Interview: Call out extremist behaviour, define underpinning values

Line of Defence Magazine - Autumn 2019

Embraer KC-390
Call out extremism
Every citizen bears a responsibility to call out extremist language and behaviour.

Dr Richard Shortt, former Combined Threat Assessment Group manager (New Zealand Police/NZ Security Intelligence Service) and national security policy advisor (Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet), suggests the need for a circumspect response to extremism.

LoD: There are reports that the perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque shootings had come to New Zealand for training and attack preparation. Is there a likelihood that New Zealand is harbouring terror support and training networks?

RS: New Zealand, as a liberal, western democracy has the potential to be misused in this way. We need only look back in the past decade to see at least one other occasion where NZ Police felt there was ‘training’ taking place and that people harboured unacceptable views, some would argue extreme views. 

There was an outcry when this became public, rightly for the way the operation was handled in my view, but underlying it was a sinister commentary that was dismissed by some at the time as ‘that does not happen here’. I am confident that New Zealand Police and NZSIS are constantly alert to the possibility (however remote) of support and training networks (or groups) and if information is supplied to either agency about such activity by concerned citizens it will be looked at appropriately.

I am confident that extremism, of whatever ideological background, is of concern to New Zealand’s security agencies. We have watched with interest the right wing activities overseas. Before 9/11 right-wing extremism and extreme nationalism was the primary threat in the US for law enforcement. Unfortunately, in more recent years we have seen this scourge spread further afield. Extremism is the threat.

LoD: In the wake of the attack, gun control has been raised as an area that needs tightening. Do you agree? To what extent can tighter gun control legislation have an impact given the existence of illegal avenues for the sourcing of weapons

RS: Guns in the wrong hands are a lethal mix. No amount of legislation will remove all of the risk associated with the presence and legitimate use of firearms in society. 

However, like the shootings at Aromoana, these recent tragic events present a further opportunity to review the legislation in New Zealand and to determine if it is still adequately balances access to firearms by sporting and recreational users and the ability to keep society safe from those who would seek to use firearms for evil. The types of firearms available, the capacity of magazines, the sale of ammunition and the vetting of licence holders (both when applying for a licence and during the life of the licence) will all no doubt be looked at.

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LoD: Online forums providing outlets for extremist ideologies and hate speech appear to play a role in attacks such as this. What possible mechanisms do the New Zealand government have in terms of enhanced monitoring and controls?

RS: I am confident that both Police and NZSIS are aware of the online sites involved and seek, within the law as it stands, to monitor their use. They provide an opportunity to identify individuals of security concern through the ‘telescoping’ of a person’s extreme views and possibly their intentions and capabilities. 

But, saying things online may not be sufficient to put a person into a security case file and to warrant resources to further check on  them, or to surveil their activity. The bar for that is high, as it should be. I am sure questions will be asked about how effective our current monitoring of social media is, and whether the current legislative arrangements permit appropriate oversight by security agencies.

LoD: Is the New Zealand Police and intelligence agencies adequately resourced and structured to focus on the identification and monitoring of fixated persons?

RS: The agencies themselves will need to answer this question. However, as with all government agencies in small countries the funding of activities is always dependant on proved need, political policy settings and just how much funding is available to cover all of the country’s needs. Our resources in NZ are not limitless and need to be allocated carefully.

I suspect in the wake of this tragedy security agencies will be asked to submit additional funding bids through the coordinating agencies like DPMC for consideration by Government. They will also be asked to comment on their current legislative settings and to advise if any of these need review or modification in light of what we discover about the events leading up to these tragic attacks.

LoD: What are the key learnings the New Zealand Government should take away from the mass killing in Christchurch?

RS: For me they are: we are not immune from some of the terrible acts we see perpetrated in other parts of the world; we need to ensure, within reason, that our security agencies are funded appropriately, are working well together to manage and mitigate risk, and, finally, that even with the best professionals, funding and management there remains a residual risk that an individual or small group can perpetrate evil without warning. That’s not an ‘intelligence failure’ necessarily, that’s just reality.

Arising from the above is the need to ensure we have comprehensive understanding of how to build a resilient society that does not ‘knee-jerk’ out of fear or horror, and which can continue to focus on its values and beliefs. Perhaps in New Zealand we need more public discussion of what our society’s underpinning values and beliefs are so that in times of upheaval we can be reminded of them rather than letting emotion and distress drive us.

LoD: Looking ahead, how does this event change New Zealand’s threat landscape and security outlook?

RS: We have had a powerful and horrible reminder of the evils of extremism. The threat landscape continues to be one where extreme views (of all types, hues and persuasions need to be watched with caution. A spirited democratic country can and should have debates about social issues and politics, but the extremists amongst us need to be a focus of security attention. 

We have had through our history a number of criminal and now terrorist outrages, these should just remind us all that a well-resourced, well led and lawfully guided security regime is necessary in today’s world. Some who decry NZSIS and the GCSB (and to a lesser extent NZ Police) may now wish to pause and reflect on their positions. 

We should also be reminded that every citizen bears a responsibility to call out extremist language and behaviour, and to report concerns to authorities so an assessment can be made of the threat they may represent.  

New Zealand is a resilient country. We will rebound from this and be, I trust, stronger for it. We should debate our national values and beliefs to better understand what it is we pride ourselves in as New Zealanders and what we will not tolerate being attacked. These are what make us Kiwis and what should help to steady us in times like this when people try and divide us, to shock us or to drive us towards actions that are not supported by those values and beliefs.


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