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I have not had much time to blog in recent weeks but continue the weekly series of podcasts with Selwyn Manning. This week we discussed efforts to develop a comprehensive national security strategy for New Zealand that goes beyond Defense White Papers and annual reports from various security agencies, then turned to recent elections in South America as an indicator that neoliberalism is well and truly dead as an economic policy approach and, perhaps more importantly, as a social theory. You can find the episode here.

Facing facts.

datePosted on 16:09, April 24th, 2021 by Pablo

The critical reaction of some conservative commentators and politicians about Nanaia Mahuta’s “Taniwha and Dragons” speech is focused on the double premise that NZ is “sucking up” to the PRC while it abandons its obligations to its 5 Eyes intelligence partners. Some have suggested that NZ is going to be kicked out of 5 Eyes because of its transgressions, and that the CCP is pulling the strings of the Labour government.

These views are unwarranted and seemingly born of partisan cynicism mixed with Sinophobia, racism and misogyny (because Mahuta is Maori and both Mahuta and PM Ardern are female and therefore singled out for specific types of derision and insult). Beyond the misinterpretations about what was contained in the speech, objections to Mahuta’s invocation of deities and mythological beasts misses the point. Metaphors are intrinsic to Pasifika identity (of which Maori are part) and serve to illustrate basic truths about the human condition, including those involved in international relations. As a wise friend said to me, imagine if a US Secretary of State was an indigenous person (such as Apache, Cherokee, Hopi, Mohican, Navaho, Sioux or Tohono O’odham). It is very possible that s/he would invoke ancestral myths in order to make a point on delicate foreign policy issues.

In any event, this post will clarify a few facts. First, on military and security issues covering the last two decades.

New Zealand has twin bilateral strategic and military agreements with the US, the first signed in 2010 (Wellington Declaration) and the second in 20012 (Washington Declaration). These committed the two countries to partnership in areas of mutual interest, particularly but not exclusively in the South Pacific. New Zealand sent troops to Afghanistan as part of the US-led and UN-mandated occupation after 9/11, a commitment that included NZSAS combat units as well as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan Province that mixed humanitarian projects with infantry patrols. More than 3500 NZDF troops were deployed in Afghanistan, at a cost of ten lives and $300 million.

Similarly, NZ sent troops to Iraq after the US invasion, serving in Basra as combat engineers in the early phase of the occupation, then later as infantry trainers for Iraqi security forces at Camp Taji. More than 1000 NZDF personnel were involved in these deployments, to which can be aded the SAS operators who deployed to fight Saddam Hussein’s forces and then ISIS in Iraq and Syria after its emergence. There are a small number of NZDF personnel serving in various liaison roles in the region as well, to which can be added 26 NZDF serving as peacekeepers in on the Sinai Penninsula (there are slightly more than 200 NZDF personnel serving overseas at the moment). In all of these deployments the NZDF worked with and now serves closely with US, UK and Australian military units. The costs of these deployments are estimated to be well over $150 million.

The NZDF exercises regularly with US, Australian and other allied partners, including the US-led RimPac naval exercises and Australian-led bi- and multilateral air/land/sea exercises such as Talisman Saber. It regularly hosts contingents of allied troops for training in NZ and sends NZDF personnel for field as well as command and general staff training in the US, Australia and UK. RNZN frigates are being upgraded in Canada and have contributed to US-led freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea (against PRC maritime territory extension projects) and anti-piracy and international sanctions enforcement missions in the Persian Gulf. Among the equipment purchases undertaken during the last two decades, the NZDF has bought Light Armoured Vehicles, the infamous “LAVs” (or Strykers, as they are known in the US), Bushmaster armoured personnel carriers, C-130J “Hercules” transport aircraft, P-8 “Poseidon” anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance aircraft, Javelin anti-tank portable missiles and a range of other weapons from 5 Eyes defence contractors. In fact, the majority of the platforms and equipment used by the NZDF are 5 Eyes country in origin, and in return NZ suppliers (controversially) sell MFAT-approved weapons components to Australia, the US, UK , NATO members, regional partners and some unsavoury Western-leaning regimes in the Middle East.

After the estrangement caused by the dissolution of the ANZUS defence alliance as a result of NZ’s non-nuclear decision in the mid-1980s, a rapprochement with the US began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The 5th Labour government sought to capitalise on the moment and sent troops into Afghanistan and later Iraq using the cover of UN resolutions to deflect political attacks. That led to improved military-to-military relations between the US and NZ, something that has been deepened over the years by successive NZ governments. The intelligence relationship embodied in the Echelon/5 Eyes agreement was slightly curtailed but never ended even when ANZUS died, and gradually was restored as the main security partnership to which NZ was affiliated. Now the NZDF is considered a small but valued military and intelligence partner of the US and other 5 Eyes states, with the main complaints being (mostly from the Australians) that NZ does not spend enough on “defence’ (currently around 1.5 percent of GDP, up from 1.1 percent under the last National government, as opposed to 2.1 percent in Australia, up from 1.9 percent in 2019) or provide enough of its own strategic lift capability. The purchase of the C-130J’s will help on that score, and current plans are to replace the RNZAF 757 multirole aircraft in or around 2028.

The dispute over US warships visiting NZ because of the “neither confirm or deny” US policy regarding nuclear weapons on board in the face on NZ’s non-nuclear stance was put to rest when the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Sampson (DDG-102) participated in the RNZN 75th anniversary celebrations in November 2016 after an agreement between the then National government and US Department of Defense on assurances that it was not carrying or using nukes as weapons or for propulsion. As if to prove the point of bilateral reconciliation, on the way to the celebrations in Auckland DDG-102 diverted to provide humanitarian support to Kaikura earthquake relief efforts after the tremor of November 14th (the week-long anniversary fleet review involving foreign naval vessels began on on November 17th). A Chinese PLAN warship also participated in the anniversary Fleet Review, so the message conveyed by the first official NZ port visit by a US warship in 30 years was made explicitly clear to the PRC.

The fact is this: the relations between NZ and its 5 Eyes partners in the broader field of military security is excellent, stable and ongoing. That will not change anytime soon.

As for intelligence gathering, NZ is a core part of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and analysis network. Over the years it has moved into the field of military signals intelligence gathering as well as technical and electronic intelligence-gathering more broadly defined. More recently, in light of the emergence of non-state terrorism and cyber warfare/espionage threats, the role of 5 Eyes has been upgraded and expanded to counter them. To that end, in the last decade NZ has received multiple visits from high-ranking intelligence officials from its partners that have dovetailed with technological upgrades across the spectrum of technical and electronic signals intelligence gathering. This includes addressing issues that have commercial and diplomatic sensitivities attached to them, such as the NZ decision to not proceed with Huawei involvement in its 5G broadband rollout after high level consultations with its 5 Eyes partners. More recently, NZ has been integrated into latest generation space-based intelligence collection efforts while the focus of the network returns to more traditional inter-state espionage with great power rivals like China and Russia (we shall leave aside for the moment the benefits that the GCSB and NZDF receive from Rocket Lab launches of US military payloads but we can assume that they are significant).

As routine practice, NZSIS and GCSB officers rotate through the headquarters of 5 Eyes sister agencies for training and to serve as liaison agents. Officers from those agencies do the same in NZ, and signals engineers and technicians from 5 Eyes partners are stationed at the collection stations at Waihopa and Tangimoana. GCSB and SIS personnel also serve overseas alongside 5 Eyes employees in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq. While less standardised then the regular rotations between headquarters, these type of deployments are ongoing.

5 Eyes also maintains a concentric ring of intelligence partners that include France, Germany, Japan, Israel, and Singapore. These first-tier partners in turn use their respective capabilities to direct tactical and strategic intelligence towards 5 Eyes, thereby serving as the intelligence version of a “force multiplier” in areas of common interest. One such area is the PRC, which is now a primary focus of Western intelligence agencies in and outside of the Anglophone world. This common threat perception and futures forecasting orientation is shared by the NZ intelligence community and is not going to change anytime soon unless the PRC changes its behaviour in significant ways.

