by Jonas Wendell and Charles Jarvis
During the Islamic State’s reign in Syria and Iraq, thousands of foreign volunteers flocked to their ranks, answering the organization’s calls to jihad, eager to help establish their caliphate. Many of these came from throughout the Arab world and from the rest of the Islamic world, however, a lot of them also joined from western countries.
Contrary to what one might expect, a considerable number of volunteers had no prior connection to a predominantly Muslim region, nor had grown up with Islam as their religion. While many western ISIS travellers went to join their families in Syria or had ties to organizers in Europe, these volunteers needed to find connections some other way.
What then motivates people with backgrounds like these to leave behind their life at home in a western country in favour of the Islamic State? How did they reach this point and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it?
In hopes of answering these questions, this article explores in detail the early life and radicalization process of a Finnish ISIS fighter, Niko Sahlman, also known by his alias “ISIS-Joni”, given to him by the Finnish media. It seeks to explore the possible reasons for his travel to Syria and to speculate what might have become of him. The material for this article has been acquired from his visible social media presence he upheld throughout his adolescent years.
Niko, nom de guerre Abu Ibrahim al-Finlandi
While Finland had a large number of ISIS volunteers in proportion to its population, Niko stands out from most foreign volunteers for several reasons:
1) Niko was a Muslim who converted in his teenage years without any known contact to a local Islamic community, and the process of his radicalization seemingly took place online in its entirety. He had grown up as a Lutheran Christian who later turned to Atheism, before eventually being introduced to Islam by his best friend Mārtiņš Grīnbergs, who would later travel to Syria with Niko.
2) It appears that neither Niko nor Mārtiņš were groomed by an ISIS recruiter at any stage, suggesting that the two essentially self-radicalised each other. While Niko had been following the organization since the end of 2013, it is unknown if he engaged with it in any manner outside of Twitter and other online media platforms before eventually traveling to Syria.
3) The rate at which the two went from relatively peaceful Muslims into ISIS supporters and eventually fighters is staggering, as the transition took mere months despite a lack of personalized recruitment. Therefore, it can be assumed that the decision to join the ranks of the Islamic State was a spontaneous one and was likely made right after the organization declared itself a caliphate in mid-2014.
Before traveling to Syria, Niko lived in a small town in Eastern Finland. He barely had any friends, both online and in real life. He also had social difficulties, evident from his lack of friends and self-admitted trouble with approaching new people, stating that he always relied on “being forced to do it when it comes to socializing”. In one post detailing his mental issues, he admits that he suffered from some form of suicidal depression, going on to state that he “would have probably committed suicide already” if it were not disallowed in Islam. Niko also states that he had spent 9 years in therapy for social issues, and combined with his other posts, it is fair to assume that he had problems related to either social anxiety or depression.
Niko was greatly interested in history and computer strategy games, and much of his early online presence was on online forums dedicated to these interests. The most important of these forums would be a website called Total War Center, an online discussion forum dedicated to the Total War series which depicts both ancient and medieval history in Europe and the Middle East. Oddly enough, it would be through this forum that he would eventually begin his journey into militant Islam, when in late April of 2012, he would end up crossing paths with Mārtiņš for the first time on the site. The two quickly became friends due to their shared interest in conspiracy theories, Hasbro’s My Little Pony, history, and videogames.
The two also shared similar backgrounds: both had few, if any real life social contacts, and they both suffered from some degree of suicidal depression. Their friendship would grow to be extremely strong, to the point where they would eventually swear an oath to stay friends forever, as told by the Norwegian newspaper Adresseavisen who allegedly had access to Niko’s and Mārtiņš’ private messages.
