A trove of NZSIS documents shows how intelligence agencies failed to take the threat of the far right seriously, warning about Islamist terrorism and dismissing right-wing extremism even as late as January 2018, Marc Daalder reports

ANALYSIS: The risk of a right-wing terrorist attack in New Zealand in 2018 or 2019 was assessed as “remote”, in the final threat assessment completed before the March 15 mosque attacks.

The January 2018 document, released under the Official Information Act alongside a trove of other papers from the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS), hardly mentions the threat of the extreme right. This is in keeping with most of the remainder of the documents, which focus exclusively on the threat of Islamist terrorism to the exclusion of the far right.

In a range of papers, independent reviews and assessments spanning nearly a decade, the danger from the extreme right is either not mentioned or downplayed and dismissed. While the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the March 15 terror attack found that “in the years before 15 March 2019 the primary focus of intelligence assessment was on the presenting threat of Islamist extremist terrorism,” these documents provide a a more detailed view of the failure to take the far right seriously.

Evaluating the far right

An April 2014 document produced by the National Assessments Committee, within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, promised to assess “the right wing in New Zealand: myth vs reality”.

The bulk of this paper examined the threat of far-right groups, even though previous right-wing terrorists like Anders Breivik were not affiliated with a specific organisation. It determined that “established, overt groups” like Right Wing Resistance and the New Zealand National Front “posed no threat to domestic security” and “there is no information to suggest either group has the intent or capability to impose their ideology through illegitimate means”.

Greater threats could be found in “small [extreme right wing] groups or individuals acting outside the sanction of established organisations” who “are the key vector for harm associated with the far-right. … Extremist racist acts are rare and have not routinely featured the use of firearms, but the relative ease of access to semi-automatic firearms means that a ‘lone wolf’ attack scenario remains a possibility.”

This report was just one of many to evaluate the risk of terrorism associated with far-right groups as low, briefly and presciently mention that individuals posed a greater threat, but then double down in minimising the overall danger.

“Far-right groups will continue attempts to promote forms of ‘acceptable racism’ by emphasising conspiracy theorem, anti-establishment messaging, and ethnic solidarity. But wider society has not accepted the far-right viewpoint, and the groups will remain of marginal significance over the next three to five years,” the report’s final paragraph stated. It was delivered to John Key, Murray McCully, Jonathan Coleman, Anne Tolley and Michael Woodhouse just under five years before the March 15 terror attack.

Threat assessments

The earliest paper in the trove of documents makes perhaps the most compelling case for awareness of the far right.

“Although Islamist extremism likely still presents the greatest terrorist threat to the West, other ideologies can motivate individuals and groups to undertake terrorist acts, amply demonstrated by Anders Breivik’s racially-motivated attack in Norway in July 2011,” this December 2011 threat assessment found. Indeed, the report went so far as to warn that “uncertainties and stressors stemming from local or international events (such as the current economic crisis) will likely lead to non-Islamist extremist groups becoming more prominent in the longer term”.

However, this didn’t develop into a particular focus on the extreme right, but rather a broad examination of all potential sources of non-Islamist terrorism, including anarchists and environmentalists.

Subsequent threat assessments, issued in 2014 and 2015, didn’t mention the possibility of non-Islamist terrorism at all. They cited the rise of ISIS and the deployment of New Zealand troops to Iraq as making “an attack in New Zealand or against New Zealanders more permissible to a wider range of [Islamist] extremists”.

No mention was made of high-profile right-wing terror incidents overseas, like the killing of police officers and civilians in Las Vegas by a neo-Nazi couple in June 2014 or the murder of nine Black churchgoers by white supremacist Dylann Roof in June 2015. Nor did the reports note that in the United States – which has a much longer history of grappling with Islamist terrorism and was far more involved in conflict in the Middle East – the Department of Homeland Security saw the right-wing sovereign citizens movement as a greater terror threat than Islamist extremism.

Moreover, the language of the reports imply that the SIS had considered threats from other sources, but found them to be lower than that of Islamist terrorism. The Royal Commission said there was no evidence that intelligence agencies had evaluated the far right in the 2015 threat assessment.

The determination “that Islamist extremist terrorism was the primary threat could be taken to imply that other threats had been assessed. As far as we can tell, this was not the case.”

