Estonian radicals fighting windmills

Janek Järva hinnangul võib Eesti paremäärmuslaste tegevust võrrelda varjupoksiga, kus poksija võitleb kujutletava vastasega, tehes tegelikult lööke õhku.

PHOTO: Peeter Raudsik

The importance of the fight against terrorism has once again grown in light of last summer's tragic attacks and last year's migration wave. While the outline of terrorism has become less clear, certain common elements some countries share stand out.

Director of the southern department of the Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) Janek Järva, who has thoroughly studied radicalization in Estonian prisons, talked to Postimees about the reasons for extremism and the corresponding situation in Estonia.

It is said that in Western Europe terror attracts second generation youths and immigrants. Why is that?

To simplify, we can say there are three risk groups: second and third generation immigrants, convicts, and new converts.

The keyword regarding the former is alienation. They feel ostracized, deprived of something everywhere. Unlike their parents, they do not have a strong connection to the culture of their country of origin, while they have also not been accepted by their new society. Looking for meaning and feelings of fellowship, people often come to terrorist organizations the propaganda of which is spreading.

In the case of convicts we can talk about the pains of imprisonment so to speak. People are especially vulnerable and susceptible to radicalization towards the beginning of their imprisonment. Prisoners often do not have a choice: they have to pick a religious or other type of criminal gang to join.

This problem currently doesn't exist in Estonian prisons as the emergence of these kinds of subcultures has been kept very much in check compared to both Russia and Europe. It is important to note in this context that religious activities of convicts usually have a positive effect on people's behavior: development of self control, new moral principles etc.

Converting from one religion to another causes a person to undergo an important psychological and behavioral transformation. During this phase a person can develop a polarized view of the world: before vs. now, them vs. us. That is why heads, proponents, and missionaries of religious movements must understand their role and responsibility.

In conclusion it is vital to understand that only a small number of Muslims belong to the aforementioned risk groups, while only a fraction of the latter become radicalized.

Therefore it is wrong to draw an equals sign between Islam and extremism or terrorism. It is equally dangerous when people use such claims to fuel religions hatred. We would do well to remember that acts of Islamic terror kill far more Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa than they do people in Europe.

And yet this inclination towards terrorism has not been observed in the case of immigrants from other areas. We see no news of Chinese or Indian second generation youths orchestrating bloody attacks on ordinary people.

That is a good point. Radicalization is a process influenced by personal and social factors and motivated by a specific situation. Therefore we can conclude that immigrants from other regions lack these contributing factors.

Another reason lies in differences between the size of communities, especially talking about France or the Netherlands. The number of immigrants from Arab countries is far bigger due to historical reasons.

Members of a group of boys from a small village will probably never go to prison or become celebrated cultural figures, while city boys have a far greater chance of achieving either feat. Different degrees of scale could contribute to confrontation.

Another thing that cannot be ignored includes cultural differences and historical background. A polar bear finding himself in the desert will either adapt or die; however, before that he will probably go through a phase where he is mad enough to bite anyone in his path.

Something similar is happening in countries where the media talks about no-go zones, where the police have to use additional forces to maintain order. That speaks of major problems in terms of integration. Perhaps it is a question of ability to handle so many immigrants or methods of placement.

Turning to terrorism is the most extreme manifestation of this wider problem. Culture should not be defined through religion alone. Concerning people from Syria or Iraq we also need to take into account experience of living in an autocratic country. That is to say they usually have preconceived notions regarding the role of law enforcement authorities.

Police forces of autocratic countries are not there to protect the people but instead are an enemy. That is why people from these countries prefer to keep a healthy distance between themselves and the authorities. I'm sure people who lived in Estonia during the time of the previous opposition remember their feelings towards state power and its structures.

Lastly radicalization depends on propaganda organizations like ISIS pursue on the web and in social media.

It has been noticed in Western Europe that extremists' recruitment activity has moved away from mosques and into places where people spend their free time, for example gyms. Is this a general trend?

People are still found in mosques or other religious places where Muslims gather; however, once found they are pulled aside so to speak.

This means that the radicalization process often takes place somewhere else. This is understandable as people who attend mosque usually represent mainstream Islam and do not favor extremist views.

Social media has made communication between the recruiter and potential recruits easier. We know of cases where people have been radicalized online, without any face-to-face contact.

Recently we have heard reports of young people who left for Syria last year but are now looking to return home after becoming disillusioned with the caliphate. How to handle those people?

There are three problems here. First, how and why they got there. Secondly, how to re-socialize them. Thirdly, the legal aspect of their actions. If they have committed acts considered terrorism or crimes against humanity in Estonia, they must serve punishments.

Introducing these people back into society is definitely the business of other agencies in addition to KAPO. The service looks at these people from the point of view of national defense to assess any future threat they might pose for Estonia. Final judgment will be provided by the courts.

Our contact with fighters returning home has been limited to learning from the experience of our partners so far. A lot of European countries already have so-called deradicalization programs that help gradually merge people with society. While we can hope lessons learned will be the end of it, we would be naive to ignore the potential threat these people pose.

