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Is Finland looking to repatriate ‘terrorists’? 5 relevant questions about the security issues around Finns held at al-Hol

Finnish citizens in Syria pose a security risk that is not removed by leaving them in a prison camp.

Kvinnor stiger ombord på en buss i al-Hol-lägret i Syrien.
There are around ten Finnish women at al-Hol. Image: Ahmed Mardnli / EPA

Finnish women should not be repatriated from the camp, because they are a security risk. That’s the reasoning of those opposed to bringing back Finnish citizens in the al-Hol camp in northern Syria, which holds refugees from the war in Syria who lived under Isis rule.

There are thought to be roughly 30 Finnish children and around ten Finnish women at the camp, with media stories about the Finns prompting an intense political debate in Finland.

On Saturday Yle reached six of the women by text message, and found that five wanted to return to Finland and one was keen to stay in the hope that a new caliphate was born.

The government has not yet made a decision on the issue, with Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto facing criticism from opposition parties and in the media after documents outlining possible plans to evacuate Finns were leaked.

On Saturday President Sauli Niinistö told listeners on a call-in show on Yle’s Radio 1 that he hoped for a political decision on the issue early next week.

Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen had a similar line on the matter during his Ykkösaamu interview on TV1, saying that the most important thing was to assist the children held in the camp. The leader of Kaikkonen's Centre Party, Finance Minister Katri Kulmuni, was last week forced to delete an Instagram poll on the issue after criticism from human rights groups.

At present the opposition parties and the Centre Party, which is in government, oppose an operation to repatriate adults. But what is at stake?

What kind of risk is posed by these individuals? We list five of the main points in the discussion about bringing them to Finland.

1. For now we don’t know what the Finns in the camp may be accused of

The opposition Finns Party says the women in the camp are operating as if they are ‘terrorists’.

It is clear that all of the 11,000 non-Syrians at al-Hol are not a completely innocent group. The vast majority of them are believed to be family members of Isis fighters.

The wives of Isis fighters have had an active role in the organisation. They have served as recruiters and as producers of propaganda. Their children have also been given roles in perpetrating violence at very young ages, with some even participating in executions.

“That these people are women does not make the question any less relevant to Finnish security,” says Juha Saarinen, who researches jihadism.

The exact role played by Finnish women in the camp remains unclear. No criminal investigations have begun, so we do not know what these individuals may have done.

In practice, Finnish authorities can only understand what they have done when they get a chance to interview them.

2. The risk is real

Finland’s Security Intelligence Police (Supo) regards the Finns at al-Hol as a clear security risk.

According to Supo people who return from al-Hol are likely to continue terror-related activities, and network among themselves and with jihadists who may already be in Finland.

"The terror threat to Finland will probably increase if people who were with Isis return from conflict zones," says Supo’s communications chief Minna Passi.

Supo did not go into details about how they came to that assessment.

The concern is not just that they might engage in terrorist activities, according to Saarinen, but also that they might inspire others to commit acts of terror.

"They may have paramilitary training and contact with armed groups," says Saarinen. "They can spread that knowhow, and because they have already fought in the ranks of jihadists, their credibility and charisma is elevated as a result of those experiences."

3. The risk would be limited, and it isn’t new

Thousands of fighters have already returned to Europe from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq. That group includes people who have committed acts of terror after they returned.

For example the group behind the terror attacks in Brussels in 2016 included several returnees.

Up to now foreign fighters have not been found to be more likely to perpetrate attacks, according to terrorism researcher Leena Malkki of the University of Helsinki.

"It’s more those who would have liked to go (to fight) but didn’t manage to get there," says Malkki.

At present Supo’s list of people under surveillance as part of anti-terror efforts includes 390 names.

If the women at al-Hol are added to the list, it would rise to 400. The returnees are not, therefore, an unknown quantity, says Malkki.

"We are talking about ten people and we know who they are. They should not be a new challenge from a terror prevention perspective."

A bigger worry is people who may be at risk of radicalisation in prison, according to Malkki.

For example Mehdi Nemmouche, the French-Algerian behind the 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, had travelled to Syria and joined a radical Islamist group there. According to the police, however, his radicalisation happened in french prisons.

More than 20 people have returned to Finland from the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq. They are not yet known to be suspected of any crimes.

"There are those kinds of returnees that have settled in here and live a pretty normal life," says the Interior Ministry’s Head of Development Tarja Mankkinen.

Many of those who left for Syria in the early stages of the war were disappointed by their experiences and returned.

At al-Hol, however, there are people who wanted to remain in the conflict zone for longer periods. That could mean that at least some of them are more radicalised than those who returned earlier.

4. The risk doesn’t disappear if they’re left in Syria

Even if the Finnish government decided that adults would not receive assistance in returning to Finland, the risk they might pose would not disappear.

"Just as bringing them to Finland entails risk, leaving them there does too," says Saarinen.

The Finnish women at al-Hol have Finnish citizenship and therefore the right to return if they can get to the country. Even if Finland did not repatriate them now, they could come back anyway, perhaps years from now.

"Is it more sensible to bring people to Finland in a controlled and managed way and put them straight into some kind of process, or to wait until they return after a shorter or longer period on their own or in small groups," ponders Tarja Mankkinen.

A political repatriation decision is difficult however, according to Malkki. Those who decide to bring the women to Finland will bear responsibility for that decision.

"If nothing is done, the risks will become clear only later," says Malkki. "When the time periods are longer, political responsibility is not clear in the same way."

5. Is the goal security in general or just security for people living in Finland?

If the people in the camp are not assisted to return, it is of course possible that they will never come back to Finland.

That could reduce their threat to Finnish citizens. But it could increase the threat of terrorism elsewhere in the world. The people at al-Hol could join Isis, or they could form an entirely new terrorist group.

"There is in Finland an old-fashioned viewpoint that Finland is threatened by things that are in Finland. But this phenomenon is not geographically restricted. Mobile terrorists have formed an international threat," says Malkki.

She also stresses that terror activity can also be directed at Finland even though the terrorists are located elsewhere. Supo’s watch list already includes people who are not located in Finland.

Isis-style groups are an international phenomenon, and therefore international co-operation is required to combat them, says Malkki.

"If Finland wants to meet its international responsibilities,it would probably be most simple to repatriate its own citizens from the camp. The only chance to do that is now, while they are still there."

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