Al Noor mosque under armed police patrol on March 22, 2019 (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)
Al Noor mosque under armed police patrol on March 22, 2019 (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

SocietyDecember 15, 2020

March 15, right-wing extremism, and the systemic failures of NZ’s intelligence agencies

Al Noor mosque under armed police patrol on March 22, 2019 (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)
Al Noor mosque under armed police patrol on March 22, 2019 (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

The Royal Commission report makes it clear that foreign intelligence partners and domestic intelligence agencies saw right-wing extremism as a low-priority local law enforcement issue, not a pressing national security threat, writes Paul G Buchanan.

If one phrase sums up the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s Report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks, it is “systemic failure”. The failure was institutional and individual, within and across New Zealand’s borders, and involved errors of commission and omission.

The most salient finding is that there was a pervasive obsession with Islamic extremists within the NZ counter-terrorism community dating from 9/11. This myopic focus was shared by collection (operational) agencies, analytic agencies, oversight and coordination agencies, foreign partners, the governments and most politicians of the day. The media and the public, while largely unconcerned about the possibility of domestic terrorism, accepted the official line that after 9/11, and given events in the Middle East, Islamic extremism was the most likely threat to the Kiwi way of life.

The problem with this perspective is its lack of grounding in fact. Before and after 9/11, no Muslim has been charged, much less convicted of any act of ideologically motivated violence in Aotearoa. A couple of people have been arrested and imprisoned for possessing jihadist materials, a few have been detained for objectionable social media posts, some have been sent into de-radicalisation diversion programmes and some have had their passports cancelled based upon fears that they would travel to the Middle East to join ISIS or al-Qaeda. Two have been killed in drone strikes in the Middle East and one is languishing in a Syrian opposition jail. Back at home, at any given time, 30 to 35 people are monitored by the intelligence services because of their perceived jihadist sympathies. They may be inclined towards violence but as of yet none have decisively acted on their impulses. When it comes to contemplating acts of terrorist violence on NZ soil, would-be jihadists have been relatively few and far between, and all talk and no lethal action.

During the same timeframe, right-wing extremism world-wide grew bolder in terms of violent acts and larger in terms of numbers, starting with the mass murders perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Oslo in 2011 and accelerating after 2015 with murderous attacks in places like the US, UK and Germany as Daesh was defeated in Iraq and Syria and refugee flows increased from the Middle East and Northern Africa into Europe. Online white supremacist forums proliferated, as did the number of self-radicalised “lone wolves” who populated discussion groups focused on who, when and how to commit violence against Muslims, Jews, immigrants, gays, Arabs, Africans, and other perceived undesirables. Groups like Atomwaffen Division, English Defence League, Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois moved from their keyboards to the streets. New Zealand was not immune to this phenomenon, with groups such as the Dominion Movement, Northern Front, National Front, White Defence League, New Order, Right Wing Resistance, and more recent off-shoots like Western Guard and European Students Association waxing and waning before becoming more visible and vitriolic over the last decade (other groups linked to violent extremists have formed after March 15, including Action Zealandia). 

This suggests that post-2011 NZ counter-terrorism threat assessments should have incorporated the rising global trend of irregular right-wing violence. Yet in the period 2010-2019 right-wing extremism was mentioned only a handful of times in counter-terrorism reports, most in reference to terrorist attacks overseas. When and where the possibility of a right-wing terrorist attack in NZ was mentioned, such as in a 2011 Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) report that the Oslo attack was a model for copycats and that New Zealand’s firearms regimes allowed for the legal purchase of military-style weapons with that intent, it was apparently ignored by other agencies. Bureaucratic rivalries may have contributed to that.

The organization of the NZ intelligence community and the business model used by front line collection agencies made detection of non-Islamist terrorist threats difficult. Collection agencies like the NZSIS and NZ Police operate on a “lead-based” and “customer” focused business model, in which the agencies react to tips about suspicious behaviour and frame their operations and analyses according to the perceived needs of their sponsors and patrons — primarily the government and foreign partners. The decentralised and siloed nature of the intelligence community is another contributing factor to the failure to detect terrorist plots, whereby the alphabet soup of intelligence shops in areas like Customs, Immigration, MBIE and coordinating and analytic agencies like CTAG, the National Assessments Bureau (NAB), Security and Intelligence Board (SIB),  Counter-Terrorism Coordination Committee (CTCC) and a number of others compartamentalise and narrowly share classified information on a “need to know” basis. There are no strong hierarchies in the chains of command linking the functionally differentiated agencies, with various intelligence units answering to different ministers and seldom to each other. This led to duplication of functions and tunnel vision within the community. Although the NAB ostensibly serves as the lead agency in the decentralised NZ intelligence community organisational pyramid, vertical as well as horizontal accountability between members was and is limited. 