For its part, the PRC has no such complex and sophisticated intelligence networks with which to avail itself. It has intelligence partners in North Korea, Russia, Iran and other small states, but nothing on the order of 5 Eyes. As a result, it is much more reliant on human intelligence collection than its rivals in the 5 Eyes, something that has become a source of concern for the 5 Eyes community and NZ in particular (as the supposed weak link in the network and because of its economic reliance on China, of which more below). While the PRC (and Russia, Israel and Iran, to name some others) are developing their cyber warfare and espionage capabilities, the fact is that the PRC continues to rely most heavily on old-fashioned covert espionage and influence operations as well as relatively low tech signals intercepts for most of its foreign intelligence gathering. If I read intelligence reports correctly, NZ’s counter-espionage and intelligence efforts are focused on this threat.

In a word: NZ is committed to the 5 Eyes and has a largely Western-centric world view when it comes to intelligence matters even when it professes foreign policy independence on a range of issues. That is accepted by its intelligence partners, so transmission (of intelligence) will continue uninterrupted. It is in this light that Mahuta’s comments about NZ’s reluctance to expand 5 Eyes original remit (as an intelligence network) into a diplomatic coalition must be understood. There are other avenues, multilateral and bilateral, public and private, through which diplomatic signaling and posturing can occur.

That brings up the issue of trade. Rather than “sucking up” to China, the foreign minister was doing the reverse–she was calling for increased economic distance from it. That is because New Zealand is now essentially trade dependent on the PRC. Approximately 30 percent of NZ’s trade is with China, with the value and percentage of trade between the two countries more than tripling since the signing of the bilateral Free Trade Agreement in 2008. In some export industries like logging and crayfish fisheries, more than 75 percent of all exports go to the PRC, while in others (dairy) the figure hovers around 40 percent. The top four types of export from NZ to the PRC are dairy, wood and meat products (primary goods), followed by travel services. To that can be added the international education industry (considered part of the export sector), where Chinese students represent 47 percent of total enrollees (and who are a suspected source of human intelligence gathering along with some PRC business visa holders).

In return, the PRC exports industrial machinery, electronics (cellphones and computers), textiles and plastics to NZ. China accounts for one in five dollars spent on NZ exports and the total amount of NZ exports to China more than doubles that of the next largest recipient (Australia) and is more than the total amount in value exported to the next five countries (Australia, US, Japan, UK and Indonesia) combined. Even with the emergence of the Covid pandemic, the trend of increased Chinese share of NZ’s export markets has continued to date and is expected to do so in the foreseeable future.

Although NZ has attempted to diversify its exports to China and elsewhere, it remains dependent on primary good production for the bulk of export revenues. This commodity concentration, especially when some of the demand for export commodities are for all intents and purposes monopolised by the Chinese market, makes the NZ economy particularly vulnerable to a loss of demand, blockages or supply chain bottlenecks involving these products. Although NZ generates surpluses from the balance of trade with the PRC, its reliance on highly elastic primary export commodities that are dependent on foreign income-led demand (say, for proteins and housing for a growing Chinese middle class) makes it a subordinate player in a global commodity chain dominated by value-added production. That exposes it to political-diplomatic as well as economic shocks not always tied to market competition. Given the reliance of the entire economy on primary good exports (which are destined mainly for Asia and within that region, the PRC), the negative flow-on effects of any disruption to the primary good export sector will have seriously damaging consequences for the entire NZ economy.

That is why the Foreign Minister spoke of diversifying NZ’s exports away from any single market. The only difference from previous governments is that the lip service paid to the “eggs in several baskets” trade mantra has now taken on urgency in light of the realities exposed by the pandemic within the larger geopolitical context.

Nothing that the Labour government has done since it assumed office has either increased subservience to China or distanced NZ from its “traditional” partners. In fact, the first Ardern government had an overtly pro-Western (and US) slant when coalition partners Winston Peters and Ron Mark of NZ First were Foreign Affairs and Defence ministers, respectively. Now that Labour governs alone and NZ First are out of parliament, it has reemphasised its Pacific small state multilateralist approach to international affairs, but without altering its specific approach to Great Power (US-PRC) competition.

The situation addressed by Mahuta’s speech is therefore as follows. NZ has not abandoned its security allies just because it refuses to accept the Trumpian premise that the 5 Eyes be used as a diplomatic blunt instrument rather than a discreet intelligence network (especially on the issue of human rights); and it is heavily dependent on China for its economic well-being, so needs to move away from that position of vulnerability by increasingly diversifying its trade partners as well as the nature of exports originating in Aotearoa. The issue is how to maintain present and future foreign policy independence given these factors.

With those facts in mind, the Taniwha and Dragon speech was neither an abandonment of allies or a genuflection to the Chinese. It was a diplomatic re-equilibration phrased in metaphorical and practical terms.

Nanaia Mahuta, NZ’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave a speech that was notable for two things. On the one hand she spoke of diversifying NZ’s trade relations away from the domination of one market (read: the PRC). On the other hand she expressed a desire to return the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and sharing network to its original charter rather than allow it to be used a diplomatic foil by the other partners in the network (which was brought about by a couple of critical 5 Eyes statements on events in the PRC). To be clear: the 5 Eyes is an intelligence network, not a diplomatic coalition or military-security alliance, so using it for diplomatic signalling and posturing is folly. Not only is NZ the most vulnerable of the 5 Eyes partners to Chinese retaliation, but the move to use 5 Eyes as a diplomatic tool was an initiative that came from a Trump administration that was uninterested in the complexities of the relations US partners maintained with China and very much interested in pressing the partners to bend a knee to Trump’s desire to squeeze China on all fronts.

In other words, it was an absurd and unnecessary initiative that complicated things for the spy agencies involved and undermined the positions of the diplomats who normally would conduct such types of public diplomacy. As it turns out, Winston Peters and Ron Mark of NZ First were the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence at the time of the first US request to use the 5 Eyes to issue joint condemnatory statements about Chinese behaviour in Hong Kong and vis a vis the Uyghers in Xinjiang Province. They wanted to keep in the US good graces and so acceded to the request, something that Mahuta agreed to with regards to a second statement very early on in her tenure as Foreign Minister. But after very blunt warnings from the Chinese about NZ’s meddling in its internal affairs, it is clear that a more calibrated, balanced approach was required. Her speech delivered on that score.

It did so because it counterpoised the need to return to the original 5 Eyes charter with a declaration of intent with regard to diversifying trade away from the PRC. There is irony in the move because it was under the 5th Labour government where NZ’s trade dependence on the PRC was deepened and consolidated via the signing of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (in 2008). Thus, while former PM Helen Clark may have played a role in getting NZ to push to restore the 5 Eyes charter due to her statement in September 2020 that NZ was losing its independence within it, she also was being rebuked for ignoring the concerns of many that the asymmetric nature of the NZ-PRC FTA would come back to haunt NZ on both the economic and diplomatic fronts.

The speech went on to reaffirms NZ’s foreign policy independence and its commitment to multilateralism, democratic values and a South Pacific orientation. Coming just before a visit by the Australian foreign minister, it served as a framing device for bilateral discussions. More generally, it helped re-frame how NZ proposes to approach the world over the next few years. The key issue will be how it implements, much less achieves, what is essentially a new balance in the conduct of NZ foreign affairs.

In any case, here is the podcast with Selwyn Manning on the subject.

Principled, pragmatic or expedient.

datePosted on 16:44, April 11th, 2021 by Pablo

For several decades under Labour and National-led governments New Zealand has claimed to have an independent (and sometimes autonomous) foreign policy. This foreign policy independence is said to be gained by having a “principled but pragmatic” approach to international relations: principled when possible, pragmatic when necessary. More recently NZ foreign policy has shifted from traditional diplomacy in which trade was a component part to a trade focused orientation to which all other aspects of diplomatic endeavour are subordinated. Seen as a marriage of belief in Ricardian notions of comparative (and now competitive) advantage with a pragmatic understanding that NZ is dependent on trade for its survival and prosperity, the “trade for trade’s sake” approach continues to reign supreme to this day.

