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.
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.
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.Â
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 â€œsystemic failure.â€ 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 â€œlone wolvesâ€ 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).Â
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 â€œlead-basedâ€ and â€œcustomerâ€ 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 patronsâ€”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 â€œneed to knowâ€ 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 â€œover the horizon,â€ 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 â€œblack budgetâ€ expenditures (most intelligence agencies carry off-the-books â€œblack budgetsâ€ 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 â€œInternational and National Securityâ€ 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 â€œNew Zealand Police had generally viewed right-wing extremism as more of a public order issue than a potential terrorist threatâ€ (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 â€œstreet crimesâ€). Yet, although no information on right-wing extremists was reported at the national level after 2014, â€œ(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.â€ (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 â€œlack of interestâ€ 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 ‘normalâ€ 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 â€œeco-fascistsâ€ 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 â€œchance.â€ 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 â€œWar on Terrorâ€ (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 wayâ€”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 â€œchance,â€ 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.
Selwyn Manning and I discuss some of the findings of the Report here.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on the Christchurch terrorist attacks has tabled its report with the Governor General and Minister of Internal Affairs. The Report will be introduced to parliament and released to the public before Christmas. In the lead up to its release the office of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet consulted with a number of people, myself included, on how to go about managing the release. My advice was for the heads of the security agencies mentioned in the Report–the SIS and Police in particular–to front-foot the release because there was much skepticism that the Report would be anything but a whitewash and cover up. I mentioned that if systemic, institutional as well as individual failures, biases and blindness were not mentioned then the Report would be seen as exactly that. Other people suggested deeper engagement with immigrant ethnic groups, Maori, and being as transparent as possible.
Alas, the latter does not look like it will happen if early word about the Report is true. Remember, by its terms of reference the Report’s public findings and recommendations will not identify government officials mentioned in it. Nor will it contain information that is deemed sensitive on national security grounds. So, along with other limitations that I mentioned in an earlier post about it, the RCI was hamstrung from the start.
To be sure, I have not read either the findings or the recommendations so can do nothing other than speculate about them. But what I have read so far is this: the evidence from the killer as to how he planned the attack will be suppressed forever because it constitutes a “how to” primer for murderous copy-cats that identifies exploitable holes, flaws and deficiencies in NZ’s counter-terrorism defences and the advantages and opportunities presented to him by the wider context in which he planned and prepared the attacks. Moreover, the names of government officials mentioned in the Report will not only be redacted from the public version, but will be suppressed for thirty years, again on national security grounds.
Already, word has leaked that the Report will note how the firearms purchase and vetting regime failed in this instance due to legal loopholes and human folly. This was always going to be an easy way out for the State because after the attacks the government immediately pushed through law reforms governing certain types of firearms such as those used during the massacres (now being challenged by rightwing parties and groups), while blaming officers on the low end of the Police totem pole for not properly doing firearms license background checks absolves the higher-ups of any complicity in the matter. Nothing about systemic or institutional biases, failures or blindness is to be found in that sort of blame game.
Needless to say, some are not happy with these developments. Both the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) and Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand (IWCNZ) have expressed serious concerns about the suppression order’s impact on issues of transparency and accountability by the agencies and individuals whose actions or inaction may have contributed to the events of March 15, 2019. This is notable because the RCI remit specified that the views of the NZ Muslim community should be given great consideration, to the point that a special Muslim Reference Group was set up to advise the Commission (although its advice was non-binding on the RCI).
Now, in the wake of the news about the selective long-term suppression of findings, both FIANZ and IWCNZ have released their submissions to the RCI. These include lengthy expositions about the myriad ways in which the Muslim community has been stigmatised, harassed, surveilled, vilified and attacked since 9/11 in the NZ media and society, and about how government agencies were indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the community as a whole, systematically ignoring the community’s very specific details of hate-based violence directed at them and repeated appeals for help. These submissions noted the government’s focus on Muslims as potential jihadis, including so-called “jihadi brides” and the infiltration of their houses of worship and community activity centres by agents of the State.
