Countering terrorism where there’s ‘apparently’ no terrorism to counter

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2018

Embraer KC-390
Terrorism: Rainbow Warrior
Terrorism in NZ: The bombed Rainbow Warrior after re-floating in December 1985. Source: Wikipedia/Ot.

New Zealanders’ sense of security from the threat of terrorism, writes Dr John Battersby of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, is based on the belief that terrorism happens elsewhere. History tells us otherwise.

Countering terrorism where there appears none to counter has meant New Zealand defers to the wisdom of those who have recently experienced it.  We impose their current experience onto our future, telling ourselves, or simply accepting it when we are told, that “it is only a matter of time” and “it’s not if, but when.”

Not surprisingly such predictions are unconvincing and do not gain traction.

New Zealand’s national security practitioners know they will be held to account if a terrorist attack occurs that they failed to stop. But until one does, they will struggle to gain acceptance for the measures they need to prevent one. The fact remains, terrorism is – and always has been – extremely unlikely here.

The solution is simple: New Zealanders need to wake up to the fact that despite its improbability, terrorism has already occurred here.

Our reaction to it has always been a state of denial – we already have accepted terrorism as normal criminal behaviour, often even forgiven and forgotten it.  This has resulted in an overarching and flawed assumption that terrorism is something remote and foreign, which does not happen here.

Terrorism was extremely unlikely to have occurred in New Zealand in the 1970s. Yet during that decade there were 20-30 bombings, fire bombings, deliberate arsons or IEDs located prior to exploding. These were prompted by domestic political reactions to our involvement in the Vietnam War, our sporting contacts with South Africa and French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

In 1975 international terrorism came to New Zealand with a plot uncovered to bomb the High Commission of India by members of a small overseas-based religious sect. The same year, a New Zealand-based Christian religious cult in North Canterbury was raided by police who found over 100 firearms and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, apparently in preparation for the second coming of Christ.

These events occurred more than a decade before the Waco incident starkly revealed the potential for closed cults preparing for, and prepared to use, violence.

Terrorism was extremely unlikely to have occurred in New Zealand in the 1980s, but that decade saw an increase in the frequency and lethality of politically motivated violence here.

During the 1981 Springbok Rugby tour there were no fewer than five bombings, four IEDs located prior to detonation, over 30 bomb threats and multiple death threats recorded against rugby players, rugby union officials or police officers. Two people were arrested intending to take firearms to crowded locations to shoot at those protesting against the tour – terrorism was evoked on both sides of the tour divide. However, the largely anti-tour dominant record has deliberately omitted the uncomfortable reality of the terrorism it evoked, presumably lest it tarnish those otherwise engaged in a noble cause.

Later in 1981, a shot was fired at Queen Elizabeth during her visit to New Zealand – if the shot had struck her – the Head of State of over a dozen countries would have been gunned down on New Zealand soil. The ramifications of that would be impossible now to quantify.

Fortunately the bullet missed, the incident was kept quiet, and we continued on as if nothing had happened.

The following year, another lone actor exploded a bomb inside the foyer of the National Police Computer Centre, killing himself. A bomb exploded in the Wellington Trades Hall killing its caretaker in 1984, to be followed a year later by the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in what was the most highly organised terrorist conspiracy ever to occur here. In 1987, an Air New Zealand flight was hijacked in Fiji, following the military coup that had just taken place.

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In the twenty-first century, terrorism remains unlikely in New Zealand, but all the same, threats to contaminate public utilities were made in 2003. In 2007, activists using Urewera forest camps for ‘training’ were disrupted by a much criticised police operation – the nature of the activities of those activists has never been fully explained.

In 2014, threats to contaminate milk products if the use of 1080 poison in New Zealand did not cease, cost the country an estimated $37 million in lost income. More recently, individuals have been prosecuted for possession of jihadist propaganda. New Zealand’s most well-known foreign fighter, Mark Taylor, called for sympathisers to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli landings by attacking police officers or soldiers at ANZAC Day 2015.

In recent months, several threats have emerged to damage structures and harm DOC staff over the continued used of 1080 poison.

Despite all of this, not a single individual involved in any of these events has ever been prosecuted for terrorism.  This is clearly not because of an absence of violence, or threats of violence, undertaken deliberately to influence the political environment of the day.

The reason for our reticence is because we have preferred to adopt a culture of denial – not accepting that acts of political violence have happened here, and that they can, and will, happen again. On top of this, our record of being a reluctant legislator assists the assumption of terrorism’s absence here.

In 1987 New Zealand enacted backward-looking legislation, which lacked the flexibility to adapt to future changes in the international terror-scape.  In 2002, we did the minimum necessary to meet international obligations in legislation that was otherwise unreferenced to a practical counter-terrorism strategy developed for New Zealand conditions.

The faults and flaws of the International Terrorism (Emergency Powers) Act 1987 and the Suppression of Terrorism Act 2002 have been discussed in a previous issue of Line of Defence.

Compounding the problem of terrorism’s invisibility here is our Public Records Act, which allows agencies to defer the transfer of records to National Archives on national security grounds, potentially indefinitely.  This compares unfavourably to Australia where all agencies must transfer their holdings and assess classified material for release after 20 years.

In New Zealand, there is no such clarity, leaving much of our national security past hidden from critical and academic review, unless – in a process that resembles a game of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ – some intrepid researcher manages to pry out files using the Official Information Act.

The mantra of greater transparency and of demystifying ‘national security,’ has been preached by a number of noted practitioners across the security sector – but much of our past remains inaccessible.

The assumption that we are safe from terrorism is an optical illusion we have created for ourselves. Terrorism has always been unlikely here, but that does not make us safe from it.

Ideas that have prompted threats or acts of violence have always been able to germinate here, and other impetuses have travelled here from outside.  The harnessing of cyberspace as a conveyor of terrorist ideology has made dangerous ideas more accessible.

The ad hoc approach we have taken over the last fifty years, has functioned more by good luck than good strategy – and in a rapidly changing, high technology world – the future will need a more considered approach.

We can prepare for something that may never happen; or we can wait until some atrocity is actually carried out here, and after the fact join the chorus demanding to know why no one took steps to stop it.



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