It turns out that foreign policy pragmatism or principle may no longer obtain in certain instances, especially when trade is involved. Take the issue of NZ military-related exports. It has been revealed that NZ firms and (possibly) public agencies export everything from airplane parts to small arms, explosive ordinance, training simulators, muzzle flash suppressors, missile guidance systems and artillery range finders to 41 countries and territories. (The term “possibly” is used here because all of the NZ exporting entities are redacted in the export list made public by MFAT. While some private exporters can be broadly identified by the nature of the items sold, other special license categories make ambiguous the provenance of the equipment in question).

Most of these exports go to NATO members and other liberal democracies, while other recipients are regional partners like Singapore, Malaysia , Australia, Tonga and Indonesia. The bulk of what is exported is what might be considered to be on the soft rather than sharp end of the so-called “kill chain:” items that do not impart lethal force directly but which contribute to the accuracy and lethality of weapons systems that do.

None of this would be controversial if it were not for the fact that some of the recipient countries have checkered human rights records (like Indonesia) while others have outright dismal histories of authoritarianism and military criminality. That includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and the PRC. Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead a coalition of Sunni Arab states that have been credibly accused of committing war crimes and genocide against Houthi populations in Yemen. Saudi Arabia does not recognise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the UAE was not party to the UDHR vote) and along with the UAE does not recognise a number of human rights conventions involving women’s rights, labour rights, political and social rights. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia also are not party to the UDHR and while not as dismal as the Sunni oligarchies, have subpar records when it comes to adhering to international human rights norms and agreements. NZ exports military training material to the PRC, whose human rights history is known for all the wrong reasons. There are other dubious recipients but the issue is clear. In spite of claiming to be a champion and defender of human rights as a matter of principle, NZ exports military equipment to egregious violators of human rights both at home and abroad.

Some will argue that NATO members and other democracies like Australia also violate the laws of war and human rights in their own territories. There is merit to those arguments. But the difference between Australia, Canada, the UK and US and, say, Saudi Arabia and the UAE when it comes to military conduct in conflict theatres is that war crimes committed by the forces deployed by liberal democracies are exceptions to the rule and are punished (even if initially covered up) rather than systematically encouraged and later denied. Domestically, while systemic racism clearly exists throughout the liberal democratic world, it is no longer genocidal in nature even if in previous eras there was a significant element of that.

Conversely, places like the PRC systemically abuse human rights at home, deny individual and collective rights as a matter of course and treat ethnic and religious minorities as if they were foreign enemies. Turkey has grown increasingly authoritarian under President Erdogan, with its treatment of its Kurdish minority a particularly black mark on its record. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are known for their mistreatment of foreign workers, Shiia Muslims in particular but not exclusively. Jordan and Bahrain, other recipients of NZ strategic license exports, are Western allies but not known for their adherence to human rights conventions.

Even Israel, a supposed liberal democracy and a Western ally that is another recipient of NZ military-related exports, systematically violates the rights of Palestinians inside and outside of its recognised territorial limits, including targeting of civilian populations during times of conflict (in Gaza) and forcibly annexing Palestinian territory (in the West Bank) as part of an expansionist doctrine that seeks to eventually expel Palestinians from what they and Israelis consider to be their homelands. Within Israel, in spite of recent electoral gains by so-called “Arab” (Joint List) parties, Palestinians are more often seen and treated as a subversive fifth column rather than full citizens (Arabs make up around 20 percent of the Israeli population).

Most liberal democracies simply do not act this way. The West may be guilty of many things, particularly during the colonial era and Cold War, but even if flawed most liberal democracies at a minimum pay lip service to the rule of law based on civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad. A fair number of the recipients of NZ strategic exports in recent years make no such pretence.

None of this would matter if NZ had a realist approach to foreign policy that was completely pragmatic in orientation based on national self-interest. Matters of principle would not factor into foreign policy-making and trade relations. But that is not the case. Instead, NZ is a very vocal defender of small state and minority rights in the international community as an extension of its championing of international human rights, international norms and the rule of law. That makes trading with authoritarians somewhat hypocritical and exporting military equipment to murderous regimes downright reprehensible. Especially when done for a buck–that is, for the profit gain of NZ private firms.

To be clear, almost any hunting-related equipment can be converted for dual use military purposes. But there is much more to the NZ export list (released by MFAT to a couple of investigative reporters under OIA requests) than converted hunting equipment. It also is interesting that most of the redactions in the sanitised export list are justified on commercial sensitivity rather than national security grounds. If items were merely dual use conversions from hunting equipment, one would think that there are little commercial sensitivities involved given the global scope of the hunting industry. Nor are end users always identified on the list, which makes MFAT assurances that it knows what is ultimately being done with the exports somewhat disingenuous. Either it knows and does not want to say or it does not know even though it allowed the export license request for those items to be approved.

Consider this example. MFAT approved the sale of a general utility aircraft from a Hamilton-based aerospace company (now bankrupt) to a PRC-based aviation firm in spite of numerous concerns about the end use of that aircraft. A year or so after the sale went through the plane was photographed at an airshow wearing North Korean military livery, sparking an investigation into how international sanctions on North Korea were circumvented in the process (the sanctions violation was considered a first order offence given the military use of the aircraft). In the legal process that followed, which resulted in the conviction and fining of the Hamilton firm for violating the international sanctions regime and NZ strategic export requirements, MFAT admitted that it had no clue as to who the end user might be beyond the PRC firm that, incidentally, owned a half interest in the Hamilton company and controlled its board of directors. In other words, it took the exporter’s word as an article of faith and as a result contributed to an egregious violation of UN sanctions that NZ voted to support. Diplomatically speaking, that tarnished NZ’s reputation because neither principle or pragmatism, much less due diligence, was applied to the sale.

Even training equipment has to be considered in proper context. Artillery range finders used for training purposes (which MFAT claims was the case with Saudi Arabia) are being used to train artillery for war, not fun and games. Saudi artillery is regularly used in the Yemen civil war, so it a stretch to say that exporting equipment that trains troops to be more accurate with their artillery fire is not related to the Yemeni conflict. Likewise, even if small in terms of numbers and monetary value, exporting sidearms and squad weapons to human rights violators ignores the fact that they could be used against domestic populations and foreign civilians as well as foreign adversaries.

Again, none of this would be of concern if NZ did not proclaim itself to have an independent foreign policy based on principle as well as pragmatism. If it was a country powered by a military-industrial complex such as the US, it would all be in a day’s business to export military equipment to assorted nefarious regimes. But not so NZ, which has staked its international reputation on being an agent of honest virtue–a good global citizen, as it often says.

The truth is different. If NZ was truly independent it could resist the pressure to act as a cut-out or front for its allies’ military-related services (say, by not allowing the national airline to serve as a sub-contractor for the reconditioning of Saudi Navy gas turbines usually serviced by US Navy contractors). It could pick and choose about when to be principled and when to be pragmatic when it comes to military-related exports (say, by exporting to NATO or liberal democratic partners only). After all, although clearly lacking any basis in principle, it is really pragmatic for NZ to sell the Saudis and Emiratis military equipment when they are involved in industrial-strength war crimes in pursuit of a genocidal campaign in a neighbouring country? Will the diplomatic benefits of courting such states outweigh the costs of making its rank hypocrisy visible to the rest of the international community?

In a past life I was involved in the decision-making chain involved in US military sales and training, etc. to Latin American countries. The primary criteria for vetting military equipment and training requests was twofold: the nature of the equipment or training requested and the character of the political regime (government) making the request. If the equipment or training was too sensitive or excessively lethal and/or the regime doing the requesting was of dubious disposition, then the request was denied. If the decision was anything other than an outright “no” on the primary grounds, then other criteria was applied: state of trade and diplomatic relations with the requesting state, the geopolitical balance in the (sub) region in which that state was located, the possibility of a domino proliferation impact, the presence of other foreign weapons suppliers as substitutes for US exports, etc. Once all of this was factored in with input from the various elements of the inter-agency consultation process (involving the State Department, CIA, NSC, Treasury, Commerce and other federal agencies with a potential stake in the matter), sometimes after sounding out other countries in the region about their reactions, a recommendation was sent to the White House for approval/denial. If the White House approved the sale/mission, then the recommendation was sent to Congress for approval, something involving several committee votes and then a general vote in both Houses. The process was slow and circuitous but in the end it was comprehensive and transparent.

