a few months later in the IS-run Dabiq magazine, and eulogized her son, who had reportedly died as a “martyr” for the caliphate (MTV, July 31, 2016).

In a court hearing in January, three Finnish men who travelled to Syria in 2013 and joined the jihadist group Katibat al-Muhajireen, were acquitted of terrorism-charges. Finnish security officials had arrested the three after their return to Finland. The prosecution presented pictures of the men in Syria, armed and taking part in a meeting of Katibat al-Muhajireen fighters. A fourth member died later in the ranks of IS, while a fifth member remains in Syria. In Finland’s first court process against returning FTF-fighters from Syria, all three accused were acquitted as the three judges ruled that the intention to commit and the offences themselves in Syria had not been proven (YLE, January 24). The prosecutors’ office decided not to challenge the ruling (YLE, January 31).

In the light of above mentioned court verdicts, Pelttari, the SUPO director, commented diplomatically that in Finland “criminal accountability for terrorism offences is weaker … in comparison to other Nordic countries” (YLE, January 27). Indeed, Finland’s western neighbors Sweden and Norway have prosecuted successfully several terrorism cases, as has Estonia across the Baltic Sea. (Postimees, January 13, 2016).

The Need for Deterrence

Discussions on the difficulties of securing convictions in terrorism prosecutions and its wider ramifications for Finland’s internal security have been mute. Instead, the increase in the threat level and in the number of “target individuals” has resulted in an effort to study the level of radicalization in Finland. In January, the interior ministry announced its plans to commission a study on radical Islamism in Finland, including on domestic networks and their connections abroad. A separate study will focus on radical Islamist propaganda consumption in Finland (Turun Sanomat, January 30).

Curiously, although Bouanane will be the first individual to see out his sentence for terrorism crimes in a Finnish prison, Finland has not been spared prison radicalization. The Finnish Department of Corrections started in a 2016 study of prison radicalization in Finland that it had identified 84 individuals who had shown signs of religious radicalization, spanning from physical assaults against other inmates carried out with a suspected religious motive, to celebrating terrorist attacks in Europe (Rikosseuraamuslaitos, September 8, 2017). The study, which was only made public in February, concluded pessimistically that violent extremism had “reached Finnish prisons” and “will remain” a challenge going forward (Rikosseuraamuslaitos, February 28).

If Bouanane’s behavior during his months-long stay in prison is an indicator for things to come, this assessment has already been proven correct. A few nights after his first court appearance, Bouanane rioted in his prison cell, tried to attack a prison guard and had to be subdued with the help of a taser gun (MTV, April 18).

Finland’s response to the increased threat from terrorism has been two-fold. In 2016, the interior ministry launched an updated national action plan against radicalization that aims at educate authorities to detect the signs of radicalization, and report and intervene early to stop the spiral of radicalization. The focus of the plan has been on youth and “at-risk” groups, with the latest progress report focusing on women and children (Sisäministeriö, April 16). Secondly, Finland has been increasing its intelligence capacities in the field of counter-terrorism by modestly increasing staff levels at SUPO (YLE, January 27).

More significantly, a new intelligence law is being debated in the Finnish parliament. If adopted, the law would give SUPO and its Finnish military equivalent broader intelligence gathering powers (Helsingin Sanomat, May 22). The Turku-attack has helped focus minds in this regard.

These extra measures do not, however, address the fundamental problem Finland is facing with rising number of “target individuals” and a justice system where the state prosecutors have, until Bouanane, been unable to secure convictions for terrorism offences. For its part, the State Prosecutors’ Office has started training five of its prosecutors in counter-terrorism law, including study trips to observe their counterparts abroad (YLE, October 17, 2017).

With its current track record of failures, Finland risks being seen as a benign territory for jihadists, unintentionally attracting former IS and al-Qaeda fighters. While efforts focusing on preventing and countering violent radicalization are needed for rehabilitating already radicalized individuals and for addressing the potential next generation, a credible deterrence in the form of law enforcement is also needed.

While SUPO has been able to identify, and the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to investigate several terrorism suspects, the failure to secure convictions has contributed to an image of the Finnish justice system as struggling to address terrorism-related crimes. Without a functioning system to sanction terrorist offenders, an important part from a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy is missing.



[1] SUPO defines “target individuals” as those who may “have links to terrorist organizations, receive training or train others with a terrorist purpose, spread terrorist organizations’ propaganda and try to recruit new individuals for terrorist activity, finance terrorist networks or raise finance for them, or participate in terrorist activity.”