The submissions were extensive and well-documented, using everything from international to local human rights legislation and witness testimonies to provide proof that the global “War on Terror” had a very real, disproportionate and negative impact on NZ Muslims regardless of their affinity for extremism (it should be noted that no Muslim has been charged, much less convicted of an ideologically-motivated act of violence in NZ before or after 9/11. Two individuals have been jailed for having jihadist literature, a couple of converts have been killed in drone strikes abroad and the bumbling Pakeha jihadist remains imprisoned in Syria).
Meanwhile white supremacists in NZ organised, recruited, trained and encouraged each other on line, including threats against local Muslims. Yet they apparently were either not considered to be sufficient enough of a threat to warrant closer official scrutiny, or the security community had other priorities, or, as has been said repeatedly by various sources, the killer “flew under the radar” in the build up to the attacks because he had no association with local neo-Nazi communities (oh, and he was Australian). He had no enablers, no accomplices, no acquaintances–no one at all who, in spite of his travels to conflict zones and expressed hatreds, had a clue of what he was planning to do. There was no warning.
That NZ’s two leading Muslim organisations have now come out with what were originally non-public submissions detailing what in retrospect were obvious alarm bells is an indictment of the RCI and proof that fears of a whitewash may turn out to be justified.
Others are not as pessimistic. Some believe that the RCI will recommend throwing what amounts to “blood” money at the victims, their families and the Muslim community in general while engaging in a “whole of government approach” (the new bureaucratic buzzphrase, apparently) to the problem of ethnic, religious and/or race-based extremism and violence in Aotearoa. Some think that although names and evidence will be suppressed, behind closed doors action will be taken to hold decision-makers to account. There is a belief that the RCI will in fact fulfil its duty and detail the systemic and institutional failures that contributed by commission omission to the attacks. I am not so sure.
It could be that the pre-public release of selected aspects of the Report is being done by officials to prepare the ground for its full release (by lowering expectations from the non-Muslim community), or has been done by someone on the inside who is not happy with the Report. Either way, it has set up a situation where the truth will be obscured by official shading of what can be publicly known.
The bottom line is this. Long term evidence suppression is valid based on national security concerns about revelations involving sources, methods, evidence of capabilities/vulnerabilities and sensitive foreign relationships. Invalid reasons for suppressing names and evidence involve efforts at face-saving, whitewashing or cover ups of individual and/or institutional malpractice, incompetence, bias, blindness or negligence.
From what has been released so far, there is reason to presume that the Report will tilt more towards the latter than the former, and as a result New Zealand will have missed its moment of opportunity to address and remedy what were the “whole of government” failures that contributed to the darkest day in its modern history. Instead, it might well turn out to be the official equivalent of a lump of Xmas coal delivered to the cause of official transparency and accountability.
That would be a shame.
Now that he has been convicted and sentenced, including on a charge of committing a terrorist act (to which he admitted guilt), the Christchurch killer has been designated a “terrorist entity” by the government, using provisions of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. Designating the killer as a terrorist entity means that his assets can be seized, his (online/other) fans can be prosecuted as terrorist supporters and creating funding platforms for his legal appeals or other reasons are now punishable offenses. No GoFundMe pages for him, it seems, and racists will need to think twice and tread carefully when they sing his praises in any forum (which should make certain NZ rightwing blogs a bit more careful when moderating comments)..
This is a smart move on the government’s part. Although the intent of the 2002 legislation was clearly directed at Islamicists and the various fronts and support networks that aided their armed campaigns, the use of the legislation in its first instance–both in successfully charging the killer with a terrorist offence and in designating him as an “entity” so that others could not easily provide support or encouragement to him or other like-minded people–is a well executed step that in principle demonstrates that the law can be applied in a balanced fashion regardless of the ideological cause being espoused.
But the test of this balance remains to be seen. Imagine if Tame Iti and his ragtag assortment of activist friends had been charged and convicted of terrorist offences because of their Urewera shenanigans (which was the original intention of the Clark government). Would they have been designated as “entities” so that others of similar mind could not legally offer them or their various causes emotional and material support? What about environmental or animal rights militants, who are often labeled as “eco-terrorists” by rightwing politicians and media and the commercial outfits that the activists oppose? What about anti-1080 activists, who have shown a penchant for intimidation and violence? Or the Sea Shepard Society, which Japan has designated as a terrorist group (and pirates) because it has used direct action tactics against whalers in the Southern Ocean and elsewhere?
The old saying “one person’s terrorist is another person’s hero” comes to mind here. The label can be applied to anyone who, under the broad definition of “national security” in New Zealand legislation, causes “harm” to the national economy, social order or reputation regardless of whether they used violence in pursuit of their objectives. Accordingly, the use of the term “terrorist” has been stretched by politicians, media mouthpieces and corporate and/or interest groups to cover a variety of non-murderous people agitating for a wide range of causes.
That is why the use of the term “terrorist” and the designation of terrorist entities must be done under strict guidelines and in the most extreme of circumstances. While international designators are helpful–say, in labelling Daesh as a terrorist entity or NZ expats clearly identified as having participated in its genocidal activities as terrorists–it remains for the Crown to rigorously scrutinise the criteria by which people and groups are placed in such categories. That must be objective, factually-based and proportionate to the harm committed. Above all, it must not be left to the government of the day, less partisan opportunism rear its ugly head in the application of justice.
The Christchurch killer made it easy on the Crown–and on the security agencies that allowed him to slip under the radar when planning and preparing the attacks–when he pleaded guilty to all charges. The sentencing was heavy on drama and pathos but the outcome was foretold and inevitable. The post-sentencing designation of the killer as an entity was an adroit touch. But one wonders if that designation should have come from the court at the time of sentencing rather than from the government after the sentence was handed down.
In any event, the first successful application of terrorism charges and terrorist entity designations is a salutary milestone in NZ jurisprudence and security affairs, but it is not without its potentially negative implications in future circumstances. That should be the guiding (or better said, self-limiting) principle in any future consideration of their use.
I have been fortunate enough to receive regular reports from the 42 Group, a defence and security-focused collection of youngish people whose purpose is to provide independent strategic analysis to policy makers and the NZ public. Their work is very good.
I asked the person who sends me their reports if it was Ok to republish the latest report here. He agreed, so here it is.
When the Christchurch murderer pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder and a number of other violent assault charges a few months ago, he effectively closed the door on what the public will know about the lead up to and commission of the event. His plea means that no evidence will be presented in court; that no witness testimony and cross-examinations under oath will happen; that no documentation will be entered into the official record; that no officials will be sworn in and questioned. We will not hear from the killer himself, not will we see senior security officials explain how his murderous plans were not detected and disrupted. Even so, the Crown did not reject the plea. That may have been convenient from the Crown’s point of view, but on the larger issue of finding out what actually happened, the NZ public apparently has no right to know.
This undoubtably suits the NZ Police and perhaps the NZSIS and GCSB (although it is likely that what failures may have occurred were in the real of human intelligence collection rather than with signals intelligence, since the latter would need to be tasked by the former to undertake domestic intercepts and the like). Now they will not have to explain whether there were systemic, institutional and something more than individual failures in the lead up to the attacks. We will never know if they had an institutional bias that blinded them to the dangers posed by violent white extremists, or whether they were aware that white extremisms posed an increasing danger to NZ society or some of its communities but decided not to act to preempt the threat because of other priorities (say, a focus on white gang drug dealing and the use of skinhead informants to that end). They may not have to explain whether they were aware (if true) that the killer had accomplices and enablers who helped him on his path. They will not have to answer as to why they ignored repeated complaints and pleas by the NZ Muslim community to do something about the ongoing and often intimidatory harassment to which many of them were subjected in the wake of 9/11. They will not have to justify why they devoted so many resources to monitoring jihadist sympathisers when in the end no Muslim has ever been charged with, much less convicted of, committing an ideologically-motivated act of collective violence in NZ both before and after 9/11.
Instead, two individuals have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms for possessing and trying to distributed offensive materials in the form of beheading videos, there are a few dozen who have ranted on social media to the point that they have caught the attention of the security services, and there are a small group who have left to join jihadists in the Middle East, some of whom will not be coming back because they are no longer of this Earth. But that is the extent of the Islamicist threat even though much money and resources were poured into the anti-jihadist effort and numerous law changes (Terrorism Suppression Act, Search and Surveillance Act, Intelligence and Security Act) were enacted to give security authorities more powers and leeway in combating them. Now we will never know why some of those resources were not directed into detecting and preventing white extremist attacks even though the NZ racist community was very visible, well-known to be violent and increasingly connected to foreign white supremacist groups via social media. Why were they not on the security services’ radar scope? Or were they?
The Police have admitted that the arms license vetting process to which the killer was subjected was deficient. Beyond confirming the obvious, this also is a classic example of scapegoating the lowest people in the chain of command. The Police also agree that the gun laws prior to March 15 were too lax, but that was a matter for parliament to resolve. When taken together with the guilty plea, what we have here is the makings of an absolution of higher level security service incompetence, negligence, maladministration and bias as contributing factors in the perpetration of the mosque attacks.
It has been announced that the Royal Commission of Inquiry has interviewed the killer. That may elicit some new information from him about his motives and planning, but it appears to be more of a courtesy to the defendant than a genuine fact-finding effort. After all, the Royal Commission should be able to have access to all of the Crown evidence by now. It has interviewed dozens of people (including myself) and supposedly has access to a trove of government documentation relevant to the case.
But therein lies the rub. The terms of reference of the Royal Commission are broad but its powers are limited. It has no powers of compulsion under oath, that is, it cannot demand that sworn witnesses appear before it (all of those who talk with the Commission due so voluntarily as “interviewees”). It cannot order the release of classified material to the commissioners; instead, it is dependent on the goodwill of the very agencies it is supposed to be investigating to provide such documents. It cannot identify any official that is mentioned in the course of the inquiry. It has no sanction powers. In truth, the Royal Commission is toothless.
I hope that I am wrong and that it will be able to answer many of the questions posed above because it has secured full voluntary cooperation from the security agencies that failed to detect and prevent the massacres. I hope that it is able to offer recommendations about review and reform of procedures, protocols and processes governing approaches to the NZ threat environment, including about the priority hierarchy given to potential, possible and imminent threats of any nature (for example, the relative priority given to gang criminality versus potentially violent political activism). It might even call for a major shake-up of the way in which Police and other intelligence agencies approach the issue of domestic terrorism. But that is just speculation, and may be no more than wishful thinking on my part.
One can only hope that in exchange for the guilty plea, the Crown and Police got something in return from the killer. Perhaps there was a quid pro quo involved whereby he offered information to the authorities that they otherwise could not obtain in exchange for better conditions in jail, sentence reduction, possibility of parole, etc. I am not familiar with the legal intricacies behind guilty pleas but I doubt that the murderer decided to do so out of the kindness of his heart, to spare the victim’s relatives further grief or to save the NZ taxpayer the costs of a trial. To my mind there had to be something in it for him.
In any event, the people who benefitted the most from the guilty plea are the NZ Police and intelligence agencies. They will not be held to account in a court of law, and instead can define the terms of the narrative constructed in the Royal Commission report so that it downplays or exonerates command and cultural failures while blaming lower level individuals, lack of resources, heavy workloads and other extraneous matters for the failure to prevent NZ’s worst act of terrorism.
Rather than a moment of honest reckoning, we could well get a whitewash.
That is not good enough.
I penned a series of tweets on the consultancy page offering my thoughts on the Soleimani assassination. I have decided to gather them together, add some more material, and edit them into a blogpost. Here it is.
The US drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iranian Quds force commander Gen Qassim Soleimeni, a leader of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shiia militia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and others is an ominous portent of things to come. This is a major US escalation born of miscalculation because if nothing else, Iran must respond in kind. â€œIn kindâ€ does not mean some form of direct military response. What it means is that the response will be costly for the US and very likely lethal for some of its citizens (not all in uniform).
