Two people were sentenced this week for planning a massacre at the University of Helsinki. This highly unusual case in the Finnish standards bears many trademarks of a school rampage shooting and serves as a sobering reminder that not all lone wolf attack plots materialize, Leena Malkki writes.
In mid-March 2014, a Finnish tabloid reported about a highly unusual incident: two people had been arrested a few days earlier because the police suspected them of planning to commit a massacre at the University of Helsinki. The couple was later charged with planning an aggravated crime against life and health. The trial was held in late May and today they both got a prison sentence of three years.
The planned attack represents in many ways the nightmare of security authorities: a lone wolf or a lone pack planning an indiscriminate violent attack without contacts to any organisation or network. Furthermore, it had the much feared online element: the conspirators had met each other online, on a site frequented by like-minded people who were intrigued by mass killings. They met in real life for the first time only a couple of days before the planned zero hour.
What do we know about this plan? Who were the people behind it? Why were they planning to attack the University of Helsinki?
From online discussion board to university hallways
“I am the one who started the attack plot thread yesterday. Do you have any specific plan in mind?” This message, written in late 2012, started an e-mail conversation between a 22-year- old woman from the capital area and a 23-year-old man from Northern Finland. The couple had met each other in a Tor discussion board where they had both contributed to a school shooting related thread. When it came out that both were interested in committing a similar kind of massacre themselves, they switched to e-mail and continued the discussion in private.
In the coming months, the couple wrote several messages to each other, toying with different ideas about what kind of an attack they could do. The final plan that emerged from the discussions was to first rob a weapons store, then go to the university, lock the doors with cable locks, release arsine gas, start a fire and go for a shooting spree around the building. They planned to make a video and write a manifesto to explain their deed and upload it to the internet during the attack.
This plan was a combination of their interests. The man seemed to be most of all interested in conducting a school shooting type spree killing, either at his own school or somewhere in the capital area. The idea of robbing a weapons store was his. The woman, on her part, had fantasized about using chemicals or explosives to cause several casualties. Her internet browsing history shows that she had searched for information about different kinds of chemicals.
The idea of attacking the University of Helsinki was hers. In her eyes, the university represented a place where there were a lot of young people who enjoyed such success and happiness that she felt was denied from her. She particularly wanted to attack humanists or social scientists because they pretended to be experts of human behavior. The couple also agreed that attacking young people would make them much more notorious.
After having postponed the zero hour several times, but swearing each other that they were absolutely serious about their intentions, the man finally travelled to Helsinki in January 2014. The woman had not yet managed to obtain materials that she would have needed to produce chemical substances she would have liked to, so they went with the idea of a weapons store robbery, followed by a shooting spree and arson at the university.
In the morning of the planned attack date, the man told that he wanted to postpone it again and continue the preparations. The planning for the attack, now scheduled to take place sometime after mid-March, continued until they were arrested.
Revenge for public humiliation
The e-mail messages and other documents written by the perpetrators provide a window into how they explained their motivation to each other and what they wanted to accomplish with the attack. Both of them had been thinking about carrying out a massacre for years by the time they found each other. It comes out very clearly that their dreaming about a massacre was borne out of difficulties in social relations and feelings of public humiliation.
The attack was to be their moment of revenge and empowerment. It was also supposed to be their way out of their difficult situation, a death in the blaze of glory. They told each other that leaving without a bang and payback was not enough. They both idolized and identified with earlier spree killers and other violent attackers. The attack would need to be spectacular, something that others would like to emulate and which would make them idols like “Eric & Dylan” (the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine shooting). The highest reward for them would have been to become known as the most devilish and cold-blooded people in human history.
The man told that he had been bullied earlier in his life and felt betrayed by his friends. After completing the vocational school, he seems to have been drifting. He hated the society, was bitter about being publicly humiliated and felt that life had nothing meaningful to offer him. He told in the interrogation that he had been interested in school shootings since the first Finnish shooting in 2007 and that he identified strongly with this shooter.
The woman also expressed bitterness about how other people had treated her. She told that she practically had not had any social life for several years. In those few social encounters that she had had, she felt she had been constantly misunderstood, betrayed and tortured by other people. A significant part of these encounters took place online. She listed about a dozen persons that she felt were responsible for her deteriorating psychological condition and threatened some of these people online with violence. The fact that she had been given a temporary disability pension and that she was experiencing strong mood swings and outbursts of aggression suggests that she was suffering from rather substantial mental health problems.
