New Zealand’s interaction with the world of terrorism is extremely low. However, stories have been reported of New Zealanders fighting in insurgent wars with elements of al Qaeda in failed-state countries such as Yemen and Syria.
The intelligence services of New Zealand are heavily involved in ensuring against the threat of terror coming back to the country in the form of trained and experienced fighters.
They also protect New Zealanders from more traditional threats, such as economics espionage and political subterfuge. Security analyst Paul Buchanan, based in Auckland where he runs a geopolitics and strategic assessments company, commented on where New Zealand fits in the world of intelligence.
Mr Buchanan is the author of three books, over fifty scholarly articles, chapters, monographs and reviews as well as more than 130 opinion pieces in various media. He has extensive experience as a media commentator on international affairs. He also has practical and scholarly experience in international security affairs, including intelligence analysis and unconventional warfare.
INTEL and Analysis sat down with him to discuss what we can expect for the future of New Zealand’s security.
INT&A: I understand Western intelligence agencies are monitoring people going to war zones in Yemen, Syria, and northern Pakistan. Are recent exposures of New Zealanders in these places an indication of a “tip of the iceberg” scenario?
PB: I don’t think it’s the tip of the iceberg. We may see up to another thousand Westerners travel to the Middle East to join militant groups in various conflicts for a variety of reasons. That will be about it. I don’t think we’re going to see a massive wave of Western converts to Islam or radicalised youth in Yemen honing their skills and coming home to wreak havoc.
The threat of these people coming back does exist, especially in Europe. But it is much less likely the case that someone will come back to New Zealand. Australia does have a more radicalised Muslim community, so someone may return there to cause trouble. But Europe and the UK (including France, and to a lesser extent Germany and Sweden) is where the real threat might be. There have been some US citizens fighting in Yemen alongside al Qaeda, although a lot of them have been killed off.
We know that there’s over a thousand Westerners fighting in Syria. They’re spread among the groups, a lot of them are fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, but some of them are with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They aren’t necessarily ideologically unified in their motivations for going [to Syria]. Some of them are jihadists, others are not. We have to remember the fight in Syria isn’t about us. Inasmuch as it is, it’s a proxy for Iran, Russia, and the West in a game of great power politics.
It’s actually Muslim on Muslim, or more accurately, Shiite on Sunni, because the Alawite regime belongs to a subsect of Shiite Islam.
INT&A: What about Yemen?
PB: Yemen is a different story. Al Qaeda moved the bulk of its training sites to Yemen because it’s a failed, lawless state. Which is why Western intelligence agencies have spent a lot of time in that country using mostly technical means. Unfortunately they are not using a lot of human intelligence, although they do have people on the ground. They would prefer to employ signals intelligence (SIGINT) and satellite and non-lethal drone (UAV) coverage.
One of the things we have to keep in mind, as with the recent drone strike which killed a New Zealander in Yemen, the chances of a Westerner going into these places and surviving I would say is less than 50 percent.
INT&A: Does this have more to do with the realities of warfare or the efforts of intelligence surveillance?
PB: The fighters are being monitored from the get-go. The case of the Kiwi is illustrative because he was watched here in New Zealand, he was watched as he departed, and he was watched as he arrived in Yemen. It’s open to question whether the GCSB or the SIS, or both, were monitoring him at the point where he opened the door on the ute as the UAV missile struck. So these people are being monitored very closely.
They can try things like taking the SIM card out of their cellphone, to escape notice, but the intelligence agencies are actually following the phone hardware, so it won’t help. Or they may try to buy throwaway phones, but [the intelligence agencies] have the serial numbers on throwaways bought in various countries. SIGINT agencies are able to triangulate your position even if you try to disguise your movements.
INT&A: Because New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is the head of the intelligence agencies in New Zealand, do you think he and the agencies come off looking quite good after the strike on the Kiwi in Yemen?
