China, Iran and Russia were all highlighted by name in a new intelligence report released on Friday morning, in an unusual move.

Past warnings from intelligence agencies have not normally named specific countries. While case studies included in the report were still not attributed to particular countries, the report did examine high-level activities by the three nations.

“The NZSIS sees enormous value in sharing more of our insights with the wider public,” Director-General of Security Andrew Hampton said.

“Typically, assessments like this are read by key decision makers across Government and mostly by people who hold a national security clearance. In this instance, we think our analysis will be useful to a much wider audience. There are people inside New Zealand businesses, institutions and communities who can use this document to help them make informed decisions about risk and mitigation.”

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China came in for the closest examination in the report. The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) said it was aware of “ongoing activity in and against New Zealand and our home region that is linked to the [People’s Republic of China’s] intelligence services. This is a complex intelligence concern for New Zealand.”

That included espionage and foreign interference.

“NZSIS has detected interference activity from a number of foreign states. Most notable is the continued targeting of New Zealand’s diverse ethnic Chinese communities. We see these activities carried out by groups and individuals linked to the intelligence arm of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”

One of the factors influencing this was growing strategic competition in the region.

“PRC has significant and growing intelligence and security capabilities, and its efforts are increasing New Zealand’s exposure to the consequences of strategic competition.”

Iran was also accused of engaging in foreign interference, though it was unclear how much of this was in New Zealand itself.

“NZSIS has identified the Islamic Republic of Iran undertaking societal interference, including monitoring and providing reporting on Iranian communities and dissident groups. Globally, Iran has sought to silence dissenting Iranian voices in response to perceived threats to the Islamic Republic. Such activity has historically been unlikely in New Zealand, although the NZSIS continues to assess the threat in light of Iran’s increasingly aggressive behaviour internationally.”

Russia wasn’t accused of targeting New Zealand, but people here have been exposed to disinformation campaigns that were aimed elsewhere.

Targets of espionage were no longer just government and security agencies, but also businesses, academic and research institutions and government contractors. One case study was about a foreign intelligence officer in New Zealand who targeted “a New Zealander with access to information and people networks of interest to the foreign state”.

“The targeted New Zealander was in a position of having access to information and individuals with knowledge of New Zealand policy matters, but also had a public profile. Those individuals are often identifiable to foreign intelligence services through online networking and social media platforms, which allow them to engage significantly more prospective sources than if they were using solely in-person methods.”

The NZSIS said it intervened early and no compromising information was exchanged.

Another study looked at an attempted influence campaign, in which a foreign state worked with New Zealand-based community figures to create the appearance of a grassroots movement to convince a political figure to change their position on a subject.

“The responsible foreign state is known to seek to suppress dissenting views on issues of sensitivity, and assert its own view of the issue as the views of all people with links to that state. In addition to providing the instructions, the foreign state also required individuals to report back and provide evidence that they had undertaken the required actions,” the agency said.

“NZSIS is aware that many of the individuals are committed and responsive to the instructions of the foreign state, and would be responsive to future direction to advance the position of the foreign state. NZSIS provided protective security briefings to the individuals who were targeted.”

The report also examined the violent extremism landscape in New Zealand. Faith-motivated extremism, like that which supports the Islamic State, is on the decline while white supremacist extremism is growing among young people.

“Adherents in New Zealand express views, which include but are not limited to, rhetoric relating to anti-semitism, anti-rainbow communities and various white supremacy narratives, such as anti-Māori and anti-Islam,” the report said. Propaganda encouraging or celebrating terror attacks, including footage of the March 15 attack, is “regularly shared” among these individuals.

The most prevalent type of extremism, however, was politically motivated. This movement has grown since the start of the pandemic and is bonded by a common anti-authority narrative, although the specifics of the beliefs are highly individualised.

Overseas attitudes have also been incorporated into this type of extremism, the report said.

“For example, United States (US)-specific ideas and events are often incorporated into New Zealand narratives, such as references to ‘First Amendment’ rights, despite having no applicability to New Zealand’s political system. Following the lifting of most Covid-19 mandates, [politically motivated violent extremism] adherents have shifted focus to other domestic political issues and will highly likely look to exploit other polarising issues to further spread their beliefs.”

A novel form of extremism has also been identified, tagged as “mixed, unstable and unclear ideologies”.

“We have observed an increase in violent extremists in New Zealand and internationally who appear to hold highly personalised ideologies with no strong allegiance to a specific violent extremist or terrorist group. Often individuals exhibit behaviour which can be interpreted as ‘ideology shopping’ or exploring a broad range of extremist beliefs and adopting aspects that suit them personally,” the NZSIS reported.

“Although each individual is different, we assess the ease of access to a wide variety of violent extremist material online highly likely facilitates the development of [these] ideologies. These ideologies tend to evolve over time and allow an individual to make sense of and express their grievances.”

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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