Leader of Finnish Islamic Party says he was a Soviet spy
By Panu Hietaneva
The year was 1979. Soviet agent Risto Tammi knew that he had been caught.
His life was in danger.
In other respects things were as they were supposed to be: the Soviet Union was a dominant force in the world, and Urho Kekkonen dominated Finland.
The 30-year-old Tammi had infiltrated the Finnish Nazis on orders of the KGB two years earlier.
Now the Nazis had found out that Tammi was a mole in their midst.
He heard a rumour that one Nazi, a former professional soldier, planned to kill him.
Tammi moved to Riihimäki and disengaged from the Nazi movement.
The KGB had other work for him.
It is 2008 and Abdullah Tammi, Chairman of the Finnish Islamic Party, is sitting in the office of an association called Islamin aika (“The Time of Islam”) in Eerikinkatu in Helsinki.
A grainy video plays on the display of his mobile telephone: Mikhail Gorbachev watches an army parade, wearing a fur hat.
“At this point Gorbachev was not yet the leader of the Soviet Union”, Abdullah Tammi points out.
The leader, Konstantin Chernenko, stands next to Gorbachev. It is November 1984.
The camera pans over the military forces and stops at the end of the row.
There he is: Tammi himself.
In a Red Army uniform, standing among officers on Red Square. Captain Tammi’s expression is resolute as he stands at attention.
Anyone who has seen pictures of Tammi as a young man will easily recognise him.
Now he is a 59-year-old Muslim, whose bearded figure is familiar from demonstrations and TV talk-shows.
What kind of a man is Tammi?
Abdullah Tammi says that he was born in Paimio in 1949, and was given the name Risto.
There were communists in his family. Tammi’s grandfather had taken part in the October Revolution in St. Petersburg as a young man. Already as a youngster, Risto learned to speak Russian with the help of his grandfather.
It was fitting that in the late 1960s, when he was about 20 years old, Risto Tammi finally joined a Finnish communist youth organisation.
That is where he got his first contacts with the Soviet Union.
Tammi trained to be a firefighter, but his real career was somewhere else. He soon officially became a KGB spy.
This meant that he was to dedicate his whole life to communism.
Tammi worked at shipyards in order to be able to discreetly meet contact persons who travelled on Soviet cargo ships.
Tammi’s first mission was to inform on religious groups who smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union.
Tammi worked with dedication. He first infiltrated the Siion congregation in Turku, and after that, he joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists.
Those who knew him from these denominations in the 1970s still remember Tammi. The young man was strong in his faith, to the point of fanaticism.
Or at least that is what it looked like.
Tammi learned about religion through books and cinema. On the basis of these he developed stories about how he supposedly was saved. “I was forgiven for much because I was so young and because I displayed such enthusiasm”, Tammi says.
It was all a front for the KGB.
“I did not believe in God. I did not like Christians. They were hypocrites, and considered themselves better than others”, Tammi recalls.
He was also asked to dig up information about Finnish politicians, and so he joined the populist Finnish Rural Party.
“The aim of the Soviet Union was to keep Kekkonen in power, and relations between the two countries in shape”, Tammi explains.
The Soviet Union wanted to know who might jeopardise these ends. Tammi’s mission was to sniff out the vulnerabilities of such people - to find out who was an alcoholic, who was a womanizer, or who might be persuaded with money to back Kekkonen.
Many were bribed, Tammi says, but he will not reveal any names.
At the end of the decade the mission changed.
The Soviet Union was afraid that the neo-Nazi group led by Pekka Siitoin would have connections with international neo-Nazi circles.
It was even suspected that the Nazis might have acquired weaponry belonging to the Finnish Defence Forces.
Finland’s most famous neo-Nazi, Pekka Siitoin (1944-2003), was a strange figure, who dressed in Nazi garb even on ordinary days. He had a loose group of disciples.