Going through his profiles on videogame communities, he can be seen posting memes explaining different conspiracy theories, such as 9/11 truthism, Rothschild conspiracies, and even theories about the sinking of the Titanic. Also present are anti-interventionist posts that call out “western hypocrisy” and suggest that Israel is responsible for American intervention in the Middle East. In mid-2013, he writes and shares posts supportive of Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi against western intervention. However, looking at his posts on the same platform in early 2014 reveals that this sentiment had faded and were instead replaced by posts critical of Assad, anti-Alawite comments and anti-Shia memes. His criticism of western military intervention however persists, and his other posts include media supportive of Sunni Jihadist militants.
Conversion and Radicalization
Niko’s path to conversion and subsequent radicalisation would be put to motion sometime in 2012, when his online friend Mārtiņš converted to Islam and introduced the religion to Niko. Later, in early 2013, Niko began to openly identify himself as a Muslim and bought a Quran alongside Mārtiņš. It can be assumed that they both wanted to study the religion together at this point. They joined Ummah.com – an online discussion forum for Muslims – at the same time in order to participate in the online community and learn from other Muslims how to practice their religion better.
He had held his conversion a secret from his parents, practicing prayer in secret from them. Niko’s mother was concerned he had gone crazy and was relieved when he finally came out as a Muslim in late 2013, as that explained to her why he had been behaving so strangely. Niko’s father, upon learning this made a snarky comment about Niko being a jihadist. Niko’s mother accepted her son’s conversion, although she expressed concern about some of his habits, such as fasting for Ramadan.
In Finland, military service is mandatory for all fit adult males. Niko was conscripted at the age of 19 and served nine months as a medic in a support company in the Finnish army. He described his time as a conscript as hard and expressed his dissatisfaction towards the experience multiple times online, because he felt it prevented him from practicing Islam properly. He also had issues maintaining his temper and was disciplined for threatening to kill another service member.
Despite Niko viewing the experience negatively, he expressed appreciation towards the skills it would have given him for jihad later in life, as can be seen from the fact that in late 2013, he writes the following on an online forum for Muslims called Ummah.com:
“I see army as an opportunity to prepare myself should I join a jihad in later life. Also I see many similarities between the medics job and the code of a Muslim. To bring mercy even to ones enemies”
It can be assumed his views were already extreme by this point, with him voicing support for jihadists of different types, but some level of restraint was still shown, as can be seen from the latter part of the quote above for example.
However, his views regarding armed jihad began changing near the end of his military service, and in January 2014 he expressed confusion and asked the other members of ummah.com about the legitimacy of using offensive violence in the name of Islam.
After that, a turning point in February 2014 can be identified where his forum posts are in support of militant jihadists. He engaged in debate with other Muslims on the topic of “offensive Jihad” and began to consider it a part of Islam. From this point onward he started sharing posts apologetic of terrorism.
Niko finished his service in April and met his friend Mārtiņš in Helsinki only a day later. During this time, the two spent a few days together exploring the city and hanging out in person, uploading pictures of their experience on ummah.com. Niko made a comment on the artillery pieces in display there, jokingly calling them “ghanimah” (an Arabic expression referring to loot taken in battle).
According to Finnish state media agency YLE, Niko applied for work after his military service, but got no response to his job applications. As of April 2014, he still planned to go to university to study history, even taking an entrance exam for such a program. It is unclear if he was accepted into the university, and thus it cannot be said if Niko’s decision to travel to Syria was in any way influenced by the outcome of his entrance exam. In any case, his plans were still mostly tied to staying in Finland until he could move to a country with a significant Muslim population, Malaysia being one of the options he considered.
However, these plans would quickly change when the Islamic State declared itself a caliphate on June 29th, 2014. Both Niko and Mārtiņš seemed ecstatic by the news as can be seen from their forum posts at the time, and it can be assumed that this is when they made their plans to travel to the Islamic State. Soon after, Niko himself traveled to the Islamic State, arriving only a few months after it had declared itself a caliphate.
The Islamic State had already made a call to hijrah in the first issue of their Dabiq magazine, hijrah being an Arabic expression in this case meaning to move from a land of disbelievers to a land of Muslims. It is likely Niko read this and felt a calling to join the Islamic State after its announcement that “the caliphate has returned”.
