The Inconsistent Usage of the Terms “Extremism” and “Terrorism” Around the Christchurch Mosque Attacks

Authors: Holly Vandenberg and William Hoverd1

Published in National Security Journal, 12 June 2020

Download full PDF version – The Inconsistent Usage of the Terms “Extremism” and “Terrorism” Around the Christchurch Mosque Attacks (408 KB)


This research note briefly explores both the pre-attack and post-attack language employed by New Zealand’s security agencies and the New Zealand Prime Minister, specifically with regards to the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism.’ It demonstrates that throughout 2019, national security references to the Christchurch attacker were inconsistent in their use of the terms ‘extremist’ and ‘terrorist.’ We argue that this inconsistency indicates confusion and directly influences government and security agencies, as well as, the media and general population. Consequently, it is imperative for the terms to be clearly defined so that the executive and national security sector can deliver concise, clear, factual and consistent language and information for any future extremist or terrorist concerns facing New Zealand. Moreover, at this stage, we see no evidence that the new 2020 DPMC definitions of these two terms have encouraged consistent and concise language around these terms across the sector. We stress that an improvement in this language consistency will, ultimately, achieve better national security outcomes and lead to a safer New Zealand.

Keywords: Christchurch Terror Attack, National Security, Extremism, Terrorism, New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, Counter Terrorism, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, New Zealand Police and the Government Communication Security Bureau.


On 15 March 2019 during Friday Prayer, the Christchurch Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Avenue Islamic Centre were attacked by a gunman, resulting in the death of 51 people and injuries to 49 others. In 2019, national and international government agencies, heads of state, academics, and media, all used different language to describe these events and the attacker. Since the event, inconsistent terminology has been used


1 Holly Vandenberg is a student in security studies at Massey University; Dr Wil Hoverd is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University, Wellington. Contact: