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

Authors: Vandenberg, H. & Hoverd, W.
Published in National Security Journal, 12 June 2020

we feel that in practice the problem of the synonymous, uncritical use or inconsistent use of the terms remains. Unless one is particularly focused on the minute detail, there remains a strong risk that the two terms will continue to be used inconsistently across the national security sector (who have not yet consistently publicly taken up the document), the executive, media and the population. It would be useful for DPMC to open a conversation about what they mean and intend by employing these definitions and stress consistency of usage across the sector.


The primary finding of this research note is that there was inconsistent use of the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ in national security discourse prior to and post the 15 March attack. In 2019, the Prime Minister did not use the terms consistently, and neither did the relevant security agencies, with the exception of the NZSIS. Although the term terrorism is defined in the TSA, in 2019 this definition was not reiterated on any of the relevant information sites for the DPMC, NZSIS, GCSB, Christchurch Call, CTAG, or the NZ Police. Prior to 2020, the NZSIS was the most consistent and transparent in relation to the terms it used, however this was a task that should ideally have been led by DPMC and mirrored by NZ Police. Nevertheless, in the post 15 March 2019 attack context, the use of the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ has evolved. The use of the term ‘extremism’ has become canon, but it has confusingly evolved to be either an undefined motivator for terrorism (where the relationship is unclear) or a synonym for terrorism. The implication of this evolution is that there remains a need to better disseminate and clarify the new 2020 DPMC definition for both terms in either policy or law, in a more contemporary and relevant way, so as to ensure consistency of language (and by implication, cohere operational practice and policy) through all aspects of government and security agencies. We stress that continued improvement in language consistency can achieve a clearer vision of these problems that would, ultimately, better enhance national security outcomes and lead to a safer New Zealand.