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A note on the “jihadi bride.”

datePosted on 14:40, July 28th, 2021 by Pablo

I ruffled a few feathers by referring to Gerry Brownlee as a “buffoon” during a radio interview this week. The subject in question was the involuntary repatriation of Suharya Aden and her children to NZ after Australia cancelled her citizenship. Brownlee was blathering about her being a terrorist security threat, how she jumped the que ahead of deserving Kiwis in the MIQ line and how the government needed to be more transparent about the process under which Ms. Aden was to be returned and administered. He said that NZ should adopt citizenship-stripping laws like those in Australia so as to prevent the likes of MS. Aden returning voluntarily or otherwise.

Truth be told, what I really wanted to say but could not because of time constraints was that Mr. Brownlee was/is a “racist dog-whistling, grasping-at-straws-on-the-security-angle tool.” I say so because Brownlee is the guy who ran the Christchurch earthquake “relief” efforts and sent private investigators to spy on insurance claimants and residents asking for help; who said that there were no white supremacists in Christchurch after the March 15 attacks; who hinted at dark conspiracy theories about Covid during the 2020 election; who railed about refugees during debate about the Control Order Bill last year when the Bill was strictly about returning Kiwis suspected to be involved in foreign conflicts. He was part of a government that regularly hid, misled or deliberately lied to the public on a number of issues, including those involving national security. He was an atrocious Defence Minister, more interested in junkets than full metal jackets, and a piss-poor Foreign Minister (among other failures) who was every diplomatic reception’s worst nightmare. He is long past his expiry date as a politician, so being a public buffoon is a step up. If you wish you can call him a tool, but either way, Pablo don’t suffer the fool.

As part of the debate on the Control Orders Bill (now Act) Brownlee knows that Control Orders come into effect once a person is on NZ soil and that invocation of the Act automatically triggers suppression orders on the name and case details of the person(s) targeted by the Act. His claims for more “transparency” about Ms. Aden’s case in progress are therefore disingenuous at best. Also, as a former Defence Minister, he should know something about operational and information security, so demanding to know how/when she is being returned is also a cynical ploy.

In any event enough about him. For the sake of clarity, let me outline some facts about Ms. Aden’s case, but without breeching any secrecy protocols.

Suhayra Aden was born in Mt. Roskill in 1995 of Somali refugee parents. At age six her family moved to Australia, settling in Melbourne, and took Australian citizenship. Her family is still there. in 2014, at age 19, she travelled to Turkey and from there was smuggled into Syria in order to become a so-called “jihadi bride.” How and why she became radicalised in Australia is not publicly known but likely to be known to Australian authorities. She may have been radicalised on-line. She may have been subjected to family or peer pressure. She may just wanted to see the world or get a taste for adventure. She was young, gullible, perhaps manipulable and clearly made some bad decisions. And yet she is still quite young at 26.

Two aspects of the Turkey/Syrian phase of her life are worth noting: First, according to Australian journalists who interviewed her in 2019, that she had second thoughts about the venture once she got to Turkey and tried to call her mother to seek help in escaping. She was unsuccessful and was taken by her minders/smugglers into Syria instead. This raises the possibility that everything that happened to her afterwards was done under duress, without her informed consent. Second, she was not “married” in the traditional Western sense of the word. In the medieval world view of ISIS, women are domestic servants, sex toys and breeders, that is, reproductive vessels of future fighters. They are assigned “husbands” and required to submit to them in every way. They are therefore not so much “wives” as they are domestic servants, sex slaves or, in historical terms, concubines. Concubines have interpersonal and sexual relationships with (often polygamous) men but do not hold the status of “full” wives whether or not there is a “full” wife in the picture. I have been told that my characterisation of Ms. Aden as a concubine or camp follower has been labeled as sexist by some NZ fourth wave feminists, but I suggest that they read a dictionary and get back to me on that one. Remember–it is ISIS that is medieval when it comes to gender roles, not me.

In Ms. Aden’s case, she had two “husbands,” one or both of them apparently Swedish (I have read conflicting reports on this). Both were killed in Syria, presumably fighting Western or Assad’s forces. She had three children with these men, one of whom died at an infant or toddler age of pneumonia. In 2019 she fled to the Al-Hawl refugee camp in northwestern Syria. That means that during the four years (2015-2019) she was actually in Syria, she was pregnant for 27 months of that time (2 years and 3 months). She presumably nursed her infants concurrently with and after those pregnancies. Along with the gender role assignation described above, that strongly suggests that she was not an ISIS fighter and therefore is unlikely to have been involved in committing atrocities even if her husbands were. And even if she was or knew about such things, the fact that she was likely acting against her will from the onset mitigates against accusations that she was actively engaged in terrorism. Evidence to the contrary, labelling her as a “terrorist” therefore seems to me to be smear of the most vile sort, something that many corporate and social media outlets, Gerry Brownlee and Judith Collins have all done.

In February 2021 Ms. Aden and her surviving children were caught by Turkish border authorities while attempting to cross into that country from Syria. At the time Turkish officials called her a “terrorist” but after questioning about evidence to that effect they dropped the claims. Instead, the narrative changed to her fleeing Al-Hawl in order to escape ISIS. Unlike the Kiwi “bumbling jihadist” Mark Taylor, who is in Kurdish custody, the Turkish authorities are keen to have Ms. Aden and her children deported. Lucky for her and unlucky for him, NZ feels obliged to help with that process. But how did NZ come to be involved?

In the 2019 interview with Australian journalists conducted at Al-Hawl, Ms. Aden expressed a desire to return to Australia. After the interview was made public, in early 2020 the Morrison government stripped her of her Australian citizenship under section 35 or the 2007 Australian Citizenship Act, amended in 2015 (after she had left Australia). The 2015 amendment to the 2007 Act stated that citizenship could be revoked because of “conduct inconsistent with allegiance to Australia,” although what constituted “inconsistent conduct” is not specified. What this means is that when Ms. Aden left for the fighting fields of Syria in 2014 she was doing nothing illegal, and that both the 2015 amendment to the ACT and the 2020 revocation of her citizenship were applied retroactively without due legal process or recourse.

In fact, sometime during the interim between her departure from Australia and arrest in Turkey, Australia requested that INTERPOL, the international police consortium, issue a “Blue Notice” on Ms. Aden. Unlike “Red Notices,” which are arrest warrants based on criminal charges, “Blue Notices ” are requests for information about persons of interest to the requesting party, such as missing persons. Louisa Akavi, the Kiwi nurse kidnapped and held hostage by ISIS, is also the subject of an INTERPOL Blue Notice. She is not only welcome home–she is wanted home by her whanau. Ms. Aden may also have family support in Melbourne but her country of choice has turned its back on her and her children. In NZ she has no such support and yet, as a citizen, her right of return is the same as Ms. Akavi. Therein lies the dilemma.

The Australians not only issued Ms. Aden’s non-criminal request for information to INTERPOL (how could they issue a criminal warrant since she had not committed any crime before and when she left Australia?), but they nevertheless went ahead and stripped her of her adopted citizenship after the fact based on assumptions about her agency and volition when it came to personal associations, travel and residence. Unlike the “bumbling jihadi,” she is not seen on tape calling for jihad and denouncing her home (Crusader) country. But they have called her a terrorist nonetheless.

That left NZ no other option but to return her and her children back to NZ, following international law and practice (which states that citizenship cannot be stripped from natural-born subjects and that States must recognise and assume responsibility for their subjects when asked to do so by foreign powers). Ms. Aden is a native born Kiwi and her children assumed citizenship by birthright. They have no other place to go now that Australia has rejected them. Should NZ adopt an Australian approach, as Brownlee and Collins suggest, then they would be left stateless and bereft. I would argue that whatever the sins of the mother, vesting them upon the children is a grotesquely callous act unbefitting a liberal democracy. As an international good actor and as a civilised society NZ has to make the best of a bad thing by offering them repatriation. Thankfully that is about to happen.

When Ms. Aden and her kids arrive in NZ it is likely that she will be the first person subjected to the Control Orders Act. As mentioned, that involves suppression of her name and details of her case. What is known is that the Act prescribes restrictions on her freedom of movement, communication and association. She will be monitored by security agencies and supervised by social welfare agencies, including psychological counselling services. This management program may even involve electronic bracelet usage (again, details of what is involved will likely be subject to suppression orders). She may be granted permission to engage with local civil society organisations specialised in the treatment of refugees from conflict zones and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. She and the children may receive new identities so that they can better lead “normal” and productive lives.