Then there was the issue of emphasis. In terms of overall organisational focus, domestic terrorism was a secondary concern for the New Zealand security community in the decade prior to the Christchurch attacks. Only 20 mentions of domestic terrorism were made during that period. The bulk of those referred to home-grown and returning jihadists.

The dysfunctional organisational arrangement and myopic mindset was compounded by the fact that there is little proactive or “over the horizon” futures-forecasting strategic analysis within the intelligence community’s component parts. Under extant funding models and given the security orientation of political masters and foreign partners, there was little incentive for intelligence shops to expend resources on discerning distant threats via strategic analysis or convincing political funders that the counter-terrorism focus needed to be expanded in light of an emerging global right-wing extremist movement that uses the internet as a recruiting, radicalisation and irregular warfare tutorial platform. This was obviously short-sighted and (still) leads to institutional lag when confronting the threat environment (whereby agencies play steep learning curve catch-up because their focus is on the last and not the next major threat). It also violates the basic professional requirement that threat landscapes be divided according to an objectively determined differentiation between possible, probable, proximate, immediate and imminent threats upon which preventive measures can be predicated.

The Royal Commission report repeatedly references Police and SIS complaints that they were under-resourced during the decade prior to the attacks, something that contributed to their inability to monitor right-wing extremism. The SIS reported that it had 225 personnel in 2013-14, of which 35% to 50% were engaged in security vetting and the rest in domestic and foreign espionage and counter-espionage functions, with only 4.5 full time equivalent staff dedicated to terrorism investigations. By 2019 the total staff had increased to 328 full time equivalents but the functional distribution remained the same. During the same period the SIS budget increased 245%, from $33,751,000 in 2007-08 to $82,843,000 in 2018-19. This does not include at least one dedicated cash injection of over $175 million provided by the National government in 2016-17 to the intelligence agencies and excludes any “black budget” expenditures (most intelligence agencies carry off-the-books “black budgets” for particularly sensitive operations).

The nearly $50 million operational budget increase and 100 staff added during the half decade leading to the attacks was not reflected in SIS counter-terrorism operations, so the question lingers as to whether it was not so much the lack of resources that impeded improvement in that operational area but a maldistribution of resources within it that contributed to the SIS failure to detect the threat emerging from the extremist right. After all, it devoted between a third and half of its staff to vetting security clearance applications. Assuming that clerical staff occupy 5% to 10% of personnel numbers, then the amount of people dedicated to domestic espionage (including counter-terrorism), foreign espionage and counter-espionage within the SIS is remarkably low for a frontline intelligence agency. The political priority given to counter-terrorism efforts by governments during the years after 9/11 and emergence of ISIS in Europe make it hard to fathom that only 4.5 equivalent full-time staff were dedicated to counter-terrorism efforts in 2014, and that the same distribution of personnel continued even with the 50% increase in staff by mid-2019.

The NZ Police also told the inquiry they struggled with resources for intelligence work in general and counter-terrorism work in particular. Citing shortfalls, the Police stopped investigating right-wing extremism in 2014 and no reports on the subject were issued until 2019 (after the attacks). The intelligence wings of the Police were said to be lightly staffed and spread over a number of issue areas that went well beyond counter-terrorism concerns. Both the National Security Group (NSG)  and Security and Intelligence Group (SITG) claimed to not have enough resources to engage in the type of strategic intelligence assessments that would have made early detection of right-wing extremists easier. In 2010 the National Intelligence Centre employed 53 staff out of a total complement of 11,890, then 63 in 2012 and 52 in 2013 with similar total numbers, while in 2018 “International and National Security” functions employed 357 out of 12,467 staff  (organisational changes made for different staffing statistic categories in annual reports after 2017). Even with the changes in statistics measurements that incorporated other liaison and analysis duties, it is clear that staffing of Police intelligence operations remained fairly constant and even rose slightly towards the end of the period covered by the RCI Report. It was therefore not a major impediment to counter-terrorism operations per se. Instead, it appears that the allocations of resources within the intelligence branch were directed to areas other than counter-terrorism, again, consistently throughout the years and paralleling the operational priorities of the SIS. Funding for additional counter-terrorism staff at the national level was approved in 2018, but the problem remained that, to quote the report, the “New Zealand Police had generally viewed right-wing extremism as more of a public order issue than a potential terrorist threat”. 

There is no mention in the report of whether Police intelligence received information about violent right-wing extremists during the course of undercover operations targeting criminal gang activities such as drugs or weapons dealing (so-called “street crimes”). Yet, although no information on right-wing extremists was reported at the national level after 2014, the inquiry was “also provided examples from the National Security Investigations Team of leads related to right-wing extremism that met the risk threshold and were pursued.” In other words, there were leads coming from somewhere about right-wing extremists and they were followed up, but nothing more is known about them (at least as far as the public record is concerned).