If there is anything positive in this transit of fighters, it is the realization that people who have returned with their lives do not want to go back there voluntarily. Reality and pictures painted by terrorist propaganda are so utterly different.

KAPO has been saying for years that there is no threat of Islamic terrorism in Estonia. Has this assessment changed in light of the past summer's bloody events?

KAPO has been saying for years that the threat of terrorism is low in Estonia, not that it doesn't exist. There has been no major change in our assessment; we cannot talk about direct danger of terrorism in Estonia. That said, terrorism is one of the more extreme manifestations of a wider problem. In this light the question in Estonia is compliance with the constitutional order.

It is important from the point of view of maintaining constitutional order to make sure it is honored by people who have lived here for millenniums, those sent here during occupations, and those migrating here today and tomorrow.

Estonia is a country where everyone has a lot of rights and freedoms. This fact has been confirmed by various international studies and rankings Estonia tops.

Talking about immigrants from the Middle East, as well as locals who have converted to Islam, it is clear religion plays an important part in their lives, especially when compared to the decidedly secular Estonian society.

Everyone is free to practice their religion in Estonia, whether it is Christianity, Islam, New Age or something else. However, people practicing religion should keep in mind two things.

First of all Estonia's constitutional right of religious freedom. Secondly that freedom of religion does not stand above other freedoms. That is to say that religious freedom does not give one the right to discriminate against and violate the rights of others.

From the point of view of constitutional order, there is no difference between calls to merge the town of Kallaste with the Russian Federation and calls to lay down Sharia law as the new legal order. Both constitute activities aimed against the constitutional order.

The number one extremist threat in Estonia today is the Kremlin's aggressive propaganda aimed at Estonia's Russian-speakers. If ISIS propaganda is aimed at young people in Europe, the Kremlin's targets and attempts to radicalize Russians living in Estonia.

The Kremlin is masterful in manipulating the identity of Russian-speakers: in a situation where Russian-speakers formed the majority during the occupation, they are a language-based minority in Estonia today.

It is important to emphasize that minorities are not persecuted in Estonia, and I'm sure they perceive and understand this. Just as ISIS propaganda fails to radicalize most youths, the majority of Russian people in Estonia do not swallow Moscow's bait and take action against the constitutional order.

You wrote in your master's thesis that attempts to treat a nonexistent disease might lead to an outbreak. Is Islam discussed too often in national security context?

Talking about Islam in the key of national security is probably inevitable today as violent extremists use the religion as a cover for their actions. Therefore security agencies must consider the religious aspect in their fight against extremism.

That said, a criminal organization of ethnic Syrians operating in Europe that does not emphasize its religious goals and principles would not spark a religious reaction from law enforcement agencies in their fight against the group's activities. Terrorist organizations, however, have placed religion in the center of their ideology.

It remains unclear whether religious convictions constitute the reason or merely a tool in the actions of some extremists. It would definitely be sensible to treat these matters in a balanced fashion in the public eye as one of the main goals of terrorists is to spread as much fear as possible.

Extremists hope to force governments to act in their interest by affecting public opinion. Major media coverage constitutes a victory for terrorists, whereas an act of terror ignored by the media would be regarded a failure. This is why terror crimes shouldn't be unnecessarily amplified or their perpetrators mystified as it could lead to copied behavior.

Even though there are currently more than 150 definitions for terrorism, it is probable not everyone waving a knife and yelling religious messages in public is a terrorist. People could be suffering from serious mental illnesses or be sociopaths who take pleasure in violence.

Foreigners living in Estonia feel racism is one the rise. Can we talk about the rise of right wing extremists in Estonia?

It is difficult to say what these assessments are based on. It is often the case that an incident that one of the participants interprets as a result of xenophobia turns out to be something else. For example a bar fight between two people with different skin color over a girl is not a racist hate crime, nor is it a particularly rare occurrence in Estonian bars, especially between people of similar ethnicity. In most cases the root of the problem is alcohol.

There has been no explosive growth of right wing extremism in Estonia recently. While utterances against immigrants have become more frequent, there are often the result of fear as opposed to hatred.

On the other hand the refugee crisis has contributed to the ranks of people looking to score political points by frightening the people and criticizing the state. Estonia has been and will continue to do everything in its power to stop people who pose a threat to national security coming here. We differ from many other countries in that our immigration system includes multiple visa and background checks aimed at keeping dangerous people out of the country.

The activities of Estonia's right wing extremists could be compared to shadow boxing where one fights an imaginary enemy. That is the situation of right wing groups – there is no adversary.

The activities of the Soldiers of Odin movement are rather a parody of shadow boxing. It is a movement copied from Finland sporting elements of xenophobia for which there are no grounds in Estonia. Estonia does not have extensive problems with crimes committed by Muslim immigrants, which is why the creation of such an organization in Estonia is baseless and rather fuels hatred.

People who really want to help improve society would do better to think of solutions for cutting the number of traffic deaths caused by drunk drivers by campaigning on social media for example.