The need for those sort of extreme privacy measures is due to the dual nature of the security concerns involved. On the one hand, NZ security authorities must be vigilant that she pose no risk to NZ society. Were she in any way to encourage extremism in any forum or venue, she would likely be charged and prosecuted accordingly (perhaps even under proposed hate speech legislation, if not the Terrorism Suppression Act). The good news is that data from Europe suggests that returning “jihadi brides” statistically have a near-zero chance of continuing their support for Islamic extremism. Perhaps it is the traumas that they suffered, the trials that they endured, the tribulations that they encountered or the travails of their existence in war zones, but the likelihood of their returning to jihadism is very remote at best.

On the other hand, Ms. Aden and her family need to be protected from harm themselves. There are many Islamophobes in NZ who wish her (and her children) ill or worse. Some have vented in social media abut their desire to do her harm, so the threats must be taken seriously. That poses problems for the Police if her address, name or locations of schools, mosques and social service organisations that she frequents are made public. Given that there are innocent children involved, the authorities must be proactive on their behalf.

In the end, the NZ government has to make the most of a difficult situation and appears to be doing so, barking from the Opposition notwithstanding. It will be for Ms. Aden to make the most of her second (or third) chance in life, if not for herself then for the future of her children. The Opposition would be wise to cease and desist trying to score political points on the matter, less they find themselves confronted by a similar dilemma in the future when in government.

Most of all, it is time for the buffoonery to stop.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on YouTube.

datePosted on 14:21, July 16th, 2021 by Pablo

I am glad to report that the “A View from Afar” podcast is now available on the 36th Parallel Assessments YouTube channel. As a teaser, the first video is taken from an interview done in Karekare with German TV about the scourge of white supremacism/right-wing extremism.

Selwyn Manning and I focus the discussion of the internal and external power struggles that could ensue once the US military leaves. You can find it here.

Not wanting to get into an endless debate here, but as a political person I cannot pass on making a small comment on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not pretend to be a subject expert on the tortured history of Israeli-Palestinian relations and am not about to get into the finger-pointing and “whataboutism” surrounding the latest precipitants of collective violence, but as a student of armed conflict (yes, there is such thing), here it goes.

Among many others, there are two principles embedded in the laws of war (jus in bello): in the conduct of armed operations the use of force must be proportional and discriminate; and collective punishment of unarmed populations must be avoided. Even when not specifically phrased in these terms and whether done by state or non-state actors, behaviour that violates these principles are classified as war crimes. The legal work on this subject is voluminous.

Unfortunately, these norms continue to be regularly violated. In the desire to apply superior asymmetric force to an adversary, armed forces lacking a firm moral compass or professional ethos disregard these principles as a matter of course and yet at their peril (think of the Syrian military as a recent example). Conversely, weaker armed groups use disproportionate and indiscriminate force against non-combatants to compensate for their inability to prevail in a conventional (and rules bound) force-versus-force confrontation (think of Daesh). Whichever the reason, disproportionality and collective retribution lead to indiscriminate violence against innocents, which opens up the perpetrators to legal consequences or replies-in-kind should there be no legal consequence.

If eye-for-eye retribution is to be avoided, regardless of who they are and the cause that they espouse, those who order and carry out attacks in violation of these principles must be legally held to account. If not addressed by their own judicial means, there is a place for that to happen. It is called the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. However, there is a problem with adjudicating justice via the ICC because it depends on it being recognised by sovereign states and objectively supported by the most powerful among them. Unfortunately, countries like Israel, Iran, Russia, the PRC, Turkey, most Sunni Arab states and the US do not recognise the ICC, so its scope of authority is limited at best.

