Thursday, 20 November 2014

Simple 'grassroots' terror attacks could threaten New Zealand, experts

A spate of simple but deadly attacks in Israel this week highlight a new pattern of terrorism that governments are largely powerless to counter, analysts say.

Following the recent release of information by Prime Minster John Key that New Zealand security services have identified multiple New Zealand citizens sympathetic to extremist ideologies in the country, experts warn that New Zealand could face similar “grassroots” attacks in the future.

Four people were killed and dozens wounded when two Palestinians armed with axes and a gun attacked a Jerusalem synagogue before being shot dead by police on Tuesday. One policeman later died of the wounds he received in the attack.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the terror attack while Hamas publically gave its own support saying it was in response to an alleged murder of a Palestinian bus driver earlier in the week. Palestinian police disagreed, ruling the bus driver’s death a suicide.

Israel ambassador to New Zealand Yosef Livne says the attacks are a product of an environment that supports and glorifies terrorism “through an unending campaign of vicious incitement and outright lies”.

“Since late October, there have been seven such attacks costing the lives of 10 people and a score have been injured. All of the attacks took place in civilian sites such as train stations, academic centres and now a House of Worship.

“These were not valiant acts of resistance; they were horrendous cases of terrorism - no ifs or buts,” Mr Livne says.

The trend of low level but deadly terrorism is forcing Israeli officials - and governments of developed countries - to question whether such attacks could be the new normal for modern societies with the New Zealand government rethinking its approaches to countering the threat.

The problem for security services is that these simple attacks – where the killers use readily available weapons – will be far more difficult to protect against than “traditional” terror acts. Grassroots-style violence is less deadly, but it is now a more common threat emerging from inside developed nations.

Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies academic Dr Rhys Ball, who served in New Zealand’s SIS and GCSB in counter-terrorism roles for more than 10 years, says New Zealand isn’t immune.

“There are individuals [in New Zealand] that happily acknowledge support of the Islamic State (IS).

“The Herald, for example, published an article at the beginning of the month titled “Hawkes Bay Muslim Backs ISIS”. The individual had been interviewed ten years earlier following claims that the he had been visiting prisons in an effort to convert inmates to Islam.

“Now, whether the prisons remain a potential source of radicalised individuals, I would not know, but the possibility cannot be discounted,” he says.

The threat and danger of radicalised individuals living in New Zealand conducting simple attacks are likely low, but the probability is certainly not zero. Some of these people have been influenced by what they have heard or seen via social media and other methods of communication.

The Washington Institute’s terrorism expert Aaron Zelin says a Christchurch man revealed that there could be about a dozen jihadist supporters in the Christchurch area.

“In an interview this guy said: ‘I can’t stay in a country that’s going to be fighting my religion. If my country is going to make me an enemy to my religion then I have no choice but to go and join IS where I’ll be welcomed as a citizen and not be persecuted for my religion or beliefs.’

“This is very similar to other quotes from radicalised New Zealanders. There’s a persecution narrative in saying that the government’s fighting the religion even though Islamic State doesn’t represent all Muslims.  

“So you can see how these ideas are starting to seep into some people’s minds, they’ll be trying to openly proselytise these ideas within their communities,” Mr Zelin says.

Mr Ball points out another example of an individual who had had his passport cancelled on the grounds that he was a danger to the security of New Zealand.

“At the time, [the man] couldn’t understand why he was stopped at the airport by ‘SIS agents’ when all he wanted to do was ‘travel to the Middle East…to get an education.’ My question to you, and to the television reporter whom it appears didn’t have an opportunity to ask similar, was why did [he] need to travel to Yemen to get an education? 

“Why didn’t he come to a university here in New Zealand? The quality of the education is second to none, he would have access to religious studies scholars, he would have access to Middle Eastern studies scholars, and he would have access to international security studies scholars. 

“There is, of course, no reason why any New Zealand citizen cannot travel overseas to pursue educational opportunities. We all have the right to do this. But equally, police, customs – and more significantly, the SIS, do not remove somebody’s passport without good reason. 

“We have to accept that people may not be completely honest in sharing their version of events. Making sure that all relevant legislation is ‘fit for purpose’ will be part of the on-going refinements that we have seen recently and will see going forward,” Mr Ball says.

Even while both Messrs Zelin and Ball suspect the threat to New Zealand from homegrown grassroots radicals is likely low, attacks mimicking the style occurring in Israel are now the most likely version of terrorism in the modern world.

And not only will New Zealand’s security services struggle to deal with potential grassroots threats, there are a number of legal gaps and regulatory inconsistencies which need mending as well.

“Revoking passports is something other Western countries are doing, but there are potential dangers in doing that too. We saw last month in Canada where they had revoked the passports of two or three individuals which led to different attacks in Canada,” says Mr Zelin.

“There are also some potential loopholes between Australia and New Zealand. Because of rules of flying between Australia and New Zealand, a lot of [radicalised] Australians will fly to New Zealand. The New Zealand government doesn’t know about them so they fly on to Turkey to set into Syria,” he says.

Mr Ball agrees that parts of New Zealand’s legislation requires rethinking, but cautions against trading too much freedom for security in response to a real but low level terror threat.

“Is the ’48-hour warrantless surveillance’ warranted? I tend to agree with Dr David Kilcullen when he recently said that we need to tread carefully when considering making such powers available. 

“I am comfortable with such changes and powers so long as there is sufficient and robust safeguards to ensure that these powers are not abused or exploited. And for that to happen, we need to be confident there is adequate oversight in place to monitor such activity – and we need to be confident that abuses will be called out, if they do take place,” says Mr Ball. 

To this end, the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security and the newly appointed Minister in Charge of the Service and GCSB, have some very important responsibilities. Mr Ball says there can be “no suggestion or hint of politicisation of intelligence”, or exploitation of the intelligence debate for political gain. 

Mr Zelin says one of the weaker spots for Western governments has been in providing exit ramps for people who no longer wish to be involved in militancy.

“That’s proven difficult because a fighter could lie to law enforcement and potentially to attempt a terrorist attack in New Zealand. We actually saw hints of this in the Saudi rehabilitation programme a few years ago, so it’s important to continue intelligence operations.

“But it’s very important to supply avenues for these people, especially if they become disillusioned and want to return to their regular lives.” Mr Zelin says.

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