Assessing Terrorism Threats to New Zealand: The Role of the Combined Threat Assessment Group

Author/s: Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG)
Published in National Security Journal, 27 November 2020


Periodically, the New Zealand terrorism threat level, and the inter-agency unit responsible for assessing it, hits the headlines. Unfortunately, this coverage tends to coincide with a revelation to the New Zealand public of dangers to our safety and national security; little information has been available for the media or the public to understand the significance of threat levels, how they are assessed and by whom. It is unsurprising then that the role of the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) and the specific purpose of threat assessment is overlooked or misunderstood.

In the absence of information, misinterpretations can carry undue weight. In February 2020, a media article incorrectly reported that CTAG “detectives” were “investigating” an individual and speaking with their family and close associates.1 This was not the case, nor did the article accurately describe CTAG’s responsibilities. The article did, however, highlight the need for CTAG to more proactively inform and educate the New Zealand public about CTAG and correct past misunderstandings. This article offers an overview of CTAG’s role and functions, methodologies and our place in New Zealand’s national security system, particularly in relation to assessing and setting the National Terrorism Threat Level.

CTAG Overview

CTAG’s creation was confirmed by Cabinet in February 2004, following a recommendation from the Officials Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination (ODESC) that a ‘combined agency group’ be responsible for the provision of threat assessments and the evaluation of threat warning intelligence and information. CTAG’s creation followed a pattern among close international partners in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of establishing multi-agency terrorism analysis and threat assessment centres after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and, particularly for New Zealand and Australia, the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia. The threat assessment centres brought together a range of national security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to facilitate and ensure information sharing and collaborative analysis in order to provide their governments with all-source, authoritative threat assessments.

CTAG is specifically charged with providing government with “timely and accurate assessment of […] threats to New Zealanders and New Zealand interests”. CTAG does not assess all potential security threats, but is mandated to primarily focus on terrorism (including violent extremism in advance of any terrorist acts), as well as threats from violent protest and violent crime (the last, only abroad).

CTAG is a multi-agency unit with staff seconded from a range of state sector agencies, which has evolved over time. Today, CTAG is staffed by secondees from the Civil Aviation Authority, Department of Corrections, Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), New Zealand Police, and New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS). In addition to these agencies’ contributions, funding is also provided by the New Zealand Customs Service (NZCS) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). In addition, the National Assessments Bureau (NAB) within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) is an associate member of CTAG, providing specialist contributions to and regular peer review of CTAG reporting.

CTAG has been subject to two organisational reviews since its creation, and has been described as “in and of” NZSIS, which provides CTAG administrative, technical and logistical support. However, CTAG retains analytical independence to minimise ‘capture’ or undue influence by any one of the contributing agencies. CTAG is recognised as one of the New Zealand government’s primary assessment agencies and, as such, relies on information and intelligence gathered or generated by contributing agencies and open source. CTAG cannot enforce measures for national security or acquire an intelligence warrant under the Intelligence and Security Act 2017, and does not have any investigative powers afforded to the contributing agencies, despite media reporting to the contrary.

Threat Assessment Overview

New Zealand is exposed to a range of national security risks, managed by multiple government agencies and coordinated by DPMC.2 Dependent on their origins, these risks are either classified as ‘hazards’ or ‘threats’ – with the former being natural (such as earthquakes) and the latter requiring human agency (such as terrorism).

2 For further information, refer DPMC’s National Security System Handbook, August 2016.