New Zealand’s spy agencies were aware of the rise of far-right extremists ahead of Friday’s terrorist attack, but some are rightly questioning whether they took the threat of an attack on New Zealand soil seriously enough.

In the wake of the Christchurch attack, there have rightly been questions asked about whether the country’s security and intelligence agencies should have, or could have, known what was coming.

Within hours of the attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was asking questions of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

And on Monday, she announced there would be an inquiry into how the terrorist went undetected ahead of the attack – despite his online presence – and whether he should have, or could have, been stopped.

Chiefs of the SIS and GCSB said they welcomed the inquiry. SIS boss Rebecca Kitteridge said there were important questions, which needed answers.

“We embrace the opportunity to learn from this terrible experience,” she said in a statement.

While the GCSB’s Andrew Hampton said “it is of the utmost importance that the public are assured that GCSB acted lawfully and appropriately”.

Following significant reviews, which identified areas of under-performance and risk, the 2016 Budget included an increase of $178.7 million in the investment in the agencies over four years.

That the security and intelligence agencies had added resources, but were still unable to stop this killer, has raised further scrutiny from experts and the public.

Aware of the rise of the far-right

In the days since the Christchurch attack, Ardern and Little have repeatedly been asked whether the agencies were focusing on Islamic terror threats, at the expense of ignoring the rise of the alt-right.

By nature, the agencies reveal little about their work, but Little has talked about the far-right SIS work programme started nine months ago.

“Over the last nine months, NZSIS has increased its effort to obtain a better picture of the threat posed to New Zealand by far-right extremist groups. The NZSIS has, over recent years, received a number of tips from the public concerning right-wing extremism and has taken each one seriously,” Kitteridge said in her statement.

Little went further to explain the work programme, which included a broad threatscape assessment, as well as investigating specific far-right groups and individuals deemed to be a risk.

During the past nine months, and before, the agencies had received tip-offs regarding right-wing extremism – all taken seriously, he said.

“Internationally the slow, but concerning, rise of right-wing extremism also continues.”

Just because the programme started nine months ago did not mean that the issue wasn’t already there, or that there weren’t search or surveillance warrants issued in relation to that sort of activity in the past, Little said, adding that the warrants he’d signed were not limited to one type of extremism.

“I think there’s always a balance between what looks like online, or publicly-reported rhetoric – even if it is over the top – and what constitutes real threats – physical and safety threats, to individual people or communities.

“And I think the agencies got to a point last year where they thought, given the rhetoric and actions in other parts of the world, it was time to develop a ‘discreet and explicit response’ to this particular type of violent extremism.”

The Islamic Women’s Council said it raised concerns about threats at the highest levels, including in a 2016 meeting with the SIS. But said those complaints were not taken seriously.

Little said he had met with representatives from the Muslim community last year. Following that meeting, the community representatives met with the SIS.

“And I know the SIS did take them, and does take, seriously threats to communities or to individuals based on that type of extremism,” he said.

Meanwhile, during her public statement to the Intelligence and Security Committee in February, Kitteridge included a single, but specific, reference to the far-right.

“Internationally the slow, but concerning, rise of right-wing extremism also continues,” she said.

Peppered throughout the agency’s public statements to the committee, and unclassified annual reports for the past few years, are references to New Zealand-based individuals with extremist ideology, or those “espousing support for violent extremism”. In these cases, the SIS does not specify the ideology.

‘Looking under the wrong rock’

While there was a single, explicit mention in Kitteridge’s statement to the committee last month, and other general statements regarding violent extremism, the majority of the oxygen has been clearly given to the threat of Islamic extremism.

This raises the legitimate questions of did the spy agencies start looking into the rise of the far-right soon enough? And were their efforts skewed towards the likes of Isis, Al Qaeda, returning fighters, Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia, and the so-called jihadi brides?

University of Otago professor of international relations Robert Patman said much of the world’s consciousness of terrorism had been shaped by the aftermath of 9/11 and the rise of Isis.

“But there has been another trend creeping up.”

Populist politicians around the world had stoked the frustrations and desperation of people who had become disenfranchised following the GFC, Patman said. Globalisation promised so much, but delivered for so few.

