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Common sense required in commenting on terrorist threat

Line of Defence, Summer 2016/17

Language is important - removing the 'terror' label can lead to better analysisLanguage is important - removing the 'terror' label can lead to better analