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

factual and consistent language and information for any future ‘extremist’ or ‘terrorist’ concerns facing New Zealand. At this stage, we see no evidence that the new DPMC definitions have encouraged security agencies, and the media, to follow suit with consistent and concise usage of this language.

Usage of the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ evolved in 2019: Prior to 2020, the terms ‘extremism, ’violent extremism,’ and ‘terrorism’ were used interchangeably or with imprecise links to each other, but the way they have been employed has evolved. Prior to 2018, there was little mention of ‘extremism’ in the national security vernacular. Between 2018 and 2019, there was some indication, from the Ministry of Defence, Prime Minister, and NZSIS, that ‘extremism’ was becoming a security concern. Despite this indication and usage, no further definitions for ‘extremism’ were provided. Although there was an increased focus on ‘extremist’ ideology, the focus came under the umbrella of ‘terrorism.’ After the 15 March attack, the term ‘extremism,’ and then more specifically ‘violent extremism,’ was increasingly used to explain the motivation for the attack, although it was almost always used in an unexplained connection with the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist.’ As such, it’s not clear whether the terms were (and are still) used as synonyms or whether one (terrorism) refers to the violent act and the other (extremism) to the ideological motivation. Given, that we see little evidence of the new DPMC definitions being used across the national security sector, there remains real risk that the terms are being used synonymously, uncritically or inconsistently by some in government.

There remains a need to consistently define the terms extremism and terrorism: Regardless of whether the term ‘extremism’ relates to an ideological motivator for violence or whether it is simply a synonym post the 15 March attack, it stands to reason that the definitions for both ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ did need to be updated and clarified. Given that the DPMC have now employed two definitions of ‘extremism,’ perhaps the terms should also be defined in the TSA? The definition of a terrorist act, as set out in the TSA, describes the intent and outcome of a terrorist act, and thus could be modified to include specific characteristics that pre-empt terrorist attacks, such as ‘extremism’ leading to ‘violent extremism.’ Having both terms clearly defined in New Zealand law might help to systematically reduce the ambiguity and misuse of the terms. However, in the U.K. such a legal definition provided in an Act was discarded after it was criticised for potentially criminalising legitimate political and religious activity.41 This shows the problem of using the term ‘extremism’ in the national security vernacular, as holding ideologies is an important and legitimate democratic right. Perhaps, a more palatable alternative would be to have DPMC definitions consistently employed and defined by NZ Police, NZSIS and the GSCB in policy, speeches and websites. This would not only better reflect the events that have occurred in New Zealand, but would also be ground zero for achieving consistent language throughout Government and security agencies.

Consistency of definitions will enhance national security: In 2019, both Ardern and Kitteridge have called on the New Zealand public to be vigilant in the face