New reports from the country’s intelligence agencies shed light on their counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism operations over the past year, Marc Daalder reports

The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) has been monitoring a New Zealand citizen who is “almost certainly” collecting intelligence for a foreign state.

That’s one of a handful of details in the 2021 annual reports from the NZSIS and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), which were quietly released on Monday.

The SIS report gave several case studies of work it had undertaken between July 2020 and June 2021. One of these included the monitoring of a citizen “who is assessed to be closely affiliated with a foreign state’s intelligence services. The New Zealander is almost certainly collecting intelligence about New Zealand-based people for the purpose of monitoring members of communities whose views do not align with that of the foreign state.

“The individual uses various public and covert means to collect information on individuals, some of which is likely passed back to the foreign state’s intelligence agency. The NZSIS is seeking to understand the nature of these activities and the interference threat posed by the individual against New Zealand.”

Over the 2020/21 year, the SIS and GCSB each successfully applied for 20 Type 1 intelligence warrants, which allow them to engage in an activity that would otherwise be unlawful in order to collect information on a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident. The GCSB also authorised a “very urgent” Type 1 warrant which expired after 24 hours to aid in a police operation.

Of 404 cyber incidents targeting nationally significant organisations or with the potential to have national impact, 115 were attributed to state-sponsored actors by the National Cyber Security Centre.

The intelligence agencies also detailed counter-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts. The GCSB said it had been “working closely with international partners to counter violent extremism, including contributing to the disruption of attack planning overseas”.

The SIS said that between 40 and 50 people had been under active investigation in relation to violent extremism at any given time over the past year. About half of these were investigations into identity-based extremism, which includes white supremacy, and half looked at faith-based extremism.

Of the counter-terrorism investigations opened in 2020/21, nearly half arose from information provided by other government agencies and international partners. Just over a quarter were sourced from the SIS’ own work, 20 percent from law enforcement and 6 percent from public information.

“The 2020/21 period has seen an increased range of extremist ideologies and sentiment manifesting in New Zealand, with international trends continuing to influence the real-world and online activities of individuals in this country,” the service reported.

“The sheer quantity of extremist content and extremist ideologies of various kinds online continues to be a security challenge in New Zealand and around the world. Individuals can be exposed to graphic content and extremist ideologies in their own homes with little, if any, moderating influence. The consumption of extremist material may radicalise an individual and, in some cases, lead ideologically-motivated extremists to attempt real-world actions in support of their beliefs.”

One third of all leads relating to terrorism and violent extremism related to online comments. In a November 2021 briefing released last week, the Government’s Combined Threat Assessment Group said social media platforms were partly to blame, finding “algorithms that recommend content based on a user’s viewing history has highly likely assisted with spreading this content”.

“The online environment continues to be a key facilitator in the radicalisation of violent extremists, and allows them to operate in echo chambers where views are reinforced or encouraged, without question or challenge. Many New Zealand-based violent extremists have almost certainly been radicalised online, predominantly in an isolated manner with little-to-no in-person contact with other radicalised individuals.”

In its annual report, the SIS detailed three case studies of counter-terror investigations.

In one, an identity-motivated extremist who participated in online extremist forums “claimed he planned to undertake a domestic terrorist attack in the future. … The NZSIS worked closely with other government agencies to identify and mitigate the potential threat posed by this person.”

The SIS said a partner agency tipped it off in late 2020 to “an online account which espoused a faith-motivated violent extremist ideology. The user made comments indicating they were located in New Zealand. Analysis of the individual’s online activities has identified the user, and enquiries are underway to understand whether they pose a national security threat.”

The third case study dealt with a New Zealand-based person who threatened violence against non-white people. “The NZSIS worked closely with New Zealand Police to identify the individual, determine the national security threat they posed, and mitigate the threat. The individual has been charged with offences related to their online activities.”

In June 2021, Richard Jacobs of Tauranga was arrested over a video in which he threatened genocide against Māori. He pleaded guilty in September to making an objectionable publication and inciting racial disharmony. It’s unclear if Jacobs was the person referred to in the third case study.

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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