The Ghost of New Zealand’s Terrorism Past and Present

Author: Battersby, J. M.
Published in National Security Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1, October 2019

In 2019 an Australian male who had initially arrived two years previously to lay low in New Zealand, and prepare himself for a Right-Wing inspired attack – presumably in Australia, decided instead to exploit New Zealand’s vulnerable firearms regime to legally acquire an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons. Harnessing social media platforms to publicise his action globally, he went on a shooting spree that resonated around the world in a manner that no other New Zealand event ever had. Media reports in New Zealand and around the world gave variations of “The end of innocence” reporting that New Zealand was not immune to terrorism after all, and that New Zealand’s isolation which had protected it until now, would do so no longer.

Had New Zealanders paid greater heed to terrorism in their own past, they would have already known that their isolation had not insulated their country from terrorism for fifty years, and the innocence supposed to have been lost now – was lost a long time ago. Despite several evident terrorist or terror-related acts, no one prior to Tarrant has ever been charged with a terrorist offence in New Zealand. In many cases Left-Wing terror- ism has been explained away by the nobility of the cause – opposition to the Vietnam War, nuclear testing in the Pacific or Apartheid in South Africa. Due to the ultimate success of such causes, the coinciding terrorism has simply merged into the greater narrative of noble protest. Contrary to the emerging media myth that New Zealand has gone easy on its Right-Wing activism, it has been generally true that historically there has been more Left-Wing political violence in New Zealand. Where Right-Wing actors have committed offences and been caught, they have been prosecuted and convicted.

New Zealand has had two distinct periods of sequential terrorism, both amid periods of significant civil protest, where bombings, hoaxes and threats have occurred in a connected succession. New Zealand has faced organised international terrorism at least twice before, with the Ananda Marga plot in 1975 and the attack on the Rainbow Warrior a decade later. New Zealand has been vulnerable to international influences encouraging domestic terrorism, and on a number of occasions a trans-Tasman link has been evident in terrorism incidents in New Zealand and Australia.

New Zealand’s most prominent terrorist theme is of autonomous actors, on the fringes of groups – or entirely detached from them, often with mixed motives, acting largely alone. Most of the log of events outlined above have been ‘missed’ by security agencies, and occurred entirely ‘out of the blue’. A number of these incidents were almost certainly undetectable. Expanding watch-lists seems to be the automatic reaction by states around the globe to a terrorist event – a problematic approach when dealing with autonomous actors and akin to searching for ghosts. In the wake of Christchurch, doing more of what did not detect Brenton Tarrant, will not increase the likelihood of detecting anyone like him in the future.

Where individuals have been caught in possession of material or involved in activity deemed likely to lead them to violence, there is no way of knowing if a more sinister