Although it is possible that there are similarly robust weapons exportation strategic license vetting protocols in place in NZ, that does not seem to be the case. MFAT appears to make the call, perhaps after consultation with DPMC and/or Cabinet. Parliament is not involved in the decision-making process. No public notification is made. In other words, the entire NZ strategic export licensing regime is opaque at best. You can read the official criteria here.

MFAT says that the vetting process is rigorous and that it knows exactly where NZ sourced military equipment winds up. Yet it has only denied one out of 254 special export license requests in the last three years (to the Saudis for mortar stands and fire control (observation tower) equipment, supposedly in response to the Khashoggi murder). If foreign policy principle were involved, one might expect that the approval rate would be somewhat lower for authoritarian-ruled countries. But if pragmatism and trade are the criteria in play, does it make sense to supply murderous regimes with any kill chain components? Or is the fact that the entire decision-making process for granting special export licenses is so opaque that MFAT and the suppliers thought that they would never be found out if it were not for the good work of a couple of intrepid reporters?

More than principle and pragmatism as guideposts for foreign policy, it seems that trade-promoting expediency is the new normal in NZ foreign affairs, something that continues under the Ardern government. But with expediency comes a loss of independence and autonomy as well, because among other reasons, states with their own agendas can use NZ’s trade zealotry as third party cover for transactions they themselves may be reluctant to admit publicly (even the US has suspended weapons sales to Saudi Arabia because of its behaviour in Yemen). Or authoritarians can hold non-military trade relations with NZ hostage to the provision of military equipment. Either way, that makes NZ a foreign policy tool of others rather than an honest broker in international relations and global good citizen.

Just like the fact that NZ’s “clean and green” image is more myth than reality, the foreign policy reality is that at least when it comes to trading in the paraphernalia of death, NZ is unprincipled, hardly pragmatic and dominated by logics of trade expediency rather than a commitment to the upholding international human rights. While it would be too much to expect a National-led government to put principle before trade expediency, that this continues to occur under a Labour-led government (in which the Prime Minister claims that she was unaware of the strategic export recipient list until asked about it by the media) is all the more outrageous given its constant repetition of the “independent, principled but pragmatic” foreign policy mantra.

If NZ is to regain a semblance of integrity in diplomatic circles, its foreign policy decision-making matrix must change away from trade obsessed expediency and towards the principled but pragmatic orientation that grants it the independence that it claims to have. Conversely, if it wants to put trade before everything else, then it might as well fess up and open up the country’s foreign policy to the highest bidder.

Infiltrating extremism.

datePosted on 09:46, March 29th, 2021 by Pablo

Preamble

When I got my Ph.D. I was given an extraordinary opportunity to create a Latin American Studies program for US intelligence officers. My then father-in-law (a retired FBI agent and Legal Attache) knew a retired CIA guy who had links to the Naval Postgraduate School, where the program was to be housed. My father-in-law mentioned to the ex-CIA officer that he had a son-in-law who grew up in the region and that I was about to graduate with a degree in Political Science specialising in the comparative politics and international relations of Latin America. Although I was a “commie” in his eyes, he believed that I would probably pass the security clearances. I was invited to interview for the job along with a few others and lo and behold, I got it.

My task was to create a six course MA-level curriculum in Latin American Studies for civilian and military intelligence officers who would be heading into the region after taking intensive language courses at the Defence Language Institute (DLI)–conveniently located just down the road from NPS–as a requirement for graduation. I drew up syllabi for the History of Latin America, Latin American Government, Politics and Societies, Latin American Civil-Military Relations, Latin American International Relations, Latin American Economics and Latin American Insurgencies and Revolutionary Movements and taught all courses except the economics course. The students wrote a thesis in their final two quarters after being language certified at DLI, so the entire course of study lasted eighteen months (12 of course work/thesis and six of language training).

Notice the practical aspect of this curriculum. No literature offerings, no post-modern reflections on Latin American intersubjectivity, no electives in poetry or music (although there was plenty of that on offer at off-campus parties). While all of that is important and should be the stuff of civilian university offerings, this was different. The idea was to immerse the students in the realpolitik of the region, teach them proficiency in the language(s) in which they would have to operate, and then send them into the field where they would join more experienced officers for their first assignments.

I got the security clearances needed to supervise classified theses (Top Secret), which was an interesting process because even then in the mid-1980s the investigators were obsessed with whether I had ties to a communist party. They did not care about Peronists and when I told them that I was more of a Euro-Marxist along neo-Gramscian lines, they just stared blankly and asked if he had any relationship with Che Guevara. Since I did not belong to a CP and Gramsci did not travel in the same temporal or political circles as El Che, I was deemed fit for purpose.

NPS is located in Monterey, California, which is a very beautiful place. The Monterey Institute for International Studies (MIIS) is located there and I managed to secure an Adjunct Professor job at it teaching Latin American Politics. My in-laws lived in Carmel down the road, and there was blue water, open roads and clean air to run, swim and bike galore. Plus NPS has a serious gym with some very serious fitness freaks in it, so I was always able to work out and find training partners rain or shine (this privilege continued when I was in the Pentagon years later. Let’s just say that the US understands the benefits of sports and exercise quite well). My students were all around my age–late 20s and early 30s–so we played ball together even though technically I outranked them on and off the field. That made for some amusing moments when arguing with opposing players.

Student discipline, as you would expect, was superb. Many were very conservative in their political views but they understood where I was coming from given my background and also understood that they needed to comprehend why the US was opposed in many places and who opposed them (remember, these were the days of the Sandinistas, FMLN, Sendero Luminoso and assorted other leftist insurgencies). It was more than just knowing the enemy of the day. As I used to say to them, “you guys are professional security agents of a superpower but the people fighting in the insurgencies opposing the US and its client regimes are all volunteers. Why is that?” Since I had a visible distaste for military-bureaucratic authoritarians of the right as well as Lenenists and Stalinists, it was illuminating for them to hear me explain the reasons why.

I did a very good job getting that curriculum up and running (called the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program in the Department of National Security Affairs). But it was not to last. During the second Reagan administration word got out that there was a Marxist teaching at NPS and an ideological inquisitor from the Defence Department, ironically the son of a political theorist that I had studied under at Chicago, came to see what I was doing. Although no one said anything bad about me and in fact my students and colleagues were full of praise, I was ordered to start teaching Latin American maritime strategy and naval warfare even though no other area studies program had such requirements (there were already established programs in Asian, Middle Eastern and European Studies in the NSA Department).

Needless to say, although I had been studying geopolitics since undergraduate school and had a fair handle on Latin American military thinking, it was clear that, as a civilian who does not sail, I would struggle to fulfil the task. So I quit and went off to a civilian university, where two things happened: I continued to get military officers as my students because their commands were pleased with what I taught so moved them to the school I went to; and I developed a consulting relationship with various military commands and the intelligence community that was to last until I emigrated to NZ.

One of the most interesting things about that job was the unexpected and informal quid pro quo I developed with the intelligence community. Within weeks of joining NPS I was invited to give lectures around the country to military and civilian intelligence audiences (including, I must admit, the infamous School of the Americas). On one side, I was very sporty in those days and so managed to convince various military commands to allow me to run the obstacle courses on a number of military bases when visiting them to guest lecture (needless to say the military guys were suckers for putting a civilian academic through the grinder of their physical training routines). With my knowledge of the subject already established, the ability to do hard exercise in turn led to me being invited to join in various US irregular warfare activities as an observer, then advisor and consultant, something that continued until I left the US for NZ.