Iran has to do so or look weak both domestically and in front of regional adversaries. It has direct and indirect means of retaliation against US interests world wide, and it has US allies as potential targets as well. The issue for Tehran is whether it wants to respond in kind or lose face. It cannot afford to lose face.
This is how wars start. By error. Given that miscalculation is at the heart of what is known as the â€œsecurity dilemmaâ€ and a major cause of war, why would the US engage in such brinkmanship? Was it presidential hubris? Could it be a distraction from impeachment? Have all contingencies been gamed by the Pentagon and the costs accepted? What is the end game envisioned by the US? Because global costs in this case are certain, whereas the outcome is not.
Before continuing, let’s first dispense with the arguments about whether Soleimani’s killing was legal or justified. For all the talk about norms, rules and mores in international relations, states ultimately do what they perceive it is in their interests to do and their ability to do so is determined by their relative capabilities vis a vis other states. That includes targeted extra-judicial killings across international borders. But being able to do something, even if the doing is legal, does not mean that it is necessarily appropriate or beneficial. Soleimani may or may not have been a legitimate military target (as the US argues), but his death is a very serious provocation at a minimum and at worst a precipitant to war. It includes Iraq as well as Iran in the equation, and given the posturing by Israel and Saudi Arabia (two of the few states that welcomed the killing), it could involve them down the road as well.
Whatever the case, let’s also rebut the demonization of the Quds force commander and place his history in proper perspective.
Qasem Soleimani was the equivalent of a special forces general in Western military organizations. He commanded the Quds Force, the clandestine, unconventional warfare arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). He was not the only IRGC general but he was primus inter pares amongst them and a revered figure in Iran. Think George Patton, Douglas McArthur and Dwight Eisenhower rolled into one. Having risen through the ranks on the basis of intelligence and bravery in battle, his mission was to fight, via covert, irregular and indirect means, all enemies of the Islamic Republic. To that end he was a loyal servant of his faith and his country, just as many honoured Western military figures have been in their homelands.
Soleimani was tasked with fighting Iran’s enemies and defending its geopolitical interests. Iran’s enemies include the US, Israel and the Sunni Arab oligarchies that are the West’s â€œfriendsâ€ in the Middle East. Iran’s interests include consolidating its sphere of influence in places where Shiite populations are significant, to include the Levant (Lebanon and Syria), Afghanistan, Iraq and Gulf states. It has an interest in undermining Israel and the Sunni Arab oligarchies. It has an interest in confronting the US military presence in the Persian Gulf and rest of the Middle East. It aspires to reclaim its place as a major regional power in the face of these adversaries.
To that end Soleimani cultivated proxies across the world, including Hezbollah, Hamas, a number of Shiite militias in Iraq and Yemen, and off-shoots in such distant places as Venezuela and Paraguay. These proxies were tasked with a number of unconventional missions, including support for the Assad regime in Syria, attacks on Sunnis and occupying forces in post-invasion Iraq, and attacks on Israeli interests world-wide. He and his proxies were and are devoted adversaries of Sunni Wahhabist/Salafist al-Qaeda and ISIS, to the point that the US provided air cover for the Iran-backed Shiia militias in Iraq during the war against their common foe. Read that again: at one time the US cooperated in combat with Soleimani’s allies in Iraq in the fight against ISIS.
It is true that the Quds Force trains, equips, supplies, technically and tactically aids and funds irregular warfare actors that use terrorism as a tactic. It is true that Iran-backed Shiia Iraqi militias killed occupying US troops via ambushes and IED attacks in order to hasten their departure from that country. It is true that these militias have committed atrocities against civilians, including market bombings in Sunni dominant areas of Iraq and Syria. But it should be remembered that the Sunni Arab world is not above such things, and the US has a sorry history of aiding, equipping and funding rightwing death squads throughout Latin America and elsewhere (anyone remember the “Contras?” They were, after all, an irregular militia attacking the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua). It is also true that the US killed thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan in its self-proclaimed â€œwar on terrorâ€ (sic).
