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

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

Controversy has haunted this Act, its definition, design, tautology and application have all been problematic and it was not until the worst mass killing in New Zealand’s modern history occurred in 2019 – the 15 March terrorist attack in Christchurch – that an actual charge was laid under it. Amendments to the Act have been made from time to time, but these were reactions to international expectations, and no underlying strategy existed to govern or guide how New Zealand should approach the impact of international terrorism generally, let alone how it might deal with the manifestation of terrorism on home soil. The release of the ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy,’ in February 2020, some five months after Cabinet approval, was a major step forward in New Zealand’s realisation that it needed to be visibly better prepared to coordinate a national approach to counter terrorism from high-level policy, to legislation, through to practice on the ground.

The aim of this paper is to evaluate New Zealand’s first publicly released counterterrorism strategy. To provide a framework for this evaluation, a brief exploration of what strategy is will be made along with a review of what might be considered core elements of any security strategy. The paper will then undertake a cursory review of the counter-terrorism strategy documents of New Zealand’s Five Eyes partners against this framework prior to evaluating each section of the New Zealand strategy in detail. In considering each section of this strategy document, the authors seek to overview purpose and effectiveness by drawing out the complexity that lies beneath the activity outlined. In doing this, the authors provide insights into how New Zealand’s strategy might be enhanced to clearly identify, and better address, the threat posed by terrorism. This is a critical approach, but it is also designed to be constructive. By highlighting the importance and value in presenting a comprehensive foundational document focused on all of the key aspects of contemporary counter-terrorism, the authors hope to persuade those responsible for subsequent iterations of the strategy to adopt a more detailed, less public relations-oriented, approach.

What is Strategy?

The term ‘strategy’ is used, and abused, in various contexts. There are grand strategies, corporate strategies, financial strategies, sports strategies and so on. For these reasons, strategy has become something of an elastic concept, layered by misunderstanding and ambiguity, often overlooked in contemporary policy debates and frequently avoided by policymakers.2 At its core though, strategy is about the direction and use made of means by chosen ways in order to achieve desired ends.4 From a national security perspective, strategy is a serious business which “lies at the interface between operational capabilities and political objectives and is the glue which binds each to the other and gives both sense”.5 In wartime, security strategy can mean the difference between success and defeat, or life and death. In peacetime it ensures that threats to security can be either managed, defeated or, ideally, prevented before they become security issues.

For this reason, understanding strategy as well as how to develop it, is essential for the survival of a nation.6 With this in mind, along with recent security issues related to terrorism in New Zealand – most notably the events of the 15 March 2019 attacks in Christchurch, the authors were pleased to learn that a long overdue New Zealand ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy2 had been developed and released into the public domain by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC).7

The development of strategy and the placing of it into the public domain serves several purposes according to Stolberg.8 Firstly, it works as a broad construct for various government agencies to ensure that they understand the intent of the political officials of the day. Secondly, it informs the legislative body within a country of the resource requirements for the strategy and, in doing so, facilitates the fiscal approval processes. Thirdly, strategy serves as a communications tool for both domestic and foreign audiences. In addition to the various purposes of strategy, DuMont9 identifies certain basic elements that a security strategy should contain to be complete and coherent, as well as a range of additional elements that are not strictly necessary for a strategy to be viable but which can enhance the ability to implement it by a nation state. For efficiency, this article will focus only on the basic, or core, elements which include:

  • an endorsement by the head of government,
  • an accurate reflection of national values,
  • a clear articulation of national interests,
  • a declaration of strategic vision,
  • an identification and assessment of future challenges,
  • a risk assessment,
  • an overview of required resources,
  • an effective timeframe,
  • measures of effectiveness, and
  • basic implementation guidance.

While all of these are considered core elements, it is acknowledged that the extent to which these can be covered in any specific strategy document may vary considerably.

Counter-Terrorism Strategies of our Five Eyes Partners

Armed with a framework for understanding the purpose for, and core elements of, a security strategy, the authors cast an eye over the counter-terrorism strategies of other nations, specifically our Five Eyes partners. While all present unique considerations to terrorism specific to their own particular nation, and share certain commonalities,