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

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


It will come as no surprise to the reader that the authors conclude New Zealand’s ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy’ is too short, under-developed and lacks evidence of a genuine knowledge base of contemporary terrorism, or violent extremism, trends. There is also insufficient appreciation of the relative success or failure of various international counter terrorism and counter violent-extremism responses. The strategy itself appears disconnected from New Zealand’s own nuanced, but nevertheless actual, 50-year experience of political violence and lacks many of the components one would expect to see enunciated in such an important document as this.

Noting these deficiencies has compelled the authors to speculate as to the purpose for which the strategy was developed and disseminated in the first place. As previously discussed, Stolberg57 outlines several purposes for the development of strategy and the placing of it in the public domain. The first two of these – that it serves as a broad construct for understanding political intent, and that it informs the legislative body within a country of the resource requirements – seem almost impossible to achieve with the strategy in its current form. This led the authors to think that the third suggested purpose – that it serves as a communications tool for both domestic and foreign audiences – is the key reason it was developed. If this is the case, the authors are left wondering who the intended audience is for New Zealand’s strategy, for no one with even a limited understanding of, or passing interest in the topic, would be able to glean much of value from it.

The authors consider that New Zealand’s ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy’ would be considerably strengthened by a clear articulation of national interests and a concise statement of both the actual and future challenges New Zealand expects to encounter. This statement would recognise past manifestations of terrorism domestically, as well as current and projected future trends internationally. Because, as Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr notes, 58 “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”, the strategy should contain a comprehensive risk assessment that enables a prioritised approach to be adopted towards achievement of the strategy’s goals. In turn, this will allow clearly defined areas of responsibility to be designated to agencies, with real people committed to its implementation, as well as the identification, advocacy and acquisition of the resources required to achieve the strategy. 

Finally, the strategy must contain examples of success and failure, as well as explicit measures of effectiveness, including timeframes, that quantify the results to be obtained and ensure accountability – both of those responsible for the implementation of the strategy and for the government of the day.

Dwight Eisenhower notes in his wartime memoir Crusade in Europe “The basic principles of strategy are so simple that a child may understand them. But to determine their proper application to a given situation requires the hardest kind of work from the finest available staff.59 Much hard work remains to be done on New Zealand ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy’ to ensure it is a complete and coherent document that offers a way to develop an “optimal, long-term counter-terrorism policy approach”60 and equally present a coherent and contemporary understanding of how to effectively protect New Zealand from the threat posed by terrorists and violent extremists.