An international law expert says New Zealand is quickly being left behind as a country yet to designate any far-right groups as terrorist organisations

Australia’s recent decision to designate the far-right Sonnenkrieg Divison (SKD) a “listed terrorist organisation” risks leaving New Zealand behind as a country which has yet to label any far-right groups as terrorist organisations.

It comes amidst greater openness from intelligence agencies overseas about the threat of the far right. In March, the United Sates’ Director of National Intelligence warned that white supremacists and militias “present the most lethal [domestic violent extremist] threats, with [white supremacists] most likely to conduct mass-casualty attacks against civilians”. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation said right-wing extremism made up about 40 percent of the agency’s caseload last year.

New Zealand’s own spy agency, the Security Intelligence Service, has been quieter on these issues, but director-general Rebecca Kitteridge did tell a select committee that half of the organisation’s counterterrorism effort was dedicated to the far-right.

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Although the terrorist responsible for the March 15 mosque shootings was added to New Zealand’s Designated Terrorist Entities list in 2020, no groups or organisations have been added. While the Government says no groups have met the threshold in the Terrorism Suppression Act for designation, University of Waikato international law professor Al Gillespie told Newsroom that was starting to change elsewhere.

“The problem you’ve got is that most of the terror actors on the far right are not organised in groups – they tend to be individuals and lone wolves. That gap’s not a surprise. But you are seeing some countries, especially in Germany now, they’re starting to be much more forthright. We’re just beginning to see this pendulum swing and in time to come, you will see more far-right groups classified as that,” he said.

Andrew Little, the minister responsible for New Zealand’s intelligence agencies, defended the decision to not label any far-right groups.

“To get on the list, there has to be a demonstrated track record of actual violent extreme action. I’m not sure we have that at this point,” he said.

“We have an individual who is on the list, but in terms of an organisation, we don’t have that at the moment. If there’s evidence that they operate in New Zealand, that would be a justification for it, but at this stage, I’m not aware that they do. We put people on our terrorism list who are a demonstrated threat to New Zealand.”

The definition under the Act requires only that “the Prime Minister believes on reasonable grounds that the entity has knowingly carried out, or has knowingly participated in the carrying out of, one or more terrorist acts” and specifically notes that the “entity … need not be in New Zealand”.

Moreover, any group listed by the United Nations as a terrorist organisation is automatically designated in New Zealand. According to the New Zealand Police, 20 entities have been designated without being listed by the UN, including the March 15 terrorist and 11 Islamic groups. The remainder are separatist organisations.

Designating an entity as a terror organisation allows financial institutions and the Government to freeze their assets. It also has a powerful denunciatory effect. Jacinda Ardern cautioned in March that just because someone wasn’t listed didn’t mean they weren’t being watched by intelligence agencies.

“Not for a moment should anyone look at that list and say that that is the full scope of what New Zealand considers to be a group of risk or concern or violence,” she said.

“It is tightly defined, but that’s because by default it then needs to be the existence of an organised entity, and that’s one of the ways that we do that. My understanding … is that our designation is fairly similar to other countries in the way that we work.”

NZ lagging behind

Gillespie said Australia’s decision “should” change the calculus for New Zealand on designating far-right groups.

“As a rule, you can assume also because everything’s connected online. If someone’s active in Australia and Britain, you could well have an adherent in New Zealand. I think to be watching closely, those groups within the Commonwealth countries in particular and the Five Eyes countries in general makes great sense. As much as we should be looking at the UN designations, we should also be looking at the designations of our closest friends,” he said.

Australia’s move leaves New Zealand alone with the United States as a Five Eyes country that has yet to designate a far-right group. The United States has no legislative framework for designating domestic organisations, but reports indicated the State Department was pushing as recently as last year to list the Atomwaffen Division (AWD) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.

AWD has been designated a terror group by the United Kingdom and Canada. As an off-shoot, SKD has been designated by the UK as well as Australia. Members of the two groups have been charged with – and often convicted of – crimes ranging from hate crime murder to planning terror attacks to firearms and explosives charges.

The murder in the United States of gay Jewish teenager Blaze Bernstein, allegedly by an AWD member, has been described as a right-wing terror attack. Two SKD members were convicted in the United Kingdom of encouraging terror attacks, including calling for the death of Prince Harry as a “race traitor”.

There is some evidence that these groups have connections to New Zealand. Newsroom reported in March 2020 that a member of the domestic far-right group Action Zealandia had been in contact with members of Atomwaffen Division and wrote about his appreciation for the far-right terror organisation The Base.

However, the law doesn’t require an entity to have been active in New Zealand or to have any financial assets in New Zealand. This was something noted by the Australian regulators who designated SKD a terror group.

“Australians are not directly involved in SKD. However, SKD’s encouragement, promotion and glorification of lone-actor attacks could inspire some Australian extremist and the availability of SKD propaganda online has potential to contribute to the radicalisation of others,” the government’s statement read.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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