Tammi began his infiltration by stepping into Siitoin’s shop, where he sold photographic equipment.
“Siitoin was a strange looking figure with his moustache. He was wearing a skull tie”, Tammi recalls.
He started his espionage work as enthusiastically as he did when he was in the religious circles.
A little bit too enthusiastically.
The young agent asked too many questions, and appeared in public too often. The Nazis began to suspect that Tammi was a plant - although they guessed that he was working for the Finnish Security Police (SUPO).
Just in case, Tammi had a Soviet passport. The passport gave his name as Risto Tamm, born on the Estonian island of Saaremaa in 1949. “If the whole thing had failed, I could have started a new life in the Soviet Union.”
He visited the Soviet Union often, for instance on training courses organised by the KGB for its agents. “We were also taught the use of firearms and self-defence.”
In the 1980s Tammi was a shareholder in a company called Putsi-Pojat. Its specialities were cleaning services, and great power espionage on the side.
The company allowed Tammi to meet his contact persons: the company cleaned Soviet ships and provided maintenance services for the Soviet Culture and Science Centre on Nodenskiöldinkatu.
He was paid for his services through false invoices for work that nobody ever did. The money came from Moscow.
Neither of the two other shareholders knew anything about Tammi’s extra-mural espionage activities.
The beginning of the 1990s brought troubles for Tammi.
First, he suffered a stroke. He was unable to work and went on disability pension.
His right arm is still not functioning properly.
Then Putsi-Pojat collapsed, and finally the Soviet Union fell as well.
Nobody had taken care of the company, and Tammi had to deal with the millions in debt that were owed. Wages had been left unpaid, and no bookkeeping was done.
Tammi was given a ten-month suspended sentence for aggravated dishonesty by a debtor.
At the same time, Tammi was in the midst of a marital crisis. The relationship ended violently.
Again Tammi got a suspended sentence for minor assault.
“I do not approve of violence, and I am not a violent person. At that time my life was in crisis”, he says now.
The KGB ceased to exist after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, but Tammi says that he received pay even after that.
Post-Soviet Russia also needed spooks.
He was supposed to meet his contact person in Tallinn in 1993, but the man never showed up.
That was the end of his espionage career.
Tammi’s life was thorough confusion.
Tammi hung around the Itäkeskus shopping mall, and one day he began to chat with a few immigrant men about religion.
His new friends suggested that he join them at the modest mosque in Itäkeskus.
Finally, on August 20th, 2001, Tammi washed and began to repeat the Islamic Creed in Arabic.
A first it sounded clumsy.”I had a good feeling, when I returned to Islam, but I did not feel any kind of a religious frenzy.”
Muslims believe that all people are Muslims at birth. that is why people do not convert to Islam, they “return” to it.
Tammi became a Sunni Muslim, and Risto morphed into Abdullah. His old name, Risto, is derived from Kristoforos, which means “supporter of Christ”, which was not appropriate for a Muslim.
Tammi worked in security unil the spring of 2008, when he began to serve full-time as the leader of the Finnish Islamic Party, which was established in the autumn of 2007, and in an organisation called Islamin aika (“Time of Islam”).
The purpose of the organisation is to disseminate information about Islam in the Finnish language.
“The activities are based on donations that we get from our members. It is not financed by Saudi oil money”, Tammi quips.
Tammi does not hesitate to talk about his past. Why is that?
“I know that the old things will come out sooner or later. I have been thinking carefully what I should say, and I am doing it in a way that does not cause anyone any harm”, Tammi explains.
There is another reason.
“A new page opens up in life when a person returns to Islam. Old things mean nothing any more”, Tammi ponders.
Now Tammi is involved in politics again. With his 160 votes he got nowhere near getting elected in last week’s municipal elections.
The party is nevertheless continuing its effort to collect signatures on supporter cards. The group still needs 2,000 more signatures to get the 5,000 required to register a political party in Finland.
