New Zealand’s Counter-terrorism Strategy: A Critical Assessment

Authors: Battersby, J., Ball, R., & Nelson, N.
Published in National Security Journal, 23 June 2020

fitting a hundred years ago) and the reality of New Zealand’s increasingly multi-cultural ethnic make-up.43 New Zealand’s sudden embracing of diversity was fundamentally economically driven, designed to exploit the wealth and skills of foreigners, rather than any genuine commitment to actually embracing them. Abuse directed at an Indian New Zealand Police Officer at the Ihumatao land occupation and New Zealand First Government Minister Shane Jones’ defending his repeated offensive comments about Indian people on the grounds that he was Maori, suggests a dilemma that New Zealand has not yet resolved.44

If one theme does stand out in New Zealand’s history of terrorism and political violence, it is that individually driven, and often completely isolated, lone actors have emerged out of the blue and taken unexpectedly violent action. These occasions were outlined in a previous issue of the National Security Journal.45 While the 15 March 2019, was unprecedented in terms of its scale, in almost every other sense it was typical of New Zealand’s most identifiable expressions of political violence; lone actors, loosely associated with broader ideological sympathisers, but actually unconnected behaviourally from them, who easily disguised their intentions and planned their threats unseen. They neither followed nor inspired any prolonged trend. They did not present a broad-based social problem, nor were the vast bulk of other socially isolated people (even if they did share similar outlooks) ever actually dangerous. The wide range of consultation suggested in the strategy document reflects the collective ‘All of Government’ approach to contemporary national security issues, but nevertheless seems to misinterpret the nature of New Zealand terrorism. It presumes that New Zealand terrorism presents a significant social problem when all the evidence to date points to a vastly less, very difficult to define, intermittent, serious but limited, and nuanced type of unusual violence.

While overseas and New Zealand experience does show community based and NGO interventions can effectively and beneficially rehabilitate those who want a way out of certain extremist poles, the NGOs with actual competence in this area are few in number. New Zealand agencies have engaged with certain Muslim communities in dealing with those few individuals who were caught up with ISIS’s online extremism in the 2010s. This was successful but not without its problems identified by both security practitioners and Muslim community members.46 Dealing with Right Wing Extremists (RWE) is a somewhat different matter, however. They appear to exist in New Zealand in no great number.47 We would observe also that they are currently without a socially accepted moderating broader group through which ‘community engagement’ could be easily facilitated to reach those dwelling in the extremes. This differs from Europe where numbers of reformed ex-RWE members are actively engaged in programmes counselling people away from neo-Nazi groups. To neglect ‘consultation’ with some credible connector to the RWE ‘community’ would be to leave a marginalised group vulnerable to causational drivers that lull young individuals to extremism.

As Vandenberg and Hoverd point out, extremism is not necessarily terrorism, and confronting one will not necessarily reduce the other. Norway boasted one of the most effective counter RWE programmes, before Anders Brevik emerged undetected to carry out deadly attacks in Oslo and Utoya Island in July 2011.48 Brevik’s action demonstrates the complexity of this form of modern terrorism, and that despite highly successful deradicalisation programmes, the occasional and genuinely dangerous individual can still circumvent them all. This underpins the importance of serious thought and discussion on concepts like ‘extremism’ and ‘violent extremism’. The New Zealand strategy needs to identify which parts of the community can provide meaningful input into prevention, early intervention of at-risk individuals and critically how it manages the likely success of these initiatives, if faced with a single and devastating failure – like Norway’s. This reinforces earlier discussion above about the need for measurable success indicators.

The proposed public information action plan

The final section of the Strategy document ‘Public information action plan’ uses the phrase ‘public information’ ten times, and the emphasis is clearly less on countering terrorism and violent extremism, and more on providing the public with information in the event of having failed to do so. Indeed, the cabinet paper submitted along with the draft strategy in September 2019 identified a clear intention of proposing a “new communications strategy for Counter-Terrorism.”49 New Zealand’s recent experience of COVID 19 saw an initially well-organised, well-informed, soundly communicated strategy to react to the disease, to contain it and attempt to eliminate it. New Zealanders had no basis to complain that they did not receive timely, easy to understand information and advice about what to do at the onset of the level 1-4 approach. Even so, many simply ignored it, many initially refused to take the reality of community transmission seriously or to take precautions that would have reduced the risks of it spreading, in many cases standing in queues of potentially infected people for protracted periods of time to purchase quantities of food they did not need. Supermarkets ran out of toilet paper, sugar, flour, soap and – and barely a year since the 15 March mass killing in Christchurch, there was even panic buying of guns and other weapons.50 In one day alone, supermarket chain Countdown reported that it sold enough food to feed 10 million people, twice the New Zealand population.51 This should provide the authors of the strategy document cause to reflect on the genuine utility of providing the public with information, and question why such emphasis needs to be placed on it. The authors contend far more strategic emphasis should be placed on countering the messaging from terrorist perpetrators and denying them the audience they seek. This falls into the ‘prevent’ category more than the ‘response’ one and reflects what the authors believe is a need for a far more proactive strategy.

The ‘Public information action plan’ relies heavily on illustrations and arrows to outline a timeline for work under various headings to progress including: