Last week the government released its National Security System Handbook.Â The NSS is a national emergency response system headed by a committee chaired by the Prime Minister that is convened to address serious threats to the security of New Zealand and New Zealanders. It includes officials from various security and intelligence agencies as well as others where and when pertinent depending on the nature of the risk event.
On page 24 of the document examples of events that triggered convening of the NSS are given. Included among them are the 1080 milk powder poison threat, potential consequences of Ebola and Zika outbreaks, the 2010 and 2011 Christchurh earthquakes and the 2011 Rena maritime disaster. Nestled among these and listed separately is the line “(t)hreat of a domestic terrorism incident.” While the other examples are all a matter of pubic record, the domestic terrorism threat is not.
The government refuses to release details of this domestic terrorism threat. That is disappointing for several reasons.
Two years ago the government raised the terrorism threat warning level from “very low” to “low,” citing the international threat environment in which New Zealand is located. Given that the NSS Handbook has been in existence for only two years, the domestic terrorism threat mentioned in the NSS Handbook could have Â happened after the threat warning level was raised. But even if it occurred before the Handbook was written, this was supposedly a concrete terrorism threat on New Zealand soil, not something of a general nature, so it is curious that the threat level was not raised to “moderate” or “medium” given the possibility of larger networks involved, existence of copy cats or emulators, or of other plots in the making (simply because it would be hard to predict that the threat in questions was a one-off). Again, this was supposedly a real threat–presumably a physical plot of some sort–rather than social media ranting or otherwise hollow venting by some disgruntled nutter.
As far as I can tell, no one has been arrested, charged, tried or convicted of a domestic terrorism plot in recent years. A couple of individuals were jailed this year for possessing offensive materials in the form of violent jihadist videos, but they were not charged with terrorism offences and were unlikely to require an NSS meeting in response to them. The same is true for the wanna-be jihadists who were prevented from traveling to the Middle East to join Daesh–there would be no need for an NSS meeting over a matter of passport control. There have been a few individuals who have pledged loyalty and support for Daesh on social media, but that does not rise to the level of threat required to trigger convening the NSS. The Urewera case does not seem to apply because both the 5th Labour government and the current National government maintain that its was solely a Police operation that resulted in no terrorism charges being laid.
A domestic terrorism threat of a magnitude that requires triggering of NSS protocols would not involve cyber-esionage, crime or warfare. It would be something that was real and imminent, or at least in the process of becoming so.
Thus the questions beg: If this domestic terrorism threat was real, what became of it? Was it thwarted? What became of the suspect(s)? Did the authorities act so early that they could not obtain evidence that could justify laying charges in court? Are those suspects still in the country or were they passing through? If the suspects are still in the country, are they moving about freely or is there some form of monitoring of them? Should not the public be advised of their presence?
The last point matters because one would think that the government could use this domestic terrorism threat to reinforce and justify its attempts to expand the powers of search and surveillance in various security related Acts. It would reassure the public of the need for more vigilance as well as the competence of the State when it comes to detecting and thwarting terrorist plots.
One can fully understand that the intelligence community would be reluctant to reveal the sources and methods by which this threat was detected and responded to. But surely some detail could be provided that does not compromise the intelligence gathering process but which could point to the specifics of the threat. Unless New Zealand uses secret terrorism courts or is involved in black site or rendition programs, it should not be too difficult for the government to provide a public summary of the facts surrounding the case listed as an example in the NSS Handbook.
Otherwise, the government leaves itself open to skepticism on that particular claim.