The “lack of interest” problem regarding right-wing extremism was compounded by the fact that tactical intelligence leads are mostly developed by each Police District, and during the time period in which the killer was planning and preparing apparently no leads on violent right-wing extremists were developed by the intelligence shops based in Dunedin and Christchurch, much less elsewhere. Instead, at both the district and national levels, in terms of strategic as well as tactical assessments, the NZ Police focused counter-terrorism efforts on detecting and disrupting the plans of Islamists (and had some success with that). 

Even so, the NZ Police did allocate intelligence resources to monitoring some non-Islamist groups. During the period covered by the review, which came in the wake of the infamous Urewera Raids, the Police followed intelligence leads and conducted operations against environmental, animal rights and anti-1080 activists along with the “normal” business of providing intelligence for non-ideologically motivated criminal investigations. This is worth noting because terrorism involving lethal mass attacks is most likely to be ideologically rather than criminally motivated (following the logic that criminal activity is a form of commercial rather than advocacy enterprise and public violence is generally bad for business). Among ideological activists in NZ, environmental and other left-wing groups are less prone to supporting terrorism to advance their goals than either aspiring jihadists or right-wing extremists (including so-called “eco-fascists” involved in anti-1080 campaigns). And yet they received more attention from the intelligence services than neo-Nazis did, and counter-terrorism efforts remained focused on would-be jihadists.

It was therefore not just a lack of resources allocated to counter-terrorism efforts within the Police, SIS and other agencies that impeded the detection of right-wing terrorist threats. Instead, it was the lack of priority given to them that contributed to the systemic intelligence failure. Intelligence work done by the Police and the SIS involve at their core human intelligence collection. That essentially means boots on and ears to the ground, which in turn is an issue of trained staff dedicated to the task on the one hand, and objective threat recognition on the other. In spite of the evolving threat landscape in the decade prior to the Christchurch attacks, counter-terrorism staffing numbers remained small and steady, with low emphasis placed on non-Islamist threats. When they were, the objects of scrutiny were not from the extremist right.

The GCSB was exonerated of any culpability in enabling the attacks. That is because, according to the report, it basically serves as a foreign signals intelligence agency and only engages in domestic espionage when tasked to do so under warrant by a NZ partner agency. In the decade before March 15 it was never tasked by the SIS, Police or other security agencies to monitor right-wing extremists.

Although it exposes the disorganisation and biases of the NZ intelligence apparatus when it came to counter-terrorism prior to March 15, the report claims that these systemic failures did not contribute to the attacks because the killer’s operational security made discovering him a matter of “chance”. That, in spite of reports about his peculiar behaviour at a gun club, his social media rants and use of IP addresses associated with extremist views and weapons purchases, his drone surveillance of the al-Noor mosque and his stockpiling of military-style weapons and ammunition (which are attributed to deficiencies of the firearms licensing regime and failures by vetting authorities to discharge their duties properly). The dots were there to be connected but, according to the royal commission, only by chance could that have been done.

To me, that has the makings of a Tui ad.

What is clear is that foreign intelligence partners and domestic intelligence agencies saw right-wing extremism as a low priority local law enforcement issue, not a pressing national security threat. In spite of some brief warnings and occasional mentions, the NZ Police and SIS did not see violent right-wing extremism as posing an imminent danger to society and other frontline agencies did not screen for it in their threat assessments. Instead, the security community prioritized the domestic aspects of  the so-called “War on Terror”. Local politicians supported and funded that approach, which was generally given low priority because domestic terrorism was, in spite of the anti-jihadist fear-mongering of the Key government, a secondary concern in the New Zealand intelligence community collective assessment  of NZ’s threat landscape.

With the overall likelihood of domestic terrorism downplayed and jihadist threats over-emphasised within potential domestic terrorism scenarios, when it came to local right-wing terrorism the intelligence community was not just looking the wrong way — it was not looking at all. Instead, for political and operational reasons the counter-terrorism focus could and would not see terrorist threats beyond those rooted in Islam. Even though the domestic terrorist threat landscape changed in the years after 9/11, the intelligence community was disinclined to move beyond threat assessment parameters that supported the anti-jihadist narrative. That is why it failed to see the danger coming from the extreme right.

More than “chance”, it was these institutional deficiencies, both in outlook and organisation, that wound up costing lives.

Paul G Buchanan is the Director of 36th Parallel Assessments, a geopolitical and strategic analysis consultancy (www.36th-parallel.com).

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