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How Is New Zealand Doing in the Terror Stakes?

Last year, New Zealand's terror alert was upgraded from very low, all the way up to low. We spoke to an security expert from Massey University about what that means.

by Tim Jesudason
Jan 27 2015, 12:00am

Image via Flickr user Yortw

Since the rise of the Islamic State, countries around the globe have been bumping up security and tightening civil liberties in the name of national safety. And while New Zealand is generally considered to be a simultaneously quaint and progressive oasis, even it isn't immune to this global trend. So how is New Zealand doing in the terror stakes?

According to Professor Caroline Ziemke from the Centre of Defence and Security Studies at New Zealand's Massey University, radicalisation — while rare — tends to happen within crime circles. "There is a certain population in New Zealand, particularly of young men, who were converted in prison and have latched onto this ideology of radical Islamism," she says. According to her, the majority of these men are drawn to extremism as a way of personal retribution, rather than a particular allegiance to religion.

This is not unusual. For a long time criminologists have identified jails as being high-risk areas for radicalisation. The causes are complex, but often stem from resentment. As a 2013 study from Queensland University of Technology suggested "the root cause of prison radicalisation is related to overcrowding of maximum security prisons, with few rehabilitative programmes, and a shortage of chaplains to provide religious guidance." This, combined with a lot of spare time, is how garden-variety inmates become vengeful extremists.

Bomb scare in central Wellington, 2005. Image via Flickr user Phillip Capper

The problem is minute, but Ziemke argues it's one of the country's leading sources of radicalism. And while New Zealand has few potential targets, such as provocative magazines or significant landmarks, she also believes this could be seen as a weakness. New Zealand is a very open society," she says. "While that is a tremendous strength, it also means that we don't have the level of day-to-day vigilance like other places do."

Indeed, few things in the country's history would encourage vigilance. In the past 50 years New Zealand has been reassuringly free of terrorism, with only two exceptions. The first happened in 1982 when a man named Neil Roberts attempted to blow up the main computer system of the Wanganui Police Station. He was killed by his own bomb but the computer was left unharmed. Then, in 1984, a suitcase containing explosives was found in the Wellington Trades Hall. It killed the building's caretaker, along with his dog, but no one ever claimed responsibility. And although not terrorism in the traditional sense, there was the case in July 1985 when Greenpeace's star vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, was sunk by French mines. The French government later admitted to the sinking the ship, which had been protesting their nuclear tests on Mururoa Atoll.

After the 1980s, New Zealand returned to relatively quiet. Then, in December last year,Parliament passed a bill to implement new counter-terror laws. The bill permits their Security Intelligence Service to conduct video surveillance on suspected terrorists for up to 24 hours without a warrant. It also grants them the ability to cancel passports. The bill is basically a copy of legislation unveiled in UK and Australia.

Along with the new law, Prime Minister John Key announced that the government had a watch-list of 30 to 40 people in their "foreign fighter category." As he explained, "some are people involved in funding terrorism, people who are trying to radicalise others, and people who themselves are becoming radicalised and interested in fighting for ISIL." In line with this announcement, New Zealand's terror alert was upgraded from very low, all the way up to low. Yes Kiwis are living in the same 2015 as the rest of the world, but New Zealand is still a pretty safe place.

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