On the other side, I was eventually asked to participate in some leadership analysis and strategic deconstruction exercises for intelligence shops in DC and elsewhere (of ideology and tactics, such as whether guerrilla groups adopted Marighella’s two-pronged approach to irregular warfare, Guillen’s “Robin Hood” urban warfare approach or Guevara’s “foco” theory and whether they were Leninist, Maoist, Trotskyite or hybrid in ideological orientation). I had the security clearances so that was never an issue, and because I spoke both Spanish and Portuguese and lived so long in Latin America, I was very well received wherever I went because of the insights that I could offer on things like cultural mores, social do’s and don’ts, etc. Eventually the relationship with the intelligence community developed to the point that I would get invited to see aspects of how they trained human intelligence officers and even got to offer my thoughts on how to improve said training. I was told that the courtesy was simply a way of repaying me for my efforts in creating and running the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program. It was very enlightening to see how and what intelligence officers are taught before they become case officers in the field and/or subject analysts.

The exposure to both the military and intelligence sides of the coin (no pun intended for those in the know) was a luxury that few non-career people get to enjoy. It became the basis for how I approach the subjects of strategic analysis, threat assessment, intelligence collection and warfare.

The issue.

Which brings me in a much convoluted way to the point of this post: the differences between detecting, monitoring and infiltrating rightwing as opposed to to leftwing extremist groups. That was something that came up in conversation from time to time during my days in and around the US intelligence and military communities, since both types of group have historically been present in Latin America. From rightwing paramilitary death squads like Mano Blanca in El Salvador and the Triple-A in Argentina to the leftist populism of the Tupamaros in Uruguay and Bolivarians in Venezuela to the Maoism of Sendero Luminoso in Peru and FARC in Colombia to the Trotskyite tendencies of the ERP in Argentina, both sides of the ideological spectrum have armed extremist factions with violent histories.

The basic difference, and the one that makes the extremist Right easier to infiltrate than the extremist Left, is that the Right defends the capitalist class structure of society whereas the Left seeks to overthrow it. What that means is that the Right, as a defensive or restorative movement, seeks and often receives the shelter of capitalist class fractions, including some directly represented in government. Unconsciously or consciously, the extremist Right operates on behalf of the capitalist State, whereas the extremist Left seeks to confront it. The extremist Right sees itself as the ideological vanguard of a system of property-based class relations that is too weak to defend itself from assorted usurpers. It therefore offers autonomous protection to the capitalist class fractions most threatened by those groups and often receives capitalist support and cover in return.

The extremist Left has no such luxury. Dedicated to the overthrown of the capitalist system and the State that emerges from and serves it, leftist extremists cannot afford to reveal themselves to potential patrons outside of ideological fellow travellers. Back in the day, this forced many Latin American revolutionaries to seek support from Cubans, Russians, Chinese and Vietnamese even if these were not fully cognisant of the ideological and physical terrain in which the Latin Americans were fighting in (Che Guevara’s failed campaign in Bolivia being a remarkable example). Although extra-regional and foreign, they at least could be trusted out of shared ideological conviction, whereas even members of the domestic petit bourgeoisie, organised labour and public service could not be trusted due to their penchant for cooptation and hence betrayal of the class line.

Because of this, Left extremists have developed comparatively secure operational security systems in which secrecy, insularity, compartmentalisation, siloing and atomisation of cellular networks is paramount. Right extremists, on the other hand, prefer more overt displays of power tied to the classes that they support and defend. This occurs via public demonstrations such as the march on Charlottesville or the assault on the US Capitol, but the usual displays are local in nature. This can be seen in the connections between US extremists like Oathkeepers and Proud Boys with members of the Trump entourage and retrograde billionaires like Erik Prince or the Pillow Guy. It is likely to be the case with Action Zealandia, whose overt public media efforts (including Facebook and Twitter accounts) serve as a disguise for more violent planning and hint at links to funding and patronage beyond the known membership. These groups operate openly but generally conceal their violent tendencies and more extreme views in the public space while cultivating relationships with class allies and sponsors under the guise of moderation.

Such is true even when the Right moves to decentralised small cell or lone wolf tactics because unlike Left extremists, there is always a class patron in the background and a broader network of enablers and accomplices to which the extremists look for shelter and camouflage. To that can be added the more specific commonalities that cross between certain Right subgroups, including the symbology of tattoos and heraldry, interest in body-building (a trait shared by some jihadists), tenuous if not hostile relationships with females, interest in weaponry and anger at the way “things” are going in society. The combination of personality traits and collective expression of identity are the most visible signs of a penchant for extremism and lie at the core of the type of profiling that is the bread and butter of counter-terrorism operations. But this needs to be supplemented by a broader perspective in order to discern the full context in which extremists materialise and operate.

Put another way, whereas for Mao the peasantry were the sea in which the guerrilla fish swam in pre-revolutionary China, for the Right in liberal democracies it is among the (I would argue descendent) capitalist class fractions where the extremists seek to organise and hide. That is the starting point from which counter-extremist measures should be undertaken.

Broader historical context supports this view. Leftist perspectives have been the exception to capitalist rule since the end of the Cold War. Leftist extremists were mostly defeated where they engaged in armed struggle and those that did not fight, say in Europe, North America and the Antipodes in the 1960s and 70s, were coopted and bought off. What was Left into the 2000s has very little support and even less shelter for its extremist elements. Moreover, once the political Left adopted market-friendly “Third Way” policies and the activist Left splintered into identity politics and other forms of post-modern self-characterisation, the movement as a whole lost the class line unifier that could have allowed it some critical mass for revolutionary action propelled by an extremist vanguard. Today the Left are extremist in name only, running from the terms “radical” and “socialist” rather than embracing them for the emancipatory promise they contain within.

Contrarily, as a pro-capitalist movement, the ideological Right has ridden a market-oriented and -led political wave that harks to the Chicago Boys in Chile, Reaganism, Thatcherism and the pro-market reforms in NZ of the mid 1980s to become an all encompassing and largely unchallenged world view that continues to this day. It is not just a dominant theory about preferred economic organisation, policy and behaviour. It has become a holistic world-view based on principles of individualism, property and self advancement even if these principles are more mythical than real. In this cultural environment extremist Right views flow as a sub-current in the dominant ideological stream while Left extremists swim against it. One side hides in the open while the other seeks the cover of marginality. This has consequences for their respective praxis.

Because the extremist Left cannot “hide” in the capitalist class structure it is much more furtive and surreptitious in its approach to the armed struggle. Because the extremist Right sees itself as a champion of a system of property and society under siege and therefore well supported by the “silent majority,” it is more prone to let its guard down in front of kindred spirits when it comes to enunciating its plans and preparations for confrontation with those who would seek to challenge tradition, custom and class relations. When its views are repeated and shared by politicians as shared “truths” (say, by calling for NZ borders to be closed to people from “dirty” places like India or by saying that US elections were “stolen” by an evil cabal of liberal swamp people), then there is reason to believe that they are justified in assuming that their more devilish schemes will go unnoticed or be wilfully ignored. What differences may exist between more moderate Rightists and their extremist counterparts (say, on Jews), the unifying binds of capitalist class defence is what ultimately ties them together. A Leftist extremist is a threat to the system and traditional values; a Rightist extremist is a misguided or overzealous defender of that which is given and good.

This is true as much on-line as it is in the real world. That matters because on-line has become a major channel for extremist recruitment and organization. In the world of political blogs and message boards, the language of Rightwing extremism overlaps and mixes with those of economic or social conservatives, whereas the extremist Left is seldom seen or heard at all, much less in “moderate” Left conversations. After a period of supposed self-reflection and increased moderation, mainstream Rightwing blogs in NZ have reversed course and allow thinly veiled extremists back onto their threads. From my perspective this is a good thing because if intelligence agencies are worth their budgets, they will spend time using their technical and analytic skills to triangulate between the frothing blog commentators, the quietly vile ones, and the denizens of hate fests like 4 Chan’s political boards in order to determine measures of violent intent. It really is not hard if the will is there and resources are made available. To repeat: more often than not extremists on the Right are more likely to be hiding in plain sight when compared with those on the Left.