The call to hijrah in the first issue of Dabiq reads:
“Amirul-Mu’minin said: “Therefore, rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The State is a state for all Muslims.
The land is for the Muslims, all the Muslims. O Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing hijrah (emigration) to the Islamic State, then let him do so, because hijrah to the land of Islam is obligatory.”
“I went to the stronghold of the believers to search for the greatest honor” — Niko’s time in Syria
While a relatively clear picture can be formed of Niko’s life prior to him traveling to Syria through examining his social media posts, his time in the Islamic State is much harder to document. This is mostly due to the fact that almost all of his social media accounts from this time have since been deleted, although some have been partially archived.
Niko arrived in the Islamic State sometime in late 2014, having travelled before Mārtiņš who would later arrive with a Norwegian jihadist through Turkey approximately a month later on September 23rd, 2014 . It is unknown to us who his contact was and how he was smuggled into the Islamic State. There is a possibility that he used the same route as Mārtiņš and may travelled by himself earlier to assess whether the contact was to be trusted or not.
During his time in Syria, Niko took on the nom de guerre Abu Ibrahim al-Finlandi. This name would cause some confusion among online users following ISIS’ western social media presence, due to the presence of several other fighters who shared the nom de guerre al-Finlandi. For example, there is a misconception on online imageboards that Niko died in a so-called martyrdom operation, when in fact the perpetrator was Abu Hurayrah al-Finlandi, not Abu Ibrahim al-Finlandi.
While in Syria, Niko posted actively on Twitter and ask-book, leaving behind an impressive trail of accounts, although most have since been deleted, presumably for breaching the Terms of Service agreements on these platforms. Based on the archived remnants of these social media posts, Niko seemed to have trouble assimilating to life in Syria. He was not particularly good at speaking Arabic and tweeted about his difficulties with acquiring a wife on several occasions.
Niko was noticeably more militant than his friend when overseas, being described as moving from battlefield to battlefield, while Mārtiņš allegedly only wished to live as a civilian in Raqqa. Niko’s militancy was also reflected by his posts at the time, which call for violence and express support for the terrorist attacks occurring in Europe.
According to a post on ask-book.com, he had been injured at some point either in 2015 or 2016, although he states that the injury was not a serious one. He describes the injury as “[j]ust piece of something under the skin”, which would suggest that he had been hit by shrapnel at some point.
In posts from August 2016, Niko reveals he has been married for a few months. His last known social media activity coincides with the beginning of the coalition-led Raqqa campaign against the Islamic State, at the end of 2016.
It is likely he was killed sometime after this and never made it back home, unlike his friend Mārtiņš who would eventually flee the Islamic State and return to Latvia.
These details tell us that Niko was a troubled and lonely teenager who sought refuge in online communities, with few friends in real life and a lot of time spent in front of a computer. He was already vulnerable to believing in conspiracy theories, which combined with his issues at home were likely important factors for his radicalization. Furthermore, based on Niko’s online activity, Islam was an important aspect of his life, and ISIS’ calls for jihad would have no doubt motivated him to make his journey to Syria to give meaning to his otherwise mundane life. Moreover, he had his online best friend go through the same radicalization process, allowing them to frequently exchange media and sentiments that helped them radicalize each other.
Another similar piece will be published in the near future detailing Mārtiņš, Niko’s best friend and the only known Latvian Islamic State foreign fighter. It will discuss his path to radicalization, his time in the Islamic State and eventual escape to Europe after disillusionment with their “caliphate”. Mārtiņš is an important part of Niko’s story due to being the person who introduced Niko to Islam, and who also radicalized alongside him. Niko’s and Mārtiņš’ stories are therefore tightly interwoven together, and the clearest picture about their path to radicalisation would be achieved through examining both of their stories.
 Dabiq issue #1, available for download at jihadology.net with an account