The Palestinian Authority recognises the jurisdiction of the ICC but Israel and Hamas do not. Israel argues that Palestine is not a sovereign state in spite of its non-member observer status in the UN (the ICC is a dependency of the UN) so cannot be party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC. It also argues that Israel has its own investigative bodies so does not need ICC interference in its affairs. Hamas is not recognised as a sovereign governmental body even though it administers the Gaza Strip (in a division of authority with the Fatah-led Ramallah-based administration that is recognised as the Palestinian Authority), so is excluded from ICC jurisdiction even if its members can be prosecuted by it (as is the case with Israelis). In addition, because it is not a party to the Rome Statute, Hamas refuses to recognise the ICC as an instrument of accountability. Because of the lack of universal recognition, the ICC cannot gain UN Security Council (or even General Assembly) approval to extend its jurisdiction to non-signatory states.

Even so, the ICC has (perhaps as an aspirational rather than practical goal) on-going investigations against both Hamas and Israel dating back to 2014 and has launched another against both sides as a result of the current conflict. It is more than likely these will be fruitless unless the international community coalesces around a demand for accountability for war crimes in this ongoing tragedy. Specifically, the time has come for larger powers to use their diplomatic strength to support the ICC investigations against Hamas and Israel and thereby put on notice those on both sides who order and carry out war crimes that they will be prosecuted for their actions.

Again, this is not about who started what or re-litigating historical grievances. It is about trying to stop the commission of war crimes once armed conflict is engaged. The ICC can investigate the veracity of claims of civilian targeting and can charge commanders and political leaders on both sides for authorising attacks on them (the evidence is already available on video). It can then issue international arrest warrants for the accused that, if not enforced inside of their own territorial jurisdictions, will be enforceable if they try to leave the safety of them (think of Pinochet when he went to visit Maggie Thatcher and wound up under de facto house confinement for months because he could not leave Britain without risking arrest for crimes against humanity–in his case against his won people). This type of move is therefore a holding to account for current and past crimes and a deterrent against future crimes. The impediments to doing so are many but the need to do so is even greater.

The desire to use the ICC as an agent of justice and deterrence may be wishful thinking given contemporary realities but it seems that with enough support in the wider international community, such an ICC intervention could be a prelude to the political settlements required for peace. And even if its potential use only helps stop the current fighting, then a small defense of humanity will have been served.

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.

Taxonomies of mass political violence.

datePosted on 16:15, January 8th, 2021 by Pablo

The assault on the US Capitol and constitutional crisis that it has caused was telegraphed, predictable and yet unexpected and confusing. There are several subplots involved: whether the occupation of the Michigan State House in May was a trial run for the attacks on Congress; whether people involved in the Michigan attack and other rightwing extremists from groups such as the Proud Boys were involved (as video shows individuals rallying and directing the crowds to the Capitol, initiating the first and subsequent clashes with the Capitol Police over the concentric perimeter barricades and then leading the charge towards the debating chambers and congressional offices while yelling threats to specific politicians like Pence and Pelosi; whether there was collusion between the president and elements in the DoJ, DoD and Capitol Police leadership to “stand down” their forces even in the face of intelligence reports that mass violence was distinctly possible; whether this was done purposefully to allow the occupation in order delay the electoral college certification vote hoping that somehow Trump would be declared the default winner (he would not); and so on.

Rather then get into these subjects while the smoke has yet to clear, allow me to offer a critique and then clarify some key concepts needed to understand what happened.

To begin with, the liberal corporate media is doing us no favours by loosely throwing out words like “domestic terrorists” and “coup” (the rightwing media prefers to blame everything on Antifa or portray the rioters as “misguided patriots” so will be ignored). This a prime example of conceptual stretching that devalues the true meaning of the words and renders them meaningless as analytic tools at a delicate moment. Conceptual precision, not conceptual stretching, is needed now. So in the interest of conceptual precision let me briefly offer the following taxonomy:

Military coup: removal of a government by the armed forces often working on behalf of or with civilian elite factions via the threat or use of force. It is top-down and elite in nature and execution, not mass based, and often pre-emptive in the face of a potential grassroots mass uprising. Its scale of violence can range from low to very high depending on the perception of common threat by the coup-mongering elites. It can involve universal or particular (corporate, in terms of specifically military) grievances. Depending on what the coup-mongering coalition intends, it can involve regime rather than government change. Other names for this phenomenon are “golpe de Estado (golpe)” or “putsch” (although in recent history the term refers to violent inter-military leadership disputes rather than regime change per se).