PB: Yes and no. I say no in the case of the Prime Minister because he continues to try to use these events to justify the expansion of the GCSB’s powers and authority. Lets be very clear, the warrant to surveil this guy in New Zealand, and when he moved abroad, was issued before the GSCB amendment bill was passed. Mr Key’s claims that the expansion of the GCSB’s domestic powers will help stop terrorism is not accurate.
In point of fact, these powers have everything to do with cyber espionage conducted by nation states such as China. But that’s what politicians do. Mr Key has always struck me as being quite disinterested in the most important portfolios which he controls: security and intelligence.
For example he glibly said about this drone strike - which raises all sorts of ethical as well as legal issues - that the guy was in some sort of terrorist camp. Why didn’t Mr Key know where he was? Why did he say it was in a “terrorist camp”? Was that like a hunting camp where there’s two dudes with a rifle?
You can’t be glib about the most serious responsibility you have, and he all too often is. Mr Key likes to use the plausible deniability ploy to put distance between himself and operational planning so he can claim he wasn’t aware. This either means he’s incompetent or he’s being lied to by his subordinates and they’re not giving him the full story.
Having said that, I think the intelligence agencies come off looking pretty good. Because they have this guy on the radar screen. I don’t believe for a moment they handed over responsibility of surveillance when he reached Yemen.
Let’s just remember that the GCSB’s job is to surveil threats from outside New Zealand. If you use an email address such as Gmail and Yahoo which has a foreign server then the GCSB is within its legal rights to tap into your communications. And that was all under the old law, now they have even more expanded powers.
But the mission in Yemen compliments the New Zealand intelligence community that they were on to this person for some time. Mr Key was talking about Kiwis fighting in Yemen last April, then again in June. So it’s to their credit that our intelligence communities were on top of it.
INT&A: If the intelligence community is looking at this guy, are there any others they might be monitoring in New Zealand?
PB: The New Zealand Muslim community is heavily penetrated and surveilled by not only the intelligence services but by the police.
Because the Muslim community in New Zealand is heavily factionalised and broken into all sorts of subgroups and rival factions, they tend to rat on each other for reasons which have nothing to do with terrorism.
Let’s say two guys in a mosque start fighting over a woman or some financial disagreement. They regularly approach the police and say that the other person is a ‘jihadist’. New Zealand agencies since 9/11 have been heavily involved in monitoring the actions and movements of people in the Muslim community who express any interest in the jihadist cause.
That’s a benefit of being a small community. There’s only 50,000 Muslims in New Zealand. And if you count only men between the ages of 20 and 40 you reduce that number even further. In fact they’re actually a pretty easy community to surveil because they’re so small. Which is much easier than the experience that Australia is having.
INT&A: Is there a possibility that the Islamic militancy in the Asia Pacific could spill over into our Muslim communities in New Zealand?
PB: What’s interesting is that radicalised Muslims in New Zealand tend to come from North Africa. There’s no real evidence of Malaysian or South East Asians in New Zealand being radicalised. Although Indonesian militants have really taken a beating in the past years, there’s a growing Islamist movement in Malaysia and Thailand. To say nothing about Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.
I wouldn’t say their groups are growing, but there are thriving insurgent groups in South East Asia. Although there’s no indication New Zealanders with those particular persuasions are prone to extremism in New Zealand, it can’t be discounted because our education centers now recruit very heavily from Malaysia. The focus for years has been on Chinese students - both secondary and tertiary - but now we’re reaching out to other Asian countries. If the student body is any reflection of the politics in their home country, there could be some hotheads among the kids now studying here.
INT&A: Even though we had a Kiwi in Yemen, where is the real threat to New Zealand from Islamic extremism?
PB: If I had to do a comparative threat-assessment I would say the threat from terrorism in New Zealand is less than 5 percent. The threat of corporate espionage is closer to 80 percent however. There’s diplomatic and military espionage as well but it’s clear the major concern is traditional state-on-state espionage undertaken by cyber means.
