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

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

Counter-terrorism coordinated public information

The fifth section of New Zealand’s counter-terrorism strategy claims that “the Christchurch terrorist attack highlighted what we’ve known for some time – New Zealand is not immune to terrorism.”35 But who is ‘we?’ It is true that people within New Zealand’s security sector were indeed aware that terrorism was a credible threat, but recent research which looked at the period before 15 March 2019, showed considerable wider societal and bureaucratic ambivalence about the potential risk of terrorism here.36 Those who did suspect the risk, faced resistance from the much greater part of government, the state sector and broader society generally who actually gave the possibility of terrorism little thought.

The public information section of the strategy also asserts that a comprehensive work programme to support “an inclusive, engaged, aware and well-informed society” is required and that: “We will consult with, and get input from, a wide range of stakeholders, including government agencies, Iwi, NGOs, councils and communities.”37 It casts terrorism as a widespread social problem, presuming that within “iwi, NGOs, councils and communities” there is untapped expertise to not only understand it, but to counter it also – when this may not necessarily be the case. The risk of terrorism has traditionally been ignored by most sections of New Zealand society. Those ‘stakeholders’ listed within the strategy are no exception.

Not all terrorism or violent extremism is the same. States that have deeply divided political fault lines, or disenfranchised minorities (or occasionally majorities) have tended to develop secessionist, or revolutionary organisations which have adopted terrorism as a tactic and rooted themselves into the political fabric of those states. The Greek-Cypriot EOKA, Colombian FARC, Algerian FLN, Spanish ETA and the IRA to name a few, ran violent terrorist campaigns for years which only political solutions could ultimately mitigate. While this is often considered ‘old terrorism’ – in reality militant secessionist organisations such as the Continuity IRA, New IRA, ETA, and the Kurdish PKK have all been active in terrorism in the 2010s.

New Zealand has never had a secessionist terrorist organisation, and while this historical pattern is suggestive of a future without one – it is not a certainty that some form of ethno-nationalist terrorist movement will not germinate here. If faced with such a threat, “an inclusive, engaged” society will be a long way off. New Zealand has experienced two short periods of connected sequential political violence. These comprised mainly individuals acting alone or in small groups using bombings, bomb threats and deliberate hoaxes, roughly aligned with strong protest movements and oriented towards changing government policy regarding New Zealand involvement in the Vietnam War (1965-1975) and the Springbok tour (1981). These were deeply polarising social and political issues which prompted mass protest, heavy state enforcement action, and ultimately produced individuals who decided that ‘peaceful