Less readers point to lone wolf attacks as evidence that I am wrong, let me state that I reject the notion that people like the Christchurch, Pittsburgh, San Diego and El Paso killers (to name a few) flew under the radar and that no one could have predicted their murderous actions. Contrary to the official narrative, all of these had on-line and physical presences that pointed, if not screamed aloud what their intentions were. But in each case they were cloaked in concentric circles of sympathy, connivence and disinterest that allowed them to move unimpeded towards their final act. Intelligence agencies with other priorities downplayed the danger posed by the extremist Right even after the 2011 Norway attacks, considering it to be a local enforcement problem rather than a global security threat even though rightwing groups and individuals were well established on-line. Official postmortems of these crimes all sought to downplay this particular fact, attributing blame to maladjusted and socially isolated individuals acting out on completely unforeseen dark fantasies.

I beg to differ. In any event I very much doubt that any Leftist could have gotten that far in this day and age. Or a radical Muslim, for that matter, even though, in spite of their conservatism, penetrating jihadist circles is harder precisely because they do not enjoy capitalist class support in the societies in which many live.

In summary, this is just one way in which intelligence analysis can help focus and allocate resource better within a given threat landscape. As I have written elsewhere, it is good to downplay the specific ideological cause behind irregular acts of violence such as that involved in terrorism, since that focuses attention on the crime rather than the motive (because doing so elevates the latter over the former in the public eye, thereby reifying the crime). But within the confines of the agencies involved in countering extremist threats there needs to be a nuanced understanding of the difference between ideological motivations as they translate into support networks, operational security and tactical opportunities presented to violent-minded extremists. That in turn allows security agencies to design proactive infiltration and monitoring strategies that seek to detect and impede extremist plots earlier rather than later with an eye towards deterring or disrupting rather than defending against or responding to them.

In other words, one must understand the breadth and depth of the socio-economic and cultural terrain if one is to move undetected within the landscape of ideological extremism.


Counterterrorism, back to the future.

datePosted on 13:04, March 23rd, 2021 by Pablo

Recently I was approached by a major media platform to help them develop story lines and questions on some terrorism related topics. These focused on the SIS Report of the Internal Review conducted in the wake of the March 15 terrorist attacks and news that a younger generation of extremists are being radicalised on-line. I ended up spending an entire afternoon talking and corresponding with two reporters and a producer about possible leads, only to find out that my research and work (about four hours worth) would not be compensated and instead would be used to frame interviews with and guide questions to others.

In my opinion, this is not acceptable. Sure, there are plenty of people who will jump at the chance to have their faces on TV or voices on radio for free. There are those in salaried positions who can afford to offer free commentary as a sidebar to their “real” jobs. But that is not me. I am not an academic who can share expertise as a form of community outreach that looks good on my performance reviews. I am not a member of a interest group that may have a cause to promote. I am not a charity. I am a political risk and strategic analysis consultant, which means that I have to earn a living based on my supposed expertise in various fields, which I use to engage in targeted research and analysis based on client interests and needs. When I get called by someone asking for advice or comment, I take it as a professional call, not a courtesy. In this instance I should have known better but I decided to help out anyway and in the end was reminded that wasting four hours of my time on a subject that is not billable is just that–a waste of time and energy.

Think of it this way: if someone has a plumbing problem that s/he cannot fix on their own, they call a plumber. Do they expect the plumber to do the fix for free? If not, then why, lacking in-house expertise, would a media outlet call a subject expert and ask him to stop his own work, address their subject of interest, help them develop story lines or questions for interviews about that subject, offer the possibility of appearing in person to explain the topic, but then take his responses, cancel the interview and act surprised when payment is mentioned? Beyond the matter of compensation for services rendered, there are issues of journalistic ethics at play as well.

In any event, I decided to collect the analyses that I worked on and organise them into a blog post. The first part deals with the SIS Internal Review. The second part address the issue of younger people being radicalised on-line, in particular the impact of gaming on extremist recruitment and radicalisation.

I. The Immediate Past.

The SIS released a heavily redacted version of the internal review of its systems and processes in the lead up to the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The Review, whose Executive Summary was released last year, parallels that of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the Christchurch attacks but is limited to the SIS itself. Unsurprisingly, there is much commonality and overlap between the two Reports, which also share the attribute of not holding any agency or individual to account for anything–be it acts of commission or omission–that happened in the lead-up to the attacks. Apparently everything worked as it was supposed to given the operational parameters then in place, but the operational parameters were disoriented. There were no institutional failures because all systems worked fine. It was just that the institutional gaze was fixed in such a way that the attacks could not have been prevented.

The findings are as we already know: the components of the SIS worked as they were supposed to under the pre-March 15 system but the system as a whole was set up and focused in a way that made impossible detection and prevention of an attack of the sort carried out in Christchurch (by a self-radicalised lone wolf from the ideological right-wing). It recommends various reforms and overhauls, including more emphasis on strategic analysis because the SIS was/is too focused on immediate operational (monitoring and collection) tasks given the then identified and established agency priorities. This prevents the SIS from seeing more long-term, broader and “weak signal” threats emerging before they materialise, including those emanating from domestic rather than distant shores. For an agency that has domestic human espionage as one of its three main areas of responsibility (along with counter-espionage and foreign human espionage) that is a telling admission. In fact it is worth some serious inter-textual analysis because sometimes what is left unsaid is worth more than what is said.

The Report specifically says that there was a lack of information and data sharing with other agencies, particularly the Police. The SIS and Police both have domestic counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering functions but they apparently do not coordinate operations or share information and data (in fact, the SIS is not able to access 2 of 9 government data bases, both of those under the control of the Police). In stating that, the SIS implies that the Police might have known about or had the Christchurch killer on its radarscope during the course of its investigations, but its emphasis on “criminality” rather than ideology and the siloed nature of its intelligence operations meant that anything it might have known about the killer and other violent white supremacists was kept to itself. The SIS goes on to say that even with better data and intelligence sharing they still might not have been able to connect the dots enough to detect and prevent the terrorist from acting, but the implication is two fold: other agencies with more contacts “on the ground” might/could have known about him if their priorities were different; when it came to counter-terrorism, even after eight years of white extremist mass murders dating back to the Norway killings in 2011 and repeated warnings about the rising use of the internet as a conduit for radicalisation of all types (be it jihadist or white supremacist), the NZ security apparatus discounted, ignored or simply did not care to invest more than rhetorical resources on the non-jihadist menace emerging from within.

The Report also recommends that the SIS increase its proactive role in identifying and preventing threats, especially so-called “weak signal” or low-level rumblings that could eventuate into real dangers. As a “leads-based” monitoring and collection (as opposed to enforcement) agency under the pre-March 15 “business model,” it acted reactively to known threats within the assessment parameters of the day. That means that it did not look, much less think outside of the box or look over the immediate and accepted (status quo) threat horizon when it came to the domestic threat landscape. In other words, it saw what it wanted to see and ignored what it did not want to see or hear (such as the repeated warning by Islamic organisations they they were being targeted for individual and collective harassment, including violent threats and assaults) based on the threat scenario assumptions in vogue after 9/11.

The recommendations also suggest that the SIS work with the Police to promote legislation that criminalises a range of terrorist preparatory activity (say, explosive precursor purchases, weapons and ammunition stockpiling, social media postings etc–all of these based on the Australian counter-terrorism approach) so that the Police and SIS authorities have legal grounds to engage in preventative or pre-emptive actions currently not allowed under the law. This may eventually include designating neo-fascist groups as terrorist entities if advocating or inciting violence is included along with committing violence in future anti-terrorist legislation.

There is a lot more in the report if you read as much between the lines as you do the lines themselves. IP addresses noted but eventually not followed up on that turned out to be those of the killer (making racist comments and buying ammunition in bulk, among other things). Hints at resistance to and obstruction of the former Inspector General’s attempts at tightening oversight, transparency and accountability. Reports of his use of a drone to surveil the mosques, again not followed up on in any significant measure. Prolonged travel to conflict zones amid tourist spots by a resident foreigner with no job. And yet no organisational failures–that is, of people, processes, procedures or perspective–were found. The system worked as it was supposed to. That is troubling.