But that’s not as sexy as raising the specter of terrorism. Legislation doesn’t really change if the public message is that someone is spying on Fonterra or on Carter Holt Harvey. But that is how we’re being penetrated
INT&A: Are we an important spying target?
PB: Because we’re part of the Five Eyes club we’re bound to attract the attention of adversaries of the Five Eyes. New Zealand is seen as the Achilles Heel because we haven’t practised very good cyber security. Which is what the GCSB amendment act was all about: tightening up the security and giving the GCSB expanded power at home as well as abroad.
As a result of [Edward] Snowden’s revelations it is clear that New Zealand is a small but front-line partner in SIGINT and electronic espionage with our larger partners. My understanding is that every day of the week New Zealand companies and government agencies are hit with probes and hacking. Its become a major concern for our economic well-being and to our military and diplomatic partners. We could be seen as a backdoor into the larger spy network. Economic espionage should be our number one priority.
INT&A: So although we can track someone halfway around the world we still have a lot of work to do at home.
PB: I think that the political elite need to evolve, not so much the security specialists. I still remain of the opinion that despite the debacles of the past few years, by and large our intelligence agencies are staffed by professionals who are as good as the people I worked with in the [United] States or people in the UK, Australia, or Canada.
On the other hand our political elite who supervise those agencies betray a sort of provincial mentality that, “oh we’re so small, we’re so far away, we don’t matter, no ones going to look at us.”
But with globalisation it doesn’t matter if you’re physically distant or small, you can be reached very easily. And because of the Wellington/Washington agreements we are now frontier military allies with the United States. We will be a target, especially if our political elite display indifference to security requirements in a larger alliance.
INT&A: Where does Edward Snowden fit into all this?
PB: I would have thought he would drop a bombshell already. It’s coming. Our role in the Five Eyes will certainly be on the documents he took. It will probably involve New Zealand espionage, not so much on adversaries, but against allies - particularly trading partners.
Releasing those documents is going to be designed to hurt our reputation heavily. Because if it turns out we’re spying on our TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) partners and sharing information with the rest of the Five Eyes group to gain some sort of leverage in the negotiations, then the diplomatic fallout’s going to be great.
My understanding is that Mr Snowden et al are holding off because we have an election this year. The conduit for the leaks will be a well-known investigative reporter, and timing as to when the leaks will occur will be sometime in the lead-up to the elections in such a way that it will not allow the government to recover fully before they are held.
INT&A: Is this speculation at the moment?
PB: It’s in the grapevine of those who travel in investigative reporting circles. And there’s already a track record of using Mr Snowden leaks to write stories about places other than New Zealand.
But certainly the NZ based - particularly the one fellow I’m thinking of - reporter who probably has the information already, the question is whether you dump it out there now and hope that the damage sticks through September or you dump it in July or August and force them to react while they’re trying to campaign.
I tend to think they’ll wait until the last six weeks before the election. It would be very hard at that point for the government to conduct a proper election campaign when they’re doing the diplomatic crisis-management. Of course, if it turns out we’re spying on the Chinese, that could hurt us as well because we’re vulnerable to Chinese backlash, but that particular leak would not be surprising.
They can manage that I think. John Key knows what Snowden has on New Zealand, he’s been told by US and others, as well as his own security agencies. So he knows what’s coming at him, and I would think that the National Assessments Bureau would have prepared a contingency plan already, knowing what they know.
When those details are released they can go to the Chinese and explain to them that we were being very naughty and we won’t do that ever again. We’ll try to mitigate the backlash from any number of countries which get caught up in the revelations. If the government isn’t doing that they’re remiss because it is coming our way. I’d say the government is fairly confident they can mitigate the damage, but we’ll just have to see.
INT&A: You say John Key knows what Mr Snowden took. I was under the impression that even the NSA were a little bit crippled at the moment, because if only he would tell them what he took they could start to mend the gaps. You must have different information.