Like many, Patman believed the 28-year-old gunman was radicalised on the internet; in the global political climate.

New Zealand’s history, and isolation made it “slightly blind to a terrorist threat”, he said, adding that this made the Christchurch attack so shocking.

“The lone wolf is difficult to detect, but it’s their job to detect that person.”

New Zealand’s MMP electoral system also kept the far-right from becoming factions of mainstream political parties, which largely kept them out of the general consciousness.

Patman took the Government at face value when it said the spy agencies were monitoring far-right extremist groups and specific people they deemed a threat.

University of Waikato professor of international law Alexander Gillespie said many were aware of the rise of the far-right, but experts and agencies weren’t watching them close enough.

“There’s no monopoly on hatred and anger, but we need to be particularly concerned about the far right at the moment, and that was part of the problem with the last attack.

“People weren’t looking at the far right. You’ve got to look wider and deeper than we have been,” he said.

On Thursday, Gillespie told RNZ he was “laughed off” when he raised the risk of a mass shooting in 2016.

He raised the issue of New Zealand’s gun laws and the rise of extremism during the Parliamentary inquiry into the illegal possession of firearms.

Gillespie told RNZ this was not an ‘I told you so moment’. “Everyone, including me, was looking in the wrong place.”

Could he be stopped?

Gillespie told RNZ the security and intelligence agencies could have done more.

“The lone wolf is difficult to detect, but it’s their job to detect that person… If you look at the profile of the extreme right, many of those people leave fingerprints beforehand, and this follows a template, and I think a mistake’s been made.”

At this stage, what the SIS and GCSB knew or were watching, is speculation, but further information will come to light through the inquiry.

However, it is clear the SIS was alerted to this type of attack.

The 2018 annual report says: “Overseas experience shows that it is possible for someone who is not known to security and intelligence agencies to move from radicalised to undertaking a terrorist attack or other action in a short timeframe, often with minimal forewarning.

“While the NZSIS and law enforcement counterparts work hard to identify and mitigate threats, it is possible that an isolated individual, unknown to these agencies, could be inspired to carry out a terrorist act in New Zealand.”

In recent years, Kitteridge has been explicit in her comments around New Zealand’s “low” security threat status (which was elevated to “high” for the first time on Friday).

Low meant an attack was assessed as possible, but not expected. “Low does not mean no threat. The threat level is continually under review and can change, and we need to be prepared for that.”

In terms of powers held by the agencies, New Zealand does not have laws that allowed mass surveillance, or the ability to carry out ‘wholesale spying’.

These types of measures have been mooted in the past, but there has not been the public sentiment.

Minister in charge of the spy agencies Andrew Little says the focus was not confined to one type of ideology or extremism. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

This means New Zealand does not have a system like the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA), where all communications and online activities are monitored, and specific pictures or terms trigger an alert.

“New Zealand’s intelligence and security agencies do not currently have the legal authority, technical means or resources to actively monitor all online activity that occurs in New Zealand,” GCSB’s Hampton said in a statement on Monday.

“In addition, all intelligence and security agencies are grappling with the challenges of encryption and closed online communities.”

Little explained the security and intelligence agencies couldn’t access closed Facebook pages or online communities, if they didn’t know they were there.

They first needed to know the communities existed, then get a warrant or approach the social media companies to gain access.

Moving forward

The Prime Minister is yet to announce the terms of reference of the inquiry, and whether it would be a royal commission, independent inquiry, or ministerial inquiry.

For now, authorities including the SIS, GCSB, Customs, Immigration and Police, were working to build a watertight case against the attacker.

Little said the agencies were also alerted to the possibility of retaliatory or copycat attacks, particularly in light of a reported Isis call for retaliation, and inflammatory remarks by Turkey’s president.

“Knowing how monstrous the events were on Friday, it was not unexpected, somewhere in the world, someone would make a comment like that,” he said.

“I think people can be reassured our authorities, the spy agencies, the police and our other authorities, are alert to that, and preventing retaliatory action is foremost amongst their concerns.”

The New Zealand security threat level remains high.

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