Seen through cynical eyes, the SIS Report is a way to engage in some polite fence painting and rear-end covering while discretely shifting blame onto the Police (who have yet to issue their Report, if there is any). After all, if all of their systems worked as they were supposed to be and no one is at fault in the SIS for failing to detect and prevent the massacre under the organisational priorities of the day, then the ball must have been dropped by some other agency or the entire domestic security community. The latter would be an admission of institutional incompetence or myopia on grand scale. More pointedly, if we consider that the only other agency with domestic counter-terrorism functions is the Police, then the onus appears to be on them. However, as the RCI Report noted, the Police focus on criminality, not on ideological extremism. That means that, hypothetically speaking, even if they in fact stumbled upon some skinheads talking about attacking a mosque during the course of a drugs investigation, it is possible that they failed to pass on that information to the SIS because a) that was not their operational concern; and b) they were “siloed” in their approach to information and data sharing in any event. As for other agencies helping the SIS detect extremists in a partnership role (say, Immigration) they too were siloed and silent when it came to this particular type of terrorist threat.

The major take-aways from the Report are the failure of the SIS to be proactive and failure to two-way information share with other domestic security agencies under a individual and collective “business” model that simply was not cognisant of, much less focused on emerging threats from the extremist Right even eight years and dozens of right-wing mass murder events subsequent to the 2011 attacks in Norway (which were the inspiration for all of the white supremacist mass murders that followed, including March 15). Left unknown are all of the redacted parts of the report (other than the killer’s hidden name) and who, exactly, the “independent” reviewer was (I may have overlooked this so if anyone can point me to his or her identity that would be helpful).

II. The Immediate Future.

Recent assessments by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and various European intelligence shops point to the growing trend of young people, including teenagers, becoming radicalised on-line. What used to be problem with regard to would-be jihadists appears to now have morphed into a problem of white supremacy and/or neo-Nazi ideology. The bottom line is that the issue of younger (mostly male) people being inclined towards ideological extremism and/or recruited into extremist groups is very real. But there is a good and a bad side to the phenomenon.

On the bad side, younger people are being desensitised and drawn into using violence as a means of conflict resolution via an increasingly sophisticated and interactive gaming world. Virtual reality (VR) interactive games not only involve multiple players but increasingly contain highly sophisticated graphics of combat and other violent scenes, many very dark in nature (including grotesque violence against women). Players can choose their villians and heros, putting themselves in one camp or the other in highly realistic real-time action scenarios that are often as ideological as they are gory. All of this can be done as if in person. One can be a modern Crusader slaughtering jihadists or vice versa. One can be a US Gi wiping out Japanese troops in WW2. One can be a torturer, prison guard, mass murderer or violent criminal targeting women of color. One can be the Christchurch terrorist streaming his murders to a live audience. And so forth–the range of violence and characters is limited only by the player’s and game creator’s imaginations. To this can be added violent pornography, again often with explicit misogynistic imagery.

Advances in personal telecommunications technologies–mobile phones, apps, etc.–have made it easier for younger people to access all aspects of the internet. While they are a feature of modern life and a symbol of the conveniences afforded to modern societies, they also bring with them readily accessible pathways into the darkness of violence and hate. In the measure younger people are afforded access to these instruments and recognizing the tremendous benefits that they bring, avoidance of or exposure to the dark side of the web is now a feature of teenage life. Add in the natural attraction of realistic games in virtual settings, and the stage is set for youth radicalisation via gaming even in places where they are not subject to socio-economic deprivation and political oppression.

It can be argued that people attracted to highly realistic and hyper-violent on-line gaming and porn already exhibit psychopathic and sociopathic personality traits. We are not talking about FIFA2020-style sports games here. We are talking about mayhem and degradation. These types of forums now attract millions of players, some of whom may be working off stress but others who may be descending into dark violent fantasies. That includes so-called “Incels,” as in “involuntarily celibate:” men who cannot find or hold physical relationships with women and who in many instances believe themselves to be too pure or righteous to pay for sex. This leaves them very sexually frustrated and very angry, often violently so. More generally, abuse of female players is a well-known pathology in the gaming community. On VR interactive gaming platforms people with these tendencies and/or other anger issues intersect and engage with racists, bigots, violent psychopaths, animal abusers and assorted other degenerates, leading to what we might call a “nexus of hate.” It is there where white supremacist recruiters, as was the case with jihadists before them, are now regularly launching their appeals to increasingly younger audiences.

It is bad enough that younger generations of (again, mostly male) people are using violent interactive games as a form of entertainment, stress relief and fantasy fulfilment. It is worrisome that the age threshold of these people, as well as those who habitually use extreme porn, appears to be lowering. These forums can be highly addictive for certain personalities, and the obsession can be detrimental to the individual as well as those around him. Some obsessions become political and ideological–fixations on who is to blame for one’s personal ills as well as the world’s problems; and on how to fix them. Now we must factor into account that both jihadists and white supremacists (and others) use interactive gaming as a recruiting device, luring people to be more extreme in their character stereotyping and urging them to carry over their on-line personas into real life. This is, to say the least, not good when imparted on impressionable teenage minds (or anyone else, for that matter, but it is the young who most often get sucked into the vortex). From there it is a short leap onto extremist forums like 4 Chan or 8Chan (and others), and from there the pathways to the dark web and serious planning of violence are just steps away–yet discoverable when one has interactive skills and some coded advice on how to get there. One can only hope that intelligence agencies know how to get there as well.

Like many other social media platforms and content providers, the gaming industry is reluctant to move beyond basic guidelines for usage such as R18 warning labels. It zealously guards the privacy of its customers. Like the porn industry it is an early adopter of new audiovisual technologies, including VR and AI, in the construction of its consumer ranges. That puts it ahead of security-intelligence agencies, which like the old military adage notes, are playing technological catch-up while preparing to fight last century’s wars with mid-century (however updated, such as with 3rd generation warfare) tactics. As I have written in more professional settings, the problem of institutional lag is very real in the NZ intelligence community (see part I above), but also world-wide in specific areas of concern such as on-line right-wing extremism.

The problem of younger people getting radicalised into extremism online and acting violently as a result is indisputably real. Other forms of radicalisation remain (say, in churches or via criminal gangs, drug networks, etc.), but these are increasingly superseded by the on-line process because the latter does not expose the recruiter or recruitee to outside scrutiny. The interaction (or what might be called the dialectic of radicalisation) occurs in a bedroom or a basement rather than a church or a private clubhouse even though the latter remain as physical spaces for the larger community and therefore may include people of more extreme persuasions within them. But physical space is more and more a secondary site for extremist radicalisation and recruitment. Gaming is the most recent but not the only source of on-line radicalisation and recruitment, which also occurs in discussion groups, political fora, video channels, twitter threads and any number of other social media.

The good news is that the young are by and large easier to catch, particularly so with this TikTok/Instagram generation. That is because teens and twenty-somethings like to boast and be recognised as a form of affirmation and self-worth validation. This makes them careless on-line as well as in person, which in turn helps security authorities to distinguish between those who talk and those who act, those who are doers and those who are not, those who are leaders and those who are followers. There are plenty of psychological profiles in the intelligence community with which to develop individual and collective threat assessments from what is canvassed on-line. 

In effect, the younger they get, the more likely ideological extremists will trip up and be discovered because they are psychologically unable to maintain the level of security required to carry out successful irregular warfare operations such as terrorist attacks. This is not 100 percent the case but the odds in favor of their pre-emptive detection by security authorities increases dramatically when compared to say, a 35 year old ex-military veteran with 10 years of service and knowledge of weapons and explosives, a serious grudge against somebody (be it a group or government agency), on-line masking skills, knowledge of basic operational security, tight lips, few friends and a murderous eye on a mall or transportation hub. THAT is a real and palpable threat.

So there is a silver lining in the move towards younger extremists, but only if security authorities are literally on top of their games. Given what the SIS Internal Review discovered, that appears to be far from being the case.