PB: My understanding is they’ve got about 95 percent certainty of what he took.
It is the most damaging intelligence breach in US history, bar none. It’s forced them to rewrite codes, revamp their protocols. It really is square one. And it’s an open question whether he was working for someone when he did this.
I think he used infringements on privacy as a way to legitimate his escape. Yet pretty much everything he’s revealed from about two months into the saga has been attempts to destroy the reputations of the Five Eye partners and their allies.
You realise that Mr Snowden put out there that Singapore spies on Malaysia via their telecom networks. He did that because Singapore is a partner to the Five Eyes system. There was no other reason to get Singapore caught up in this. It’s now traditional state-on-state espionage, nothing to do with privacy, but he went ahead and did that. So the suspicion is that there’s more than meets the eye.
The Americans have revealed as much as they can. Probably the 5 percent that they don’t know about is to do with the very tight security intelligence issues relevant to the US alone. In terms of their international partnerships, it’s pretty much out there in Snowden’s and other media’s hands, because he made sure that in the event that he meets an untimely demise that the information will still be available.
I think he’s a dead man walking which is probably why he sought safe-haven in Moscow. Even there someone can reach out and touch him. I’d say that he improved his chances of survival by not saying anything about the Israelis. Had he said something about them his lifespan would have been shortened considerably. He’s smart enough to know that you can do this to all other US allies but do not do it to Israel. Because Israel has ways of getting into Russia and touching him in a very unpleasant way.
INT&A: Which just proves that he’s not out to break open the world of spying, his goal is to break open the world of the United States’ spying. And everything he’s released so far fits right into the Russian playbook and laundry list of intelligence goals against the US. That looks suspiciously like handling.
PB: I’ll give you this as food for thought. My background is in human intelligence (HUMINT) not so much in signals, but here’s the thing I find very curious.
Mr Snowden was stationed in Geneva which is known to be spy-central. In Europe if you want to talk to other spies you go to Geneva. He was on bulletin boards complaining about what the CIA was doing in Europe. He used a very easy to track pseudonym to espouse very libertarian beliefs.
Now, of all the political ideologies that are ill-suited for espionage and intelligence, libertarianism is it. He was openly complaining that there was blackmailing of European diplomats, etc. And it could be that it came the attention of a foreign intelligence agency.
They wouldn’t necessarily have had to approach and say “Hi, we’re the government of so-and-so and we’d like to spy for us”, no, they could have come and said, “Hi, I’m a fellow libertarian, I agree with you. This is egregious, this is terrible what they’re doing.”
So in this way, they would never have to identify themselves to him. You could be a sympathetic figure, posing, as a Wikileaks supporter or a member of Anonymous but you are in fact working for a foreign government. It would be easy to persuade Mr Snowden it was in the best interest of humanity for him to exploit the cracks in the US security vetting process, get in, steal as much as he could and then be provided the means to escape to a safe haven where the US cannot physically or legally touch you.
That seems to be what happened. I find it very hard to believe that he could have done this all alone in the measure that he did. I was particularly struck when he did the first interview in Hong Kong. If you know that the full weight of the American government is chasing after you, and your life is at risk because they know what you have and they want to get to you. Then you go and give a press conference in Hong Kong where you’re remarkably calm and nonplussed about the situation.
I was thinking, this guy has protection. He’s physically secure, take a look at him. He’s not sweating and very relaxed. He must have a physical presence around him at this point which prevents US people from getting close to him. Then of course he went on to Moscow.
When I think of who could do that - and this was a perfect mission, if it was a mission it was superb - some thirty-year-old guy who’s got a grudge about privacy issues, I don’t believe it. People always say to me that I’m conspiratorial and I hate the Russians. I’m just saying that it’s implausible he would be able to do this alone for the righteous reasons he says he’s doing it. And like you say, he’s doing damage to US intelligence networks and not benefiting anyone else.