One of the questions that was discussed when the news about the planned attack broke out was the possibility of a political motivation. This debate was intensified when the woman performed a Nazi salute at the beginning of the trial. Especially the writings of the woman do include critical comments about the current state of the society and its values, but none of them have a distinctively far right tone to them.
Some of their comments may be interpreted as political in nature, although they are not very elaborate. However, it would be far-fetched to see them as constituting a political motive. The suspects rather present them as explanations for why they have suffered than as things that they wanted to change. Neither do they discuss the possibility of making any political demands. The attack plan definitely had a communicative element to it, but rather than changing the world, they were out for revenging to the world.
When one looks more closely into the arguments and views expressed by the couple, they have a familiar ring to them. There are some differences in their writings, but what they seemed to share was a complete disappointment with the society that revolved around money and where everyone was a brainless sheep following the crowd and not thinking by themselves. They felt they were different from others.
Such sentiments are common among school rampage shooters. I have argued that since the Columbine shootings in 1999, there has emerged a subculture and a sense of virtual community among school rampage shooters and their admirers. The subculture is essentially one of misunderstood and humiliated underdogs, powered by dreams about turning the tables by the use of indiscriminate violence. The Columbine shooting and its perpetrators’ writings and videos play a central role in the shared worldview and symbols.
It is noteworthy that it was the interest in school rampage shootings that initially led the couple to find each other and that the Columbine shooting appears several times in their writings. Their communication also includes several references to the cultural symbols and terminology shared by the subculture.
Idle fantasies or a credible security threat?
The plan that the couple put together sounds undeniably threatening. However, experience has shown that the leap from talking about violence into actually committing it is a big one. The question remains whether attacking the university should be considered mainly as a fantasy of socially marginalized, disappointed and suicidal young people, or whether the couple would have actually been in the position of committing it.
As the plan never came fully into fruition, the answer to this question is unavoidably speculative. What is clear in any case is that there was more going on than just talking. According to the Finnish law, mere planning does not constitute a sufficient ground for pressing charges, but the suspect needs to possess equipment to conduct the crime. This criterion is fulfilled in this case. The couple had enough items in stock to make it very difficult not to take the plan seriously.
On the other hand, the planning can hardly be described as meticulous. It appears that there were still several open questions and some easily obtainable but essential items missing in the morning of the planned attack in January 2014. This, together with the fact that they had postponed the attack several times, evokes the question about how comfortable they really were with executing their plan. Furthermore, it is not clear whether their plan to rob the weapons store would have worked out and even more dubious whether the woman would have actually managed to produce arsine gas and release it in a way that would have caused destruction.
What is beyond doubt, however, is that they had seriously considered committing a massacre. Both told in the e-mails to each other that they had dreamt about it for years and that they had been very close to doing something like it several times but had not been able to bring themselves to it. They were clearly expecting that finding an accomplice who would strengthen their determination to follow the plans through. Finding someone who shared the ideas, feelings and desires seemed to be very rewarding.
However, one is left with the impression that it did not quite have the effect that they had hoped for. When they finally met face to face, it appears the chemistry that would have solidified their determination was lacking.
If one should connect the planned attack to a wider category of violent attacks, the school rampage shootings would be a good candidate. It was not a proper school rampage shooting in the sense that neither of the perpetrators had studied at the university. The location was rather chosen for its more general symbolic value and other targets were considered along the way. However, the motivation for and the meaning given to the planned massacre seem to be similar, and influences of the school rampage shooting subculture are quite obvious.
For the current debate about the lone-wolf threat, the case provides a sobering counter example. If one looks only at the successful cases, the danger of lone operators or small groups planning violent attacks outside the radar of security authorities seems very threatening. The case demonstrates that the task of interrupting such plans is not an impossible one. The university attack plot came to the knowledge of the authorities as soon as a third person learned about it.
Furthermore, the case serves as a reminder about how probably only a very small proportion of violent plans ever come into fruition. We just do not tend to hear about those plans that get abandoned or interrupted. It takes a lot to follow violent plans through, even when one has dreamt about it for a long time and finds like-minded people. It is not only a question of putting together a workable plan, acquiring equipment and not getting caught but also one of being mentally capable of following the plan through.
More about the topic in Leena Malkki’s article Political elements in the post-Columbine school shootings in Europe and North America, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2014, pp. 185–210.