A Finnish-made assault rifle has ended up in the hands of a militant loyal to the Islamic State in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula region, the first time an ISIS fighter has been pictured with a Finnish weapon.
A video released by the Egyptian Ministry of Defence this week shows a Finnish rifle from Valmet’s RK range lying on the body of a fighter killed in a counter-terrorism operation in Sinai at the beginning of the month.
“The rifle looks like a Valmet 76T. It is scarce and exported probably more than forty years ago” confirms Esa Salldén from the Historic Arms Society of Finland SAHS.
Experts suggest a number of possibilities for the rifle’s origins, and although it is decades old, the fact it’s still being brandished in an armed insurgency today shows the longevity of Finnish military exports, and the uncertainties of knowing how they might be used in the future.
“A rifle like this can have a life span of 30 years or longer, during that time it can be illegally re-exported, bought or stolen several times” says Kari Paasonen, Acting Executive Director at SaferGlobe, a Helsinki-based peace and security think tank.
Islamic State in Sinai
With snipers in ghillie suits, night-vision-equipped special forces troops and surgical airstrikes, the new video portrays a show of force in North Sinai that is more propaganda than practical.
“It is quite clear who is operating in Sinai. It is former Islamic State affiliates. The groups that used to be connected to al-Qaeda in the good old days when they started, then they shifted to the alliances with IS” explains Yoram Schweitzer, a former Israeli intelligence officer who is an expert on international terrorism and low-intensity conflict at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies.
The IS-linked groups in Sinai recruit their supporters through local tribes, and from Gaza, and “provide for themselves through smuggling weapons.”
“It’s not difficult to do. In Sinai there has been weapons flowing before Islamic State. These are smugglers who have weapons in their tribes and it’s not difficult to purchase. Smuggling is an art” says Schweitzer.
The Egyptian military operation in early May reportedly left 18 militants dead – including the man holding the Finnish weapon – and came after Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on an Egyptian military vehicle near the city of Bir al-Abed.
“The IS-linked groups are quite successful even though the Egyptians are launching military attacks. From time to time they manage to have a high profile operation, they used to do it more extensively. Last week they launched a major attack killing I think ten Egyptian soldiers. In spite of the Egyptian military operations they keep launching attacks with [roadside bombs] and suicide attacks” says Yoram Schweitzer.
Finnish rifle in ISIS hands
One of the weapons recovered during that Egyptian raid, among a cache of other weapons, ammunition, grenades and explosive suicide vests, will be familiar to any Finn who served in the military.
Clearly visible on the video, an assault rifle most likely manufactured by the Finnish company Valmet is lying on top of a dead fighter.
With its distinctive three-pronged flash suppressor and sights mounted on the rear of the receiver, the rifle is very similar in design to the RK-62 service rifle currently used by the Finnish army.
Although it’s unclear exactly how the Finnish rifle might have ended up in the hands of an Islamic State fighter – Valmet produced weapons up until 1986 when it’s Jyväskylä gun manufacturing operation was transferred to Sako – experts have their theories.
“Before 2011, Finland has exported lots of military materiel to Egypt, for example field guns, ammunition and protective equipment” says SaferGlobe’s Kari Paasonen.
However, with statistics only going back to 2002 Paasonen can’t say whether Finland exported Valmet assault rifles to Egypt before that.
Another option is that the rifle has ended up in Egypt after being first exported to another country.
“It was speculated that the Finnish rifles found in 2016 in Libya were originally exported from Finland to Qatar in 1970s. Finland has exported arms decades after decades to dozens of countries and some of these countries have been relatively fragile” Paasonen explains.
If the weapon is indeed a Valmet 76T as the Historical Arms Society of Finland suspects, then only a small batch of them were built for marketing purposes. The 76T remained in the field test stage as the folding mechanism was too susceptible to damage and clogging with dirt.
Before the video released by the Egyptian Ministry of Defence in May, there has been no evidence suggesting that Finnish weapons had yet ended up in the hands of Islamic State.
However other Finnish rifles have been seen before in various armed conflicts: Valmet weapons have been identified in a number of places in Libya including at a gun market; while a 2019 British documentary about Northern Ireland showed images of an IRA militant holding a semi-automatic Valmet rifle.
“In addition to Libya, single Finnish arms have earlier been reported in conflict regions in Georgia, Iraq and Yemen. As such there is no reason why Finnish arms would be immune to getting in hands of ISIS-linked groups” says Kari Paasonen.
“Arms have had time to circulate around, so I think you can expect to find single Finnish firearms in almost all corners of the planet.”