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Supo: Large numbers of foreign intelligence staff in Finland; Russia and China particularly active

Returning Islamist foreign fighters may also pose a rising threat in Finland, warns the former security police.

A sign on Supo headquarters in Helsinki's Punavuori district (file photo). Image: Jussi Nukari / Lehtikuva

In an annual report issued on Thursday, the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) says that the number of foreign intelligence agency employees in Finland is large, considering the size of the country. Russia and China are particularly interested in Finland, Supo says in its yearbook.

Last year cyberespionage efforts by state actors were particularly active, but intelligence services still also use more traditional spycraft methods, the agency says. These include gaining sources to personal data and recruiting individuals who can help to influence the political decision-making process and public opinion. Typically intelligence officers are in the country with diplomatic status.

"Diplomatic cover is typical, but not the only method. There are intelligence staff who live in Finland permanently, but also some who just visit," Supo director Antti Pelttari said at the book's publishing event in Helsinki.

From year to year, Supo says, foreign intelligence services are perennially interested in Finland's Nato debate, foreign and security policy, Finland's position on EU sanctions and the security situation in the Baltic Sea region.

Pelttari does not believe that there is or will be any major foreign state efforts to influence next month's parliamentary election.

"Over the past few years we have focused on efforts to influence election meddling and ways to prevent it. We do not believe that the parliamentary election is the target of significant influence from any foreign state. The European Parliament election may be more vulnerable to influencing efforts," he said. The European election is in late May.

Terror threat remains elevated

In Supo's view, the terrorism threat in Finland remained at a heightened level last year, rated as level two on a four-level scale. The most significant threat is from 'lone wolf' individuals or small groups with ties to radical Islamist networks or organisations.

Supo, formerly known as the security police, says it is tracking 370 people as part of its terrorism prevention measures. A growing number of these individuals have either taken part as foreign fighters in armed conflict in Syria or Iraq, or have expressed interest in doing so or received terrorism training. Supo notes that some foreign fighters from Finland have risen to significant positions within the terror group Isis.

According to Supo researcher Pekka Hiltunen, Isis has lost some operational capability along with its loss of territory, but there are still areas where it has solid support. The group's military losses are also triggering a significant rise in foreign fighters' desire to return home.

These people may pose a threat as they return to Finland, Hiltunen warned.

"A desire to return is not the same as abandoning radical ideology. Some may be forced to return as it is no longer possible to operate in the same way in that region," he observed.