Tammi believes that the party could be capable of getting one candidate elected in Parliamentary elections.
What is the goal of the party?
“Muslims want Finland to become a Muslim country”, Tammi answers.
“There is no need to change things that work, as long as they are not in conflict with Sharia law.”
He understands that people in Finland look askance at Sharia. In extreme cases, it accepts death by stoning, for instance.
“Because of propaganda from the United States, Islam is shown in a negative light”, Tammi says. “In Sharia it is said that people must not be condemned without valid evidence. That is why I do not condemn Osama bin Laden, for instance, because there is no valid evidence of his responsibility for the attacks of September 11th”, Tammi says.
“But if he was behind the attacks, then that would be just terrible”, he continues.
Tammi speaks about the murder of Nikolai Bobrikov.
In 1904 Finnish nationalist Eugen Schauman assassinated the Russian Governor-General to protest the policy of Russification.
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. If bin Laden is fighting in Afghanistan to free the country - I apologise for speaking directly - from the infidel, then I support him spiritually. No question.”
Tammi does not tire of speaking, and he does not shirk direct questions.
However, much is left unexplained.
How could a Finnish communist become a Red Army captain?
Or is the man in the parade on Red Square really Tammi?
When asked about his background, Tammi’s answers become very vague.
Tammi says that his family roots are “in the east”. He spent his youth in “West Uusimaa and Finland Proper”.
How many times has he been married?
Tammi’s story is a liar’s paradox:
If he is telling the truth about his past, he has been lying professionally for 20 years, so how can we trust him now?
How do we know that Tammi is not actually a mole spying on Finnish Muslims?
Or is the spy story true? Is he just seeking publicity for his cause?
There is evidence that Tammi has been in many of the places where he says that he has been.
Contemporaries remember Tammi as a preacher. There are archive pictures of Risto Tammi as a neo-Nazi, and as the chairman of the Kontula section of the Finnish Rural Party.
“Everything that I did as a spy, I did to help Finland. I supported the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line, but there were people in Finland who wanted to push Kekkonen out of power. That would have led to deteriorating ties between Finland and the Soviet Union.”
Experts in Soviet espionage find Tammi’s story to be plausible.
The Soviet Union was interested in Bible smugglers and extreme right-wing groups. Contact was maintained in the manner described by Tammi.
However, it is very difficult to prove if Tammi’s story was true.
Researcher Ilmari Susiluoto, who wrote a book on KGB espionage, has suspicions about the details. “Would the KGB have its agents march on Red Square? Agents were supposed to be invisible.”
However, it is not impossible.
One expert says that his account includes methods and targets of spying that are familiar to experts in espionage. But it is also quite possible that Tammi is a “con man in every direction”.
Only Tammi’s contact persons could confirm the matter. Estonian citizen Tiit Niilo has confirmed that he was Tammi’s KGB contact in the early 1970s.
Tammi will not speak about other contacts. “I have sworn a military oath and promised not to discuss matters related to the armed forces.”
Tammi says that the Soviet passport that he has spoken about is now in Estonia.
Tammi has spent five hours relating his story. “Vladimir Putin has said that a KGB man is always a KGB man. But it does not apply to me. I am now Abdullah Tammi and a Muslim. I speak the truth because of my faith.”
A silence follows. Tammi looks deep into the questioner’s eyes, as always.
Then he gives a gentle smile.
Don’t you want to know who Risto Tammi was?
But I do not understand: isn’t he former communist and current party leader Abdullah Tammi?
The bearded man smiles.
“Have you ever heard that a spy can be given a new identity?”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print in the Nyt weekly supplement 31.10.2008
Previously in HS International Edition:
Islamic Party gearing up for municipal elections (8.2.2008)
Islamic Party still has long way to go to be officially registered (8.1.2008)
Moves made to establish Islamic party in Finland (7.9.2007)
PANU HIETANEVA / Helsingin Sanomat