A joint report from police and the intelligence community found a ‘realistic possibility’ that so-called sovereign citizens could commit extremist violence in New Zealand

Intelligence officials warned late last year that an anti-authority ideology was taking off thanks to opposition to Covid-19 measures and said the situation could result in violence, according to a document released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act.

Dated November 29, 2021, the assessment was produced by the police Security Intelligence and Threats Group and the multi-agency Combined Threat Assessment Group.

The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service declined to release the full document to Newsroom, citing a section of the law that allows it to withhold information that could “prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand”. It did divulge a three-page summary.

The briefing is yet another example of growing concerns from the country’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies about politically-motivated violent extremists, particularly in relation to Covid-19 conspiracy theories.

It dealt with the issue of “increasingly prominent” sovereign citizen rhetoric – a “highly diverse, decentralised movement that claims national governments are illegitimate and that individuals can legally withdraw their consent to be governed by national governments”.

These beliefs are not new to New Zealand but grew last year “in connection to anti-authority movements opposed to Covid-19 mitigation programmes, as well as in groups claiming connection to the Māori community. As the pandemic has evolved, claims of ‘sovereign’ exemptions from public health measures such as lockdowns and mask mandates have morphed into a wide-ranging resistance to mitigation programmes such as vaccination mandates and travel restrictions.”

At least some of the use of sovereign citizen language was “likely opportunistic” because the ideology “provides ready-built solutions to a perceived government overreach into individuals’ rights and freedoms”.

An earlier briefing on the threat violent extremists posed to Covid-19 measures, reported previously by Newsroom, listed sovereign citizens and QAnon believers as the extremist movements most closely tied to anti-vaccine activists. Those findings were upheld by an intelligence assessment penned in the second week of the Wellington occupation, which found the “anti-authority nature of the protests” resonated most strongly with “those who hold a violent interpretation of the Sovereign Citizen (SovCit) movement”.

In the November briefing, officials cautioned that the movement is “not inherently violent”. It originated from white supremacist movements in the United States in the 1970s and has continued to be closely tied to hate groups who appreciate the anti-government messaging. It also undergirded more anodyne anti-authority groups in the US, like tax protesters.

While there are non-violent sovereign citizens, the intelligence report added that some others overseas have advocated or committed acts of extremist violence – generally against law enforcement. In New Zealand, “there is a realistic possibility that a threat actor inspired by SovCit rhetoric will commit a spontaneous act of extremist violence”.

Violence is most likely to occur in response to “a perceived ‘assault’ by government agencies during a routine act of legal or regulatory enforcement”. Because sovereign citizens believe they have legally opted out of following the law, efforts to enforce it could provoke a violent backlash.

“A perceived ‘assault’ could include any attempt to force a SovCit to comply with laws they have deemed illegitimate or for which they believe they have legally withdrawn their consent. We judge this is almost certain to include elements of Covid-19 mitigation programmes perceived as ‘oppressive’.”

This assessment differed from the risk analysis conducted on the closely-related common law movement in April of this year. That briefing, also reported on by Newsroom, distinguished common law adherents as a subset of sovereign citizens who seek to proactively construct an alternative legal and law enforcement apparatus.

These common law extremists were most likely to commit violence in the course of a proactive action, such as a pseudolegal “citizen’s arrest” of a politician or other public figure.

“Such attacks have a realistic possibility of being an opportunistic reaction to immediate events. We cannot dismiss the possibility that any attack could manifest with little or no intelligence forewarning,” officials wrote at the time.

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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