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

of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ and encouraged the civilian reporting of unusual behavior. However, at that time these senior leaders did not utilise consistent definitions, nor consistent language, and by the end of that year there was significant risk of the terms being interpreted as synonyms, uncritically or inconsistently. Even after the DPMC definition, it remains difficult for the general population to understand the distinctions between the three terms, or how the terms may relate to each other, or the everyday behaviors people are requested to report. As such, the 2019 call to arms for civilian reporting needs to be now supported by clear and concise definitions that are easily accessible and digestible to the public and consistently applied and ratified across policy and in law. More fundamentally, we have to question if the national security sector and executive could not in 2019 (and even now) consistently define, assess and utilise these terms, how can New Zealanders be assured that there were and are efficacious all-of-government intelligence, surveillance, prevention, policy and legislative operational frameworks being employed to counter-terrorism and keep us safe from harm?

DPMC’s 2020 ‘Countering terrorism and violent extremism national strategy’ is a positive start but it has not disseminated the definitional distinction between ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’: We think this document is important, as it offers a basis to resolve the inconsistent terminological problem identified in this article through a common defined vernacular and these definitions need to be better disseminated for broader discussion. However, our final analysis turns to the strategy itself with a critical view to its use of the term ‘extremism.’ Today, the term ‘extremism’ is now officially ensconced within the national security lexicon, where before 2019 it was not. We still believe that the DPMC document and its definition of two ‘extremism’ terms needs additional clarity. The definitions are not prominent in the document, they are contained within a footnote mid-way through it. In the document itself, the terms are always discussed in the following order “Terrorism and extremism,” where ‘extremism’ is secondary. It is not clear why the terms are linked together and why extremism is secondary to terrorism? It is tautological to explain that all terrorists are violent extremists. Moreover, the order assumes all terrorists are extremists, when this is not always the case, i.e., Nelson Mandela accepted he was a terrorist, but not a violent extremist. The same could be said for the Rainbow Warrior bombers. If we reversed the order beginning with violent extremist ideology, we could then offer an identifier of who might be a potential terrorist actor.

Critically, outside of the footnote definition there is no discussion of ‘extremism’ in the document. The document never opens a discussion of the relationship between the two terms and it does not relate a discussion of ‘extremism’ to the strategy’s goals and timelines. It assumes that ‘extremism’ is important and a risk to New Zealand, but it never states explicitly how it is a risk. The broad challenge around why ‘extremism’ is important, needs clarification and an explicit relational link to terrorism, and perhaps even that extends a relationship to the document’s demand for social inclusion and prevention. But ultimately, despite the footnote and its useful definition of the terms,