Spying on Mosques.

Over the weekend the SST published a story about a NZ-born wanna-be jihadi turned NZSIS informant. I have some knowledge of the larger story behind the SST piece, with combines elements of the fantastic with the plausible. One of the plausible allegations is that the NZSIS and NZ Police spy on mosques. We should not be surprised.

Even before 9-11 it is quite possible that the NZSIS and/or GCSB were involved in monitoring suspected Islamic radicals with NZ connections. Several al-Qaeda operatives have been reported to have visited NZ (allegedly using business visas) and others–such as the Yemeni flat mate of one of the 9-11 hijackers–have allegedly entered using student visas. 

After 9-11 and the Madrid and London bombings, a full court press was employed by Western intelligence agencies and their allies to ferret out home grown jihadis and Islamicist sympathisers. This broad sweep approach led to a number of excesses with regard to the detention of innocents and others deemed guilty by association, of which the Zaoui case is just one local instance. The focus on jihadism also gave agencies like the NZSIS a new lease on life after the post-Cold War doldrums, something that provided it with an incentive to increase its intelligence flows to larger liasion partners such as the US, Australia and the UK.  That includes reporting on the  movements of suspected jihadists and sympathisers at home.

Regardless of the realities of the jihadist threat scenario in Aotearoa (which by all accounts is negligible), both the NZ government and its security apparatus had –and have– a vested interest in keeping that focus alive, as it is a guarantee for better funding for intelligence agencies, increased legal authority covering intelligence-gathering operations, and close working relationships with larger allied intelligence patrons. Counter-terrorism, in other words, is a gravy train for the intelligence and security community.

Not all of the focus on potential Islamicists in NZ is illusory. One of the Urewera 18 is a well-known pro-Palestinian activist who has spoken of his interest in fighting the occupiers in Gaza. He associates with others connected to groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine who openly express (at least within their own circles), support for the jihadist cause and other forms of anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist armed resistance. There are a number of Somalian refugees who have been suspected of harboring jihadist sympathies and the resident Muslim community, at around 35,000 strong, is believed to contain more than a handful of people with extremist views. Afghans, Algerians, Iraqis and Iranians have all come under scrutiny by local law enforcement. None of this means that any of the above-mentioned are intent or capable of committing terrorist acts on NZ soil or abroad. What I am simply saying is that it is an open secret that they are being watched. 

More broadly, the Muslim community has internal political divisions that have resulted in charges and counter-charges of radicalism, reports to the police and even the deporation of at least one “radical” cleric. These machinations provide fertile ground for intelligence operators.

This is the backdrop to NZSIS and Police mosque-spying. It is well known that these agencies use paid and unpaid informants as well as undercover agents to monitor domestic groups of other dissident persuasions such as environmentalists and anti-free trade campaigners. It should therefore be no surprise that they would want to do the same in the Muslim community, and that they would focus on major community meeting places in order to do so.

The only real obstacle to such espionage is the lack of “passable” Muslims within the NZ intelligence community (which is not as white as many may think–it has plenty of Pacific Island and Asian officers). Thus it is quite plausible that the NZSIS and Police would seek to recruit from within the local Muslim community, exploiting personal grievances, political rivalries, financial difficulties and general disaffection as a means of gaining leverage on or winning the trust of potential informants.

The pity, of course, is that an entire community is being placed under surveillance because of the perceived “threat” that emanates from within it. No such monitoring appears to have been done to detect IRA sympathisers amid the local Catholic community or in synagogues to detect Israeli agents (at least two of which are now known to have been recently operating in NZ). It is the misfortune of the NZ Islamic community to be caught up in a larger game in which they are mere pawns.

At the end of the day the mosque-spying program is not surprising, nor should it be. It is just a manifestation of what intelligence agencies do, and to be frank, most non-Muslim Kiwis would probably expect that the NZSIS and Police keep tabs on suspected domestic Islamicists. What is surprising is the ineptitude of the whistle-blower’s NZSIS handlers, who rather than provide him with a secure income and better cover dropped him like a bad habit once his services were deemed to expendable. At a minimum they could have exchanged a monetary pay out for a non disclosure agreement. But they did not, leaving an aggrieved former informant on the streets with no restriction on what he can say. Unless he is a complete fantasist that the NZSIS and Police had no relationship with beyond an initial set of assessment contacts (at which point he was deemed to be unreliable), the handling of this informant has been slipshod.

