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Finnish intelligence warns foreign powers targeting young politicians

The Finnish Security Intelligence Service Supo says foreign powers are intensifying efforts to recruit young Finnish politicians and businesspeople before they reach positions of power. In its 2016 report the agency says that the terror threat has also increased as the flow of jihadi fighters to and from conflict zones stepped up.

Supo Director Antti Pelttari Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva

Finland's Security Intelligence Service, better known as Supo, says in its annual report that Finnish politicians and decision-makers are under pressure from foreign intelligence agencies at ever-younger ages.

Supo only mentions Russia once in the report, at the start, where it says that "especially Russia sees Finland as an interesting intelligence target but also other major powers find our country important".

The agency says young people in Finland in particular are the target of foreign intelligence recruiters, especially those that are expected to rise to prominent positions in commerce and politics.

"This is an example of state-run intelligence activity having long-term horizons," according to the Supo report. Supo noted that it had "been forced to interfere" in the activities of certain intelligence agencies.

In a step-by-step guide to recruiting agents, Supo explains that intelligence officers first carry out a thorough analysis of their needs, after which they select a target with access to information. Next, that person is assessed according to their strengths and weaknesses to determine the likelihood that he or she could be persuaded to work for the benefit of a foreign state. When this stage is completed, they establish contact and build up a friendship, leading to the last phase: recruitment.

Pelttari would not comment on how many cases of this kind there have been in recent years.

"I won't take a position on the details, but it is an on-going operation on the part of intelligence services of foreign governments," he told Yle.

Cyber espionage a major concern

There have been no espionage convictions in Finland for years, nor have any spying investigations been conducted - as far as anyone knows.

Supo's 2016 Yearbook also devotes a chapter to the spread of cyber espionage, noting a "sharp increase" in visible activity against Finland's foreign and security policy, comprehensive espionage priorities and the abuse of Finnish data networks in espionage targeting third countries. The agency says the most observations were linked to the APT28/Sofacy attack, which made no effort to cover its tracks. They say more "key people" are also at risk in Finland of illegitimate intelligence gathering.

The leading newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (siirryt toiseen palveluun) reported more on the Sofacy connection, saying that the report was the first time the Finnish Security Intelligence Service had of its own initiative spoke of Russian cyber espionage directed at Finland.

Sofacy also operates under the names Fancy Bear and Strontium, and the APT28 software Supo names is the same that was found in the US Democratic Party networks in May 2016 ahead of the presidential elections. The emails and voicemails that were retrieved – most of which dealt with the Clinton campaign – were then forwarded to Wikileaks.

Systematic cyber espionage via APT28 has been linked by US intelligence to Russian interference in the elections in the US, along with the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and additional sanctions on Russian intelligence services, says HS.

Terrorist attacks and jihadist fighters

Although there have been no terrorist attacks in Finland, Supo says structures supporting terrorist activity have emerged in Finland, and breaking the links to young potential movers and shakers is one way to prevent this.

The agency reports that over 80 adults and dozens of children travelled to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq in 2016, and this problem too is expected to grow, as jihadist fighters from Finland have given the radical Islamists a better knowledge of Finland. 

A textbook example

The tabloid Iltalehti (siirryt toiseen palveluun) reports on Friday about one specific incident of targeting, as young Finns Party firebrand Sebastian Tynkkynen responded to a Suomen Kuvalehti story in which he said he was "very aggressively pursued" by Russian intelligence.

He clarified for the tabloid that he never specifically said that the foreign country applying the pressure was Russia, and asked the SK reporter Pekka Ervasti to correct his Thursday story accordingly.

"When I saw the story, I asked that the error be corrected before it was published, but he refused to fix it. I don't know why; perhaps he had such a strong preconceived notion about what country it could be. It feels wrong that he put the words in my mouth," Tynkkynen said.

A former Finns Party youth branch chair, Tynkkynen told SK that he attended an Arctic camp organised by Russia a few years ago.

"We were in Tver [northwest of Moscow], and I was the only participant from Finland. There were plenty of others from Sweden, Norway, the US and Canada. We discussed topics like the future of the Arctic Sea, and the pros and cons of oil drilling in the region," he said.

He would not confirm to Iltalehti if his trip to Russia was connected to the supposed foreign connections he discussed with Supo. He was tight-lipped about the Supo encounter in general, but praised Finland's intelligence agency for the work it does.

"I'm worried about how weak Supo's operational resources are in light of what they could be doing, especially when we know that there have been attempts to influence Finland's youth politics. Supo has done extraordinarily good work for the amount of resources it has," Tynkkynen told the tabloid.