The Government’s top counter-terror officials warned in a February analysis that the pandemic could have increased the number of terror threats, Marc Daalder reports

New Zealand’s terror threat level remains at medium, meaning a “terrorist attack is assessed as feasible and could well occur”.

That’s according to the most recent annual review of the country’s vulnerability to terrorism, completed in February of this year. The document was released by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service on Tuesday, although much of it remains redacted.

Potential terrorists in New Zealand have “probable” intent to carry out an attack and “almost certainly” have the ability to do so. However, the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) which compiles the annual assessments says it hasn’t seen any evidence of a specific plot by violent extremist individuals or groups.

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While “any violent extremist ideology” could be behind a potential attack, the assessment singled out three main sources of concern.

Identity-motivated violent extremists (IMVE) are those who use terrorism and violence to promote their own identity or attack others. This includes a wide range of specific ideologies, but white identity extremism “remains the predominant ideology among identified cases”.

CTAG reported that these extremists had made an increasing number of threats over the previous year. However, these may not have all been genuine.

“The true intent and ideology in each instance is generally difficult to initially establish, particularly as threats are made in forums that host a myriad of IMVE humour, internet memes, and in-group signalling to subvert cultural taboos and promote extreme messages,” the threat assessment said.

Any identity-motivated attack would most likely be an individual mobilising “with little or no intelligence forewarning”.

The next concern was faith-motivated violent extremism. Most of these in New Zealand were supportive of an ISIS-style ideology. While they were unlikely to act as a group, they might operate as lone actors.

Finally, cumulative factors could push a person to act over personal grudges or other topics. These factors included “Covid-19-associated grievances and growing international political and social tensions” which had “increased the number of individuals in New Zealand motivated by personal grievances or single issues”.

Single issues could also include opposition to 1080 or 5G. Anti-5G activists – who often overlap with Covid-19 or QAnon conspiracy theorists – are a particular source of concern for law enforcement if they target critical telecommunications infrastructure.

CTAG said there was a “realistic possibility Covid-19-related personal grievances, and increased time spent online throughout various Covid-19 restrictive measures, will continue to accelerate some drivers of violent extremism in New Zealand, including social, political and economic factors. We assess there is a realistic possibility these will also contribute to the acceleration of radicalisation pathways for some individuals in New Zealand in the medium- to long-term.”

The March 15, 2019 terror attack has also influenced the terrorist threatscape in New Zealand, although its relevance has waned over time.

Specific attacks would most likely be carried out with low-sophistication capabilities, including “bladed weapons, some types of firearms, vehicles, blunt force instruments, materials which could enable arson, and online instructions for the use or manufacture of weapons, tactics and other capability guidance”.

Firearms attacks might vary in sophistication, depending on the weapons and the training of the person. CTAG said it couldn’t “discount the potential for individuals to develop rudimentary Improvised Explosive Device (IED) capability”.

The findings of the latest threat assessment align closely with previous documents and public statements by the country’s intelligence agencies. The February document placed significant focus on identity-motivated extremists, in contrast to threat assessments produced prior to March 15 which focused exclusively on Islamist extremism.

It also predates a handful of extremist incidents in 2021, including bomb threats made against one of the mosques targeted on March 15, over which a man was arrested and charged with threatening to kill, as well as the release and subsequent censorship of a video in which a Tauranga-based far-right activist threatened to launch a race war and commit genocide against Māori. That man, who was previously known to police, has also been arrested and charged with hate speech and making an objectionable publication.

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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