It is therefore a bit precious of the Trump administration to talk of Soleimani as if he was Hitler’s twin. He was ruthless, to be sure. But in that regard he was no different than most any other professional special operator, especially when the proxies that he helped organize and equip had and have considerable degrees of operational autonomy in the areas in which they are located (because tactical flexibility is a key to guerrilla warfare success).
Mention here of the sins of others is not about â€œwhataboutism.â€ It is about the reality of Soleimani’s profession. So let us return to the circumstances and consequences of his death.
The Pentagon statement that Soleimani was killed “at the president’s direction” implies a desire to distance the military from the decision to strike. Also, Trump falsely claimed that Soleimani was responsible for terrorist attacks “from London to New Delhi.” That is a distortion of the truth.
The vast majority of Islam-inspired attacks over the last three decades were committed by Sunni extremists, not Shiites. Although Iran was behind the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, attempted a revenge attack in San Diego on the captain of the US destroyer that downed an Iranian airliner that same decade and targeted Israelis in places like Thailand in the years that followed, it has been very careful in its operational focus, concentrating primarily on the region in which it is located. In contrast, terrorist attacks in Bali, Spain, London, France, Russia, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, to say nothing of the US, have all been the work of Sunni extremists supported by governments that are ostensibly friends and allies of the West. Given the silence that is directed towards these governments by the likes of the US, the claims that Soleimani and Iran are the greatest sponsors of terrorism in the world is a classic case of selection bias (at best) or rank hypocrisy (at worst).
In any event, there was something odd about how the US revealed how Soleimani was killed. The Pentagon normally does not refer to POTUS when describing extrajudicial assassinations, even though the president must authorize all strikes against high value targets (an Obama-era order that remains in place). It also does not go into long elaborations justifying why the targeted person was killed. Taken together, this suggests that the move was made out of impulse, not reason. In fact, it seems that the president acted against command advice and that the US military followed orders in spite of reservations, and now the spin is on justifying the strike.
The real test comes when the Iranians respond, which will likely be unconventional, irregular, asymmetrical and prolonged. This is not going be a quick conventional war, as the Iranians understand that the way to defeat the US is to not go toe-to-toe in a conventional force-on-force confrontation. Instead, the best strategy is to employ a â€œdeath by a thousand cutsâ€ global low intensity blood-letting campaign that saps not only the resources of the US military but also the will of the US people to support yet another seemingly endless war without victory.
Perhaps Trump’s advisors thought that a decapitation strike on Soleimani would paralyze the Quds Force and IRGC and intimidate Iran into submission. But a public signature strike rather than a covert operation removes plausible deniability and forces Iranian retaliation if it is not intimidated. Iran does not appear to be intimidated.
It is said that resort to war demonstrates the failure of diplomacy. The US “termination” of Gen. Soleimani may be a case of leadership incompetence leading to miscalculation and then war. There were options other than targeted killing by drone strike. There are overt and more subtle kinetic options if really necessary (the imminent threat argument trotted out by the White House and Pentagon is already crumbling under scrutiny). There are indirect means of demonstrating to the Iranians the folly of pursuing any particular course of action. But instead, a blunt instrument was used.
It is now clear that the US was tracking Soleimani for a while and was well aware of his movements and routine, to include trips to Syria and elsewhere. His planes were monitored. His convoys were tracked. His temporary quarters while traveling where known. His communications appear to have been monitored. There has been plenty of occasion to kill him and plenty of other places and means in which to do so without having to resort to a public display of force in the middle of Baghdad. He could have even received blunt warning–say by thermal gun sight imagery of his vehicle or abode–that he was in cross hairs. If it came to that, any attack on him that was not immediately attributable to the US would provide plausible deniability and tactical cover even if Iranians knew who did it, therefore making it harder for them to retaliate even if the message–whatever it is supposed to be–was received. Now, regardless of message, the Iranians know precisely who to blame.