Constitutional coup: removal of government by a disloyal opposition via manipulation of legal norms (e.g. impeachment under false pretences). It is top-down and elite in nature and execution, not mass based, and the scale of violence is low. May embrace universal claims but uses particular grievances as precipitant or justifying factors. Does not involve regime change.

Insurrection: attempted/actual overthrow of government by armed political faction(s). It involves collective violence that is mass but not necessarily majority based. It is bottom-up in nature even if encouraged by elites and the scale of violence ranges from low to very high depending on the level of State and/or civil resistance to it. Embraces universal claims but may use particular grievances as a justification for action. May or may not desire or cause regime change.

Armed revolt: violent protest against government. Non-elite and bottom up in nature and execution. Low to medium scale of violence depending on scope of adhesion and State and social resistance. Often particularistic rather than universal in its grievances or claims. It can be minority or mass based depending on the scope of social adhesion. It may or may not result in government or policy change and will not result in regime change.

Sedition: advocating or instigating the usurpation/overthrow of duly constituted government. Can be elite or grassroots in nature and execution but with a limited mass base in any event. Low to medium scale of violence depending on degree of State repression. May have particular or universal grievances or claims but is not focused on regime change.

Revolution: mass (violent/non-violent) collective action leading to socio-economic and political parametric change (which involves regime, social and structural changes that transcend simple government overthrow). Bottom-up and grassroots in nature and execution based on universal claims or grievances (even if led by organised revolutionary vanguards). Scale of violence low to extreme based on scope of social and State resistance (i.e. class, religious and ethnic divisions increase the probability of violence).

Revolts, insurrections and sedition can lead to coups or revolution but are not synonymous with them.

So what happened in the US? The attack on Congress is best seen as an insurrection/limited mass revolt instigated by a seditious president refusing to step down after losing an election. It is not a coup because those are basically quarrels amongst elites that require overt or tacit involvement by the armed forces in support of one faction or one elite faction overthrowing another via “constitutional” means. It did not intend regime (or even governmental) change but instead the reassertion or re-validation of a particular type of administrative authority in a presidential democracy.

Nor was terrorism involved. Terrorism is the use of seemingly indiscriminate extreme or disproportionate violence on defenceless targets for symbolic purposes. It has a target (victims), object (purpose) and subject (audience(s)). The object is to sow pervasive fear and dread with the purpose of bending the subject to the perpetrator’s will. It can be criminal, state- (including military), state-sponsored, or non-state ideological in nature.

The assault on Capitol Hill did not involve extreme or wanton indiscriminate violence against defenceless targets. It was not designed to sow generalised fear. It was a limited, low-level mass act of partisan violence on a symbol of power that involved thuggery (including corporal harm) for the purposes of intimidation. It resulted in arrests, injuries and deaths, but it failed.

Once we understand these basic differences, we can more specifically consider the proportionate remedies needed to address the problem. Throwing around emotive language during a delicate and charged time only cheapens the debate and compounds the real issues involved. So let’s be precise.

PS: Long term readers will note that I have discussed various aspects of civil-military relations and the causal factors at play in coups in previous posts. Things like push and pull factors, vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military, disloyal oppositions and partisan stalemates–there is much more to the coup phenomenon than simplistic (mostly Left) punditry would have us believe. The truth with regard to recent event in the US is more complex, scary in part and yet comforting in the end.

When the blind lead the blind.

datePosted on 08:28, December 15th, 2020 by Pablo

The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) Report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks has been released and the verdict is mixed. Some are pleased that systemic failures were identified and acknowledged while others are disappointed that no single person or agency was held to account for those failures. The Muslim community, although given a prominent place in the RCI investigations and Report and offered direct apologies by the Prime Minister and heads of Police and the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), remains unsatisfied with the outcome even if it accepts the recommendations that derive from the Report (as does the government).

Under its terms of reference, the RCI investigation was very broad and very shallow. Because of its scope it eventually had to be extended a year beyond its original six month mandate and have its budget doubled. It was broad in the sense that it had to address the terrorist and his activities, the impact his actions had on the targeted community, the actions and inaction of State security agencies (not just those involved in counter-terrorism (CT) efforts) that contributed to the event and a host of extraneous factors considered relevant to the investigation (for example, European and US experiences with rightwing terrorism).

It was shallow in the sense that, even though it could have availed itself of powers of compulsion under oath under the Inquiries Act, it chose not to. Instead, the RCI engaged in a self-limiting investigatory approach where it was dependent on the voluntary cooperation of State entities and officials when it came to evidence provision and testimony. Because of concerns about national security, no government officials (other than agency heads) identified during the course of the investigation were publicly named and their testimony is to remain sealed for thirty years. Although available to security authorities, the terrorist’s evidence is permanently suppressed in order to avoid copy-cat behaviour. 

One view is that this was done to encourage honesty and candor on the part of witnesses with potential liability exposure, but it also meant that in terms of transparency and public accountability, the RCI was hamstrung from the start. A more cynical view has it that this covers up culpability and whitewashes the truth while absolving the guilty.

Others have written about the before and after-effects of the attacks on New Zealand’s Muslim community as well as the history of local white supremacists and rightwing extremists. The work of the RCI has been amply scrutinised. The Report itself has been dissected at length. Given that, here the focus is on the institutional deficiencies within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC) that were uncovered by the RCI.

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 to 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 programs 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, 30-35 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. On-line 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 Defense League, Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois moved from their keyboards to the streets. NZ was not immune to this phenomenon, with groups such as the Dominion Movement, Northern Front, National Front, White Defense 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 ten years (other violently-inclined groups have formed after March 15, including Action Zealandia). 

This suggests that post-2011 NZ counter-terrorism (CT) 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 CT 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 ignored by other agencies. Bureaucratic rivalries may have contributed to that.

The organization of the NZIC and the business model used by front line collection agencies made detection of non-Islamicist 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 NZIC 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 within the NZIC, 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 NZIC organizational pyramid, vertical as well as horizontal accountability between NZIC members was and is limited.

Then there was the issue of emphasis. In terms of overall organizational focus, domestic terrorism was a secondary concern for the NZ 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 organizational arrangement and myopic mindset was compounded by the fact that there is little proactive or “over the horizon,” futures-forecasting strategic analysis within the NZIC’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 CT 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 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 35-50 percent 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 percent, 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 NZIC 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 CT operations, so the question begs 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 dedicated between a third and half of its staff to vetting security clearance applications. Assuming that clerical staff occupy five-ten percent of personnel numbers, then the amount of people dedicated to domestic espionage (including CT), foreign espionage and counter-espionage within the SIS is remarkably low for a front-line 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 CT efforts in 2014, and that the same distribution of personnel continued even with the 50 percent increase in staff by mid-2019.

The NZ Police also claim to have struggled with resources for intelligence work in general and CT 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 CT 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 (organizational 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 CT operations per se. Instead, it appears that the allocations of resources within the intelligence branch were directed to areas other than CT, again, consistently throughout the years and paralleling the operational priorities of the SIS. Funding for additional CT 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” (Part 8, Section 6.5 paragraph 30).

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, “(w)e (the RCI) were also provided examples from the National Security Investigations Team of leads related to right-wing extremism that met the risk threshold and were pursued.” (Part 8, Section 6.5 paragraph 36). In other words, there were leads coming from somewhere about right-wing extremists and they were pursued, 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 CT efforts on detecting and disrupting the plans of Islamicists (and had some success with that).

Even so, the NZ Police did allocate intelligence resources to monitoring some non-Islamicist 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). Amongst ideological activists in NZ, environmental and other Leftist 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 CT efforts remained focused on would-be jihadists.

It was therefore not just a lack of resources allocated to CT 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, CT staffing numbers remained small and steady, with low emphasis placed on non-Islamicist 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 disorganization and biases of the NZ intelligence apparatus when it came to CT 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 RCI, only by chance could they have been.

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” (sic). 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 NZIC collective assessment  of NZ’s threat landscape.

With the overall likelihood of domestic terrorism downplayed and jihadist threats over-emphasized within potential domestic terrorism scenarios, when it came to local right-wing terrorism the NZIC was not just looking the wrong way—it was not looking at all. Instead, for political and operational reasons the CT 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 NZIC was disinclined to move beyond threat assessment parameters that supported the anti-jihadist narrative. That is why the it failed to see the danger coming from the extreme Right.

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

An earlier version of this essay was published in The Spinoff, December 15, 2020.

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