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 must assume that these definitions have emerged as a response to the inconsistent use of these terms prior to 2019. In our analysis, the definition usefully separates ‘extremism’ from ‘violent extremism’. Where ‘extremists’ are seen as objectionable radical ideologists, unlike ‘violent extremists’ they do not threaten violence to achieve their objectives. In this way, ‘extremists’ are free to exercise their democratic freedom to do/think what they wish. The distinction for overt national security sector attention comes when ‘extremists’ begin to seek to justify the use of violence to achieve their aims. They then become ‘violent extremists.’ ‘Terrorism’ is when a violent act motivated by extremist ideology causes death or injury.

We must assume too that these three definitions relate to threat/risk classifications which determine the amount of national security attention each group receives, with ascending amounts of intervention being applied to those deemed ‘violent extremists’ and possible ‘terrorists.’ Overall, we find the general definitions provided by the document to be helpful to addressing the terminological inconsistency we have demonstrated were endemic prior to its release.

Discussion of Findings

After this brief review of how the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ by the New Zealand Government and security agencies, pre and post the 15 March 2019 attack, five findings are evident. In the first four, we specifically focus on the implications of the inconsistent usage of terms, the changing usage of the terms, the need to consistently define the terms across the national security sector and how a consistent definition would likely enhance national security outcomes. In the fifth finding, we explore how and whether the 2020 DPMC’s ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy’ has addressed the first four findings related to the prior terminological inconsistencies.

There has been inconsistent usage of the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’: Prior to the 15 March attack, the term ‘extremism’ was barely used, only appearing in the year prior and in reference to right-wing nationalism. Also prior to the 15 March attack, the term ‘terrorism’ was only used in relation to Middle Eastern conflicts, and specifically the actions attributed to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Islamic ideology. Following the attack, ‘extremism,’ and then later ‘violent extremism,’ were used as characteristic descriptors related to ‘terrorism’ by each agency analysed, with the exception of the NZ Police. In addition, the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern has not been consistent with her usage of the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism,’ in relation to the 15 March attack. We suggest that this inconsistency of usage directly influences not only government and security agencies, but also the media and general population. It is imperative for the terms to be clearly defined, and consistently applied so that the executive can deliver concise, clear,