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

how ‘extremism’ can lead to power and the corresponding consequences of extremists in power. Interestingly, in our 2019 analysis, neither the United States Department of Defense (DoD), nor the NZ Police, NZSIS, GCSB or DPMC, provided any definitions for ‘extremism,’ instead only officially using the term in relation to terrorism and counterterrorism.

‘Terrorism’ is equally as difficult to define, however, unlike ‘extremism’, ‘terrorism’ does have more widely accepted definitions and characteristics.12 Importantly, the United States DoD as well as the New Zealand Government and security agencies go some way to defining the term. The United States DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines ‘terrorism’ as “the unlawful use of violence or threat of violence, often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs, to instill fear and coerce governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are usually political.”13 The NZ Police,14 while the lead agency for responding to a terrorist event if it occurs, do not provide any definition for the term, it does link to the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 (TSA) which defines ‘terrorism’ as an act “carried out for the purpose of advancing an ideological, political, or religious cause”15 and with the intention to either “induce terror in a civilian population”16 or “unduly compel or to force a government or an international organisation to do or abstain from doing any act.”17 The Act also sets out specific outcomes tied to ‘terrorism,’ such as destruction, interference, or death, that further enhances the definition. The Act does note that ‘terrorism’ can be motivated by ‘extremism’.18 Although the TSA defines ‘terrorism’, in 2019, there was no working definition for ‘extremism.’ We also found that in 2019, certain New Zealand Government and security agencies provided their own loose definitions for terrorism, rather than quoting the one provided by the TSA. For example, the NZSIS defines localised (domestic) terrorism as:

…individuals and groups in New Zealand that are committed to acts of terrorism, violence and intimidation. These are extremists who advocate using violence to impose their own political, ethnic or religious viewpoint on others.19

Importantly, this statement makes a distinction between ‘terrorism’ as an act and ‘extremism’ as a viewpoint that might motivate violence. However, because there is no consistent definition, we see that the NZSIS potentially extends what it refers to as “extremism” broadly to include many viewpoints. This broad term repeats the haziness inherent in DPMC’s current definition of national security20 which is necessarily wide to include a variety of unknowns but is too broad for operational purposes. In the NZSIS use of the word ‘extremism’ it offers a broad possible variety of ideologies but not necessarily any indication of how holding ‘extremist views’ link to ‘terrorism’ per se. It is likely the link is being stressed to suggest that those ‘extremists’ determined to hold violent views (with questions around intent), require assessment and possibly surveillance.