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

Unfortunately, the GCSB, DPMC, nor CTAG21 which was established specifically to assess terrorism threats within and external to New Zealand, do not provide any definitions for ‘terrorism’ or ‘extremism’. We argue that the problem of inconsistent definitions, as well as the evidence that the terms extremism and terrorism are being used, at times interchangeably, has led to a disconnect in the 2019 language used in relation to extremism and terrorism by the New Zealand Government and security agencies, prior to, and post, the 15 March attack.

We now explore how the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has used the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism.’ Prior to the Christchurch attack, in a 2018 joint statement with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Ardern noted that the two countries needed to work together to “combat terrorism and counter violent extremism.”22 This is one of the earliest statements by Ardern that signals counter-terrorism directives would be broadly expanded to include ‘extremism.’ This directive was also confirmed in the Ministry of Defence ‘Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018’.23

We now turn to review briefly how Ardern has used the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ post 15 March 2019. In a House statement four days after the attack, Ardern refers to the alleged attacker as a “terrorist…[and]…extremist.”24 Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters speaking on the same day also used both the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ in relation to the attack.25 Two months later, in Ardern’s opening statement at the Christchurch Call in France, Ardern again referenced ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremist’ violence in relation to the 15 March attacker.26 And yet, in Ardern’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September 2019, Ardern referenced the 15 March attack as ‘terrorism’ exclusively, and omitted the term ‘extremism.’27 This omission was despite the goal of the Christchurch Call, specifically initiated by Ardern, being to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content.”28 Critically, we see that the Prime Minister has tended, when speaking to the New Zealand public, to link the two terms together without necessarily clarifying a definition of either term, and also using both terms interchangeably.

We now repeat the before and after analysis with regards to NZ Police. In 2016, the NZ Police released an advisory document in reference to the TSA.29 This advisory document contained no reference to ‘extremism.’ In a NZ Police update almost a month after the Christchurch attack, the only mention of ‘extremism’ was in reference to it being 1 of 19 indicators of terrorist activity.30 The counter-terrorism page for the NZ Police, as of May 2020, still makes no reference to ‘extremism.’31 The Commissioner of Police, Mike Bush (retired April 2020), did not once refer to ‘extremism,’ either in reference to ‘terrorism,’ the 15 March attack, or otherwise.

Turning to our intelligence agencies, Rebecca Kitteridge, Director General of the NZSIS, has consistently referred to ‘extremism’ in relation to ‘terrorism,’ both pre and post the 15 March attack. In February 2019, following on from Ardern’s 2018