Whatever the more nuanced options, Trump needed a showcase for his hubris, so a drone strike it was. In fact, this appears to be yet another act of bully-boy intimidation rather than a measured response grounded in a larger strategy. Even if the US had warned Iran about not having its proxies storm US diplomatic installations, specifically referencing the US embassy seizure in Tehran in 1979 and the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya before the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad last week, there were other ways of getting the message across without running the risk of escalation into war.
There is irony to the immediate sequels of the attack on the Quds Force commander. Follow-up US airstrikes on PMF militias may be designed to degrade their capabilities but are too little and late. The PMF is well-established and in fact is a para-military arm of the Iraqi government. Yes, you read that right. The PMF, which is mostly Shiia in composition but which includes some Sunni elements, acts as an armed agent of the Iraqi state. It is comparable to the colectivos in Venezuela and Turbas Divinas in Nicaragua– armed mobs that are used for domestic repression as much as for sectarian or anti-foreign violence. The signature drone strike was therefore an attack on an Iraqi government ally on Iraqi soil without its consent (or even forewarning, for obvious reasons). All of which is to say: If the Iraqi government now orders US out of Iraq in the wake of Soleimani’s murder because it violated the Status of Forces (SOF) agreement between the two countries, then the drone strike backfired.
That is because Iran then has an open field in which to exercise its influence in Iraq without a US counter-presence. Or, the US will be forced into another armed quagmire in a country where it is hated by Sunni and Shiia alike. It is therefore time for someone in Washington to get real about the consequences beyond Iranian retaliation.
As for Iranian retaliation, Trump threatens to have 52 pre-selected targets in Iran, including “cultural sites,” ready to be struck if Tehran does anything that results in US deaths (striking at cultural sites with no military significance is a violation of the laws of war and a possible war crime). But what if Iran strikes at allies? What if Russia sends troops to safeguard some of those target sites (Russia is a military ally of Iran and Russian troops fight alongside IRGC troops in Syria)? What if China (a supplier of weapons to Iran that has a base and warships in the region) also sides with Iran in the events things escalate? What happens if non-attributed but seemingly related attacks happen in the US but cannot be directly linked to Iran? The range of possible sequels makes all bluster about follow up strikes on Iran both reckless and hollow. Unless, of course, Trump has finally lost all sense of reason and no one in his entourage or the US security community has the courage to stop continuing his madness.
That brings up the calculus, such as it is, behind Trump’s order to kill. Perhaps he thinks that this will stave off the impeachment hearings while Congress argues about whether he should invoke the Wars Powers Act (WPA). He does not have to immediately request a WPA resolution but already Democrats have obliged him by arguing about not being consulted before the strike and about how he needs to justify it in order to get congressional approval. There is bound to be some dickering over the legal status of the drone strike but ultimately what is done is done and no post-facto amount of arguing will change the facts on the ground. Be that as it may, the impeachment process might be delayed but will proceed.
Trump undoubtably feels that this action will make him look decisive, bold and tough and that it will will shore up his MAGA base while attracting patriotic citizens to his war-mongering cause in an election year. The trouble is that the elections are 10 months away and the US military is exhausted from two decades of endless wars. Sending more ground troops to the Middle East only depletes them further. The US public is also disenchanted with wars with no resolution, much less victory, in places that are far away and which are not seen as the threat Washington makes them out to be.
If the US could orchestrate an air-sea battle with Iran that settled their differences, that would be another story. But that is not going to happen and is why the US is already sending land forces into theatre. This will be a multi-tiered low intensity conflict without defined borders or rules of engagement.
Iran knows all of this and will play an indirect long game. It will look to fight a war of attrition in which the will of the US public will be targeted more so than the capability of its military. It will endeavour to exact a death by a thousand cuts on the American psyche and its desire for war.
That makes Trumps bully boy assassination strike a triple miscalculation: a) it will not necessarily save him from the impeachment process and further adverse legal proceedings; b) it will not guarantee his re-election; and c) it will escalate the confrontation with Iran in unforeseen directions, with unexpected but surely negative consequences for US interests in general and for himself personally. The law of unintended consequences will prevail.
Perhaps there is a silver lining after all.