Online extremism vetted

This sole focus on Islam, to the exclusion of all other potential sources of terrorism, was not just found in the regular threat assessments. An SIS intelligence report from June 2017 examined “online extremist activity in New Zealand”. 

The paper perceptively observed that the internet could radicalise more extremists. “Self-radicalisation is more directly attributable to online influences and occurs through unmediated consumption of online material consisting of both mainstream and extremist content,” the report found.

While much of this report was agnostic as to the type of extremism it examined, Islamist extremism was mentioned several times. No other ideology was specifically singled out as a risk. Islamist extremism was seen as likely “to be the dominant transnational counter-terrorism threat over the next few years”.

Three months later, the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) within the SIS highlighted the arrest of five Brits – four of them serving soldiers – on terrorism charges for being members of a banned neo-Nazi group. 

“CTAG very rarely sights intelligence regarding right-wing extremist groups, and assesses this is likely due to Western jurisdictions defining this more as a law enforcement matter,” the report authors wrote.

However, “these arrests highlight the complex threat many Western countries are facing from terrorism, stemming from both Islamist and right-wing extremist groups”.

The Royal Commission identified the issue of a lack of international intelligence on the far right in its own report. And the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet told Newsroom in April that in the 50 months prior to March 15, 2019, the National Assessments Bureau had prepared just one report relating to right-wing extremism overseas. In the 24 months after March 15, it produced 23.

Terror threat “low”, far right “remote”

By January 2018, when the last available threat assessment was completed, the SIS focus on the far right was still lacking. This document briefly notes that publicly available information “indicates the popularity of far-right ideology has risen in the West since the early 2000s” but that New Zealand’s far-right groups don’t have “the intent or capability to promote their ideology by an act of terrorism”.

Yet again, this focus on groups appears to have slipped up the agency. What about a lone wolf attack?

“As has been evidenced in similar jurisdictions to New Zealand, an extreme right-wing lone actor attack remains a possibility, albeit a remote one.”

The conclusion to the assessment, which reviewed the terrorist threats over the next two years, mentioned the far right only in relation to possible retaliatory attacks after a potential Islamist attack. CTAG determined the threat level was “low; terrorist attack is assessed as possible, but is not expected” and any attack “would most likely involve a lone actor (or very small group) using rudimentary weaponry such as knives or blunt force weapons, or vehicles, or a combination thereof”.

Terrorists using firearms or explosives was considered “possible, but less likely”. This was despite broad awareness on the part of law enforcement and intelligence agencies that terrorists could easily acquire guns if they so wished.

Consider a September 2011 CTAG report on the “availability of firearms in New Zealand to terrorists, violent extremists and acutely disaffected persons”. This document found that such a person “could most likely obtain firearms, including automatic firearms, within New Zealand by either: applying for a firearms license; the targeted theft from, or intimidation of, a firearms collector; or from contact with criminal networks”.

At this stage, the most recent data available to CTAG about the prevalence of firearms in New Zealand was the 1997 Thorpe report, which had recommended tightening up gun laws but which was never heeded. This lack of data was “the most significant challenge associated with developing this assessment”.

Nonetheless, the report touted New Zealand’s firearms processes as “some of the most intrusive and extensive internationally”, while conceded “it is currently beyond the scope of, and it would be unrealistic to expect, the vetting regime to reliably identify a terrorist … posing as a legitimate firearms applicant”. 

Breivik’s use of military-style semi-automatic weapons for his 2011 terror attack in Oslo was specifically cited as a concern, and while CTAG thought these would be “more difficult to acquire”, they were “available”.

The Royal Commission reported that this work “was not well received by some public sector agencies. There were questions about whether the Combined Threat Assessment Group was stepping outside of its mandate in issuing an assessment that identified a vulnerability in the New Zealand system that was not tied to specific warnings or indicators.

“After discussing the Combined Threat Assessment Group assessment with the Deputy Commissioner of New Zealand Police, and reviewing information provided by New Zealand Police, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet concluded that the information did not indicate an immediate problem or reveal an urgent need for a review of firearms controls. As a result, no changes were made to fix the vulnerability that had been identified in the Combined Threat Assessment Group’s report.”

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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