I did an interview with Jesse Mulligan at RNZ about the mixed record with regard to fighting on-line extremism in NZ and elsewhere. You can find it here.

In last week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the failure of NZ’s security services to detect a local white supremacist openly describing on a well known on-line extremist forum how he would use car bombs to “commemorate” the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch, and then we are joined by journalist Ollie Neas to hear more about the role Rocket Lab plays for the US military space program as well as some the regulatory issues surrounding that process by which military payloads are approved by the NZ government. You can find the video here.

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the ethics and practicalities involved in the so-called “conflict industry.” It includes a discussion of the who and what of the “kill chain” and the implications of Rocket Lab’s position as a major US military logistical provider. You can find it here.

Clueless or cynical?

datePosted on 15:19, February 9th, 2021 by Pablo

So, it turns out that Air New Zealand accepted a contract to service three gas turbine engines for the Saudi Arabian Navy through its wholly owned subsidiary, Air New Zealand Gas Turbines. It turns out that Air NZ has a side bar in the gas turbine maintenance business and even has dedicated service facilities for maintenance on military machines (of which the US and Australian navies are clients). Air NZ claims that the contract with the Saudi Navy was actually let by a third party but has not said who that is. Some have speculated that it might be the US Navy, using Air NZ Gas Turbines for what is known as “spillover” work.

This has just come to light via the dogged persistence of a TVNZ reporter who faced more than eight weeks of stone-walling from the company before he got an answer. When he did, he was told that the contract was “small” (worth $3 million), signed off by people well down the executive chain of command, and let in 2019, when current National MP Chris Luxon was CEO. Apparently MFAT and government ministers were not advised of the contract offer, which is doubly problematic because doing business with the Saudi military is controversial at the best of times and Air New Zealand is 52 percent owned by NZ taxpayers through the Crown (as Minister of State Owned Enterprises Grant Robertson being the minister responsible). The issue involves more than potentially bad PR. It has potential diplomatic implications.

Revelation of the business relationship has sparked a bit of a furore. With typical understatement, the Greens are calling for an investigation into Air NZ involvement in Saudi genocide and war crimes in Yemen. Other leftists extend the critique to any relationship between Air NZ Gas Turbines and the US and Australian militaries. Right-wingers say that it is a simple commercial decision and so is business as usual, plus Saudi Arabia is a “friendly” country while Iran is not (yes, they get that simplistic). Much frothing has ensured.

Iranian news outlets have picked up on the story, questioning why a trade partner like NZ would provide support to a major military and political rival in the Gulf region. NGOs like Amnesty International are also aghast at the news, especially since NZ provides millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Yemen in an effort to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis produced by the proxy war conducted between a Saudi-led Arab military coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the North and West of the country. Houthis compromise the majority of the 45 percent of Shiia Muslims in Yemen, with 55 percent of the population being Sunni Arabs and various smaller sects in the South and East.

in order to put context on the situation, let’s consider some background. The fault lines of contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts are drawn along the Sunni Arab-Persian Shiia line. The Sunni Arabs, most of who have quiet understandings with Israel that permit discrete cooperation between them and the Jewish state, are implacable enemies of the theocratic Shiia regime in Teheran. Although born of historical enmity between the two branches of Islam, in modern times the conflict between Arabs and Iranians has been accelerated by Iran’s efforts to be recognised as a regional power, including by acquiring nuclear weapons. Most of the principals in the conflict are authoritarians, but the Sunni Arabs have the backing of the US and other Western nations, much of which is specifically due to the shared hostility towards the Iranians and their purported “rogue” international behaviour (including their nuclear weapons desires and support for irregular fighting forces in and out of the Middle East). Iran, for its part, receives support from Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela precisely because of its anti-US and anti-Western orientation since the 1979 Revolution, so the vicious circle of homicidal enmity and distrust has global reach.

Over the years the main conflict zones between Arab Sunnis and Iranian Shiites have been in Lebanon, Syria (the Alawite regime led by Bashar al-Assad is a sub-sect of Shiia Islam), Iraq and Yemen. Because of the fear of escalation into major war if they fight directly, physical confrontations between Iran and the Sunni Arab states are conducted by proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian military and the Houthis (for Iran), and (for the Arabs) various Sunni militias and/or governments in the contested areas, as well as Israel directly and indirectly.

The results of this multi-dimensional conflict ebb and flow over time, but the situation today is that the Iranians have increased their influence in Iraq after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein, have successfully (along with the Russians) propped up the Assad regime against ISIS, Kurds, Turkey and the US-led military coalition that began as an anti-ISIS force and then mission-creeped into a regime change-focused (and now departed) occupation inside Syria, have maintained the stalemate in Lebanon between Hezbollah and various other armed sectarian movements while threatening Israel, continue to support Hama’s standoff with Israel in Gaza and have helped prevent the Houthis from being cleansed from Yemen by the Saudi-led and US-supplied Sunni Arab military coalition. Domestically, the Iranian regime, while fronted by an elected executive and parliament, is dominated by conservative clerics and military hard-liners who have a poor human rights record and little tolerance for dissenters at home or abroad. They are no angels but are a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern politics.

For its part, Saudi Arabia is a despotic, deeply corrupt oligarchy with a notoriously poor human rights record at home, involvement in war crimes in Yemen on an industrial scale, responsibility for the murder of dissidents abroad (because Jamal Khashoggi was not the only one) and which has within its ruling structure people who support, fund and arm Sunni extremists world-wide. It is, in a phrase, an international bad actor. One that is deeply mired in a proxy war in Yemen in which its Navy is used to enforce a maritime blockade of Houthi-held regions, including the blockade of humanitarian assistance to displaced and starving civilians.

Against that backdrop, why on earth did Gas Turbines go through with the contract? Did it ask about what naval ships were the end users of the equipment (since it could be argued that supplying equipment destined for support vessels was ethically different than supplying equipment destined for warships)? Did a bunch of clueless engineers sign off on the deal because it was within their authority as a commercial transaction and they did not even consider the PR, domestic political or broader geopolitical ramifications of the end user? Or, because middle management recognised the political sensitivities involved, did the contract offer get pushed up the hierarchy to the parent company and its senior management at the time but that is now being denied?

Was there anything in place to prompt a “trigger” for higher level vetting of the contract and/or automatic consultation with MFAT and the minister responsible for SOEs? After all, this type of potentially controversial transaction would seem to fall under the “no surprises” bureaucratic dictum dating back to the 5th Labour government, and it would only seem surprising if the foreign ministry and minister responsible for the Crown’s stake in Air NZ were not informed prior to signing the deal.

Or did Air NZ management decide that they could slide the contract under the radar, perhaps using the cover of existing contracts with the US Navy (which does in fact have a logistical support and weapons supply arrangement with the Royal Saudi Navy, which uses a mix of French and US-built ships in its fleet). If so, did they think that they could keep knowledge of the contract away from government as well as the public, or did they let someone in a position of political authority in on the secret? If all of this was above-board, why did Air NZ delay responding to the reporter’s requests? Why did Grant Robertson initially say that the issue was “an operational matter” for Air NZ and why has MFAT said nothing about the affair?

Given the potential political fallout and diplomatic blow-back, can we really take at face value assurances that no one outside of Gas Turbines had knowledge of the contract when it was negotiated?

NZ has good trade relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former much more extensive than the latter. NZ has good diplomatic relations with both countries, although unlike other Western countries it has been viewed as an honest interlocutor by the Iranians in the past. Given the ongoing conflict between the two countries, it would seem that providing any sort of material assistance to the military of one rather than the other is like sticking a NZ pinky into a pot of boiling water. It could get burned.

NZ professes to have a “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy. Semantics aside, the decision to accept the contract to service Saudi Navy turbine engines was neither principled or pragmatic. No due diligence or political risk assessment appears to have been done during the contract negotiations. Instead, the deal reeks of myopic commercial opportunism disengaged from the larger context and consequences of the transaction.

Whether than was caused by cynicism or cluelessness is the question of the day.

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