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Security police eyeball fighters returning from Syrian conflict

Finland’s intelligence gathering police unit Supo says it’s very worried about Islamic extremists returning to Finland from fighting in Syria. Supo would not comment on which rebel groups the combatants joined, but is trying to put an end to the conflict tourism.

Kapinallistaistelijoita Aleppon kaupungissa 7. tammikuuta
Finland's security police Supo says it's concerned that self-styled jihadists returning from the conflict in Syria could pose a security risk in Finland. Image: LEHTIKUVA / AFP / MOHAMMED WESAM

Supo said that fighters who left to join the ranks of rebel groups in Syria are beginning to return to Finland. The security police unit is closely monitoring travel to the conflict-ridden country and is also trying to deter possible further trips to engage in the civil strife.

The security police speculated that some of the returning fighters could pose a security threat to Finland. However officials have few options to prevent the war trips.

“We have not seen a major increase in the numbers leaving. It has been steady since the beginning. We have some departures that have returned to Finland, only to go back to the area,” said Supo Senior Inspector Tuomas Portaankorva.

Half of travelers join rebel ranks

According to Supo scores of people have left Finland for Syria for different reasons. About half of them aim to participate in some kind of fighting alongside anti-government forces.

Portaankorva said that others target participation in aid efforts such as joining health care or logistical teams. Supo is most concerned about Islamic extremists returning to Finland.

The Senior Inspector said that the main concern is that the activities of Islamic extremists may constitute a security risk. Supo estimated however that the risk of a terror attack in Finland will not necessarily increase at this stage.

“This kind of person, who engages in violent activities or in the operations of violent groups in Syria may bring the agenda of such groups to Finland, or create a network here that has connections with violent activities. That would be extremely worrying from our perspective,” Portaankorva explained.

Supo would not comment on which rebel groups travelers may have joined in Syria, however it said it is trying to put a stop to the war tourism.

“One way is to warn these people that they may be going into areas where they may be in danger, or engage in activities whose nature they may not necessarily understand beforehand. We try to discuss these issues with them if we get wind of their intention to travel to Syria,” Portaankorva outlined.

Few means to stop war tourism

Finnish officials face an uphill battle trying to prevent would-be warriors from heading to Syrian battlefields. They also find it difficult to determine what they intend to do in Syria or what kinds of offences they may have committed there.

According to Portaankorva joining a rebel group defined as a terrorist group is not a crime. However fighters could face charges in Finland for acts of terrorism or war crimes committed in Syria, if sufficient proof of these offences exists.

Esko Repo, head of the Refugee Unit of the Finnish Immigration Service said that the Service could in some cases revoke the residence permit of individuals who have left Finland to wage war, if they have received asylum in Finland on the basis of the need for protection.

So far though, immigration officials have not invoked this provision.

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