Police overhaul tip system after failure to follow up Turku stabbing lead

Police were tipped off about the radicalised Turku stabber before his attack one year ago, but did not follow up the lead. The system has since been revamped.

Flowers at the scene of the Turku attack on 21 August 2017. Image: Lassi Lähteenmäki / Yle

One year ago on 18 August 2017, a 23-year-old man from Morocco who had come to Finland as an asylum seeker attacked several people in the southwest city of Turku with a knife.

The District Court of South-West Finland ruled in June 2018 that the attack was the first extremism-inspired terrorist attack in Finland, and the assailant was sentenced to a life sentence for two counts of murder with terrorist intent and eight counts of attempted murder with terrorist intent.

After the attack, it was revealed that the Southwest Finland Police Department had received a tip from staff at the asylum seeker reception centre where the attacker lived, but had not followed up on the lead.

Then-Interior Minister Paula Risikko demanded a full investigation into the police process of following up on leads. The probe found that the officials had performed their duties according to the guidelines that were in place at the time, and no one was sanctioned for dereliction of duty. Even so, the system was changed considerably. The following examples show how.

Procedure before the stabbings

Early in 2017, Pansio reception centre personnel reported to the Southwest Finland Police Department that a resident, Abderrahman Bouanane, had threatened to kill another asylum seeker there three times.

The report said Bouanane also spoke of watching ISIS videos online and joining the terrorist organisation. It mentioned that the other residents of the centre had begun to avoid Bouanane because he accused them of "fraternising with infidels". Many felt that he had become radicalised. The report also indicated that the Pansio centre residents suspected Bouanane was in Finland under a false name, and that he was suspected of having sold drugs during his time in Italy.

The Southwest Finland Police Department forwarded the tip on to Finland's main authority for dealing with counter-terrorism, the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo), without investigating the lead at the local level.

Supo then followed up on the tip by looking for a mention of Bouanane in their official register. No matches were found. It was later revealed that Bouanane had entered Finland with a false identity. The tip and the personal data that Supo had at the time was entered into the database, and an action plan was drawn up. Because there was only one tip, a decision was made not to explore the matter further. As no more tips or leads were submitted, Supo moved on to surveillance of other targeted individuals that were considered to pose a greater threat.

New 2018 guidelines

If local police receive a tip about a person who is seen to be radicalised, the local department's crime data analysis service begins to process it. The analysis service determines whether the tip is something that should be taken seriously.

Observing a "low threshold", the local police then inform the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and Supo about the lead, and compare the data with information from other local police units and authorities in Finland.

Still at the local level, the police then ascertain whether the tip is supported by other suspicious activities, such as a prior criminal background, social media messages or threats. If the lone tip is corroborated by supporting evidence, the local police begin to investigate the situation further, with the help of the other Finnish authorities. In cases that are judged to pose a significant threat, a preliminary investigation is launched.

30,000 tips a year

Three organisations work together in Finland to keep the country safe: the police, the special police unit of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), which specialises in the prevention of serious and organised crime, and the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo), which specialises in counter-terrorism. At the moment, Supo is actively tracking 370 "counter-terrorism target individuals".

Finnish police receive about 30,000 tips about suspicious behaviour each year, most of which are dismissed as unfounded. On a national level, the police are keeping their eyes on over 1,000 people that are feared to be capable of "terrorist acts, school shootings or suicide missions". The majority of the people on this police list are people who were born in Finland.

Even with the new guidelines for following up on tips, Finland's roughly 7,200 police officers cannot monitor the dealings of targeted individuals round-the-clock. Risto Lammi from the Ministry of Interior says it can offer no promises that every bit of information that comes the police's way will be processed, but believes that the guideline reform has increased the probability that tips will be investigated.

Updated legislation in the pipeline

The police, NBI and Supo have also received more resources to improve their procedure for following up on tips. For example, 60 new civil servants were recruited to join Supo in early 2018 expressly for this purpose.

After the Turku attack last year, political leaders quickly called for changes to Finland's security and intelligence laws. Draft laws to expand intelligence seeking capabilities will be heard in the Finnish Parliament this autumn, and if the reform is approved, it would give Finland's authorities the right to use surveillance techniques without first establishing the intent to commit a crime, for example.

Reforms to Finland's laws on terrorism are also on the Parliament's schedule. Among other things, the changes would make the intent to commit a terrorist act a crime.

Changes to Finland's laws on personal data may also be on the way yet this year, as a bill to improve the police force's ability to access people's personal data and by extension, intelligence readiness, is also on the parliamentary agenda.