That, in the spy trade, is a an own-goal of epic proportions because, unless his story is complete fiction, the informant has knowledge of sources, methods and operational focus–all of which could well be on its way to being made public in the near future.

The options for the NZIS are to ignore the informant’s claims and hope that he shuts up and goes away, to attempt to denigrate him as a story-teller (to include using third parties for said purposes), to intimidate him, even if via the Police or private agencies (which appears to have already occurred since he claims that Police have raided his home after he went public and that a detective has informed him that his SST revelations could result in charges), and as a last resort, silence him with extreme prejudice. Since the latter is a Mossad rather than NZSIS forte, it will be interesting how the rest of this story plays out because at least some of the informant’s claims have been corroborated.

One thing is certain: the mosque spy campaign and domestic anti-jihadist project have taken a blow and it will now be much harder for local intelligence agencies to obtain information on any real Islamicist threats that may exist on local shores. Because even if this individual is a liar, that does not mean that there are not others working as informants along the lines he has outlined, who will therefore be the subject of much closer scrutiny by their co-religionists as a result of this story.

7 thoughts on “Spying on Mosques.

  1. At a minimum they could have exchanged a monetary pay out for a non disclosure agreement.

    If they had done this, and he had gone ahead and spilled the beans anyway, they would now be in the position of taking him to court for breach of contract, which would have only prolonged and spun out the embarrassment.

  2. It would not be that easy for him to violate the gag order, since it deals with issues of national security and vital interest. Should he do so the penalties would be severe and proactive–think of Zaoui’s solitary confinement for a year without charge for what turned out to be imaginary offenses. In this case the offense would be real, and the circumvention of normal legal procedures would be authorised by the amendments to the NZSIS charter and other security legislation enacted over the last ten years. After all, in revealing how the SIS attempts to track radicals the whistle-blower would be jeopardizing ongoing and future operations.

    My understanding of the larger picture is that he wanted a larger monetary remuneration to stay as an informer and a identity change when he finished. He got neither. But then again, he did receive a gag order either.

  3. Do you really think that SST story is true?

    When I saw the headline, I immediately thought it must be another fantasy of Nicky Hagar’s or Jonathan Marshall’s. I was quite surprised to see it was actually written by Michael Field, whose speciality is Pacific issues.

    What destroyed any shadow of credibility in this story for me was the “informant” saying he’s signed the Official Secrets Act when becoming an SIS trooper.

    The Official Secrets Act was abolished in 1982.

    Its replacement, the Official Information Act, has no such secrecy provision as claimed in the article.

    That Michael Field — or any of the SST’s subeditors and editors — did not know this widely-known (at least among journalists) fact was, quite frankly, nothing short of astonishing and destructive in my mind of anything in that story.

  4. Good point Mike.

    My understanding is that he signed no secrecy clauses, perhaps because the SIS felt that he was exposed as it was and would therefore maintain the veil of discretion. I agree that Field should have picked up on the discrepency about the OSA/OIA. On the other hand, the fact that the story even came out under the current SST management and editorial team means that something clicked or corroborated somewhere.

    I came to know about this fellow last year under different circumstances than those that Field encountered. Perhas Wardle is shopping his story around, which would add to the skepticism about him. As I said in the post, there are some plausible aspects to his story and others that are not so plausible. It will be interesting to see what else, if anything, comes out.

  5. And there I was thinking that International Law enshrined the right for occupied people (the Palestinians) to forcibly resist occupation. Particularly when they’re the victims of violent, long-term ethnic-cleansing and Israeli state-terrorism.

    But apparently not ! It seems that supporting Israel’s on-going violence and illegal ethnic-cleansing is to be on the side of the angels while – most extraordinarily of all – to be sympathetic to Palestinian resistance is to support al-Qaeda !!!

    I bet the neo-conservative US/Israeli think-tanks just love you, Paul !

  6. Dod:

    Try not to be a dolt. I did not say that support for the Palestinian cause was equal to support for al-Qaeda. What I did say is that 1) the NZSIS believes that there are Islamicist sympathisers in the resident Muslim community as well as amongst some non-Muslims (and I mentioned some of the “suspect” groups; and 2) that irrespective of whether they constitute a real threat to NZ, these individuals and groups are being watched.

    Next time try not to let your ideological blinders get in the way of an honest and objective read.

  7. Yeah Paul, stop beating on those Palestinians with your sober real politik!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *