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

by experts to describe the attack and attacker. For example, the individual who committed the attack has since been described as a lone-wolf, lone-attacker, extremist, far-right extremist, right-wing nationalist, right-wing terrorist, white supremacist, racist, ecofascist, member of the alt-right, alleged terrorist, and terrorist.1 Our analysis of this 2019 language, focused on the different descriptors ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’, and finds these terms were used consistently. This uncritical and potentially synonymous use of these two terms portray these as similar and overlapping, but ultimately they are, and must be, separate concepts.

Notably, in our discussion of the definitions and official usage of the terms, we explore both the pre-attack and post-attack language employed by New Zealand’s security agencies and the Prime Minister. We show that over this period any reference to the Christchurch attacker inconsistently applied the terms ‘extremist’ and ‘terrorist.’ We also demonstrate that this language disconnect occurred throughout 2019, both prior to the 15 March attack as well as after the attack. Lastly, we contextualise this 2019 finding through a discussion of the newly minted, but under-publicised, definitions of the two terms as they are outlined in the 2020 Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s (DPMC) ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy.’2

We argue that the 2020 DPMC definition of the terms ‘extremism’, ‘violent extremism,’ and ‘terrorism’ are a positive start to addressing the inconsistency of language. But there are still inconsistency and interpretation challenges around the ways in which the terms are applied, not least that they can be used as synonyms for each other. In our conclusion, we stress that an improvement in language consistency can achieve a clearer cross-sectorial vision of these problems that would, ultimately, better achieve national security outcomes and lead to a safer New Zealand.


Data on the language usage of ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ as assessed by this research note was drawn from websites, documents and speeches relating to terrorism as disseminated by the following national security agencies: DPMC, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS), the Government Communication Security Bureau (GCSB), the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) and NZ Police. Data was also obtained from speeches by the Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. Supporting data is also drawn from certain New Zealand Defence Force sources (NZDF). Using 15 March 2019 as a fulcrum point for comparison, it assessed 2018 and pre-15 March 2019, ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ usage with post-15 March 2019 discussion of the topics by these agencies. Finally, the analysis of this language, is brought into dialogue with the 2020 DPMC’s ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy’. In our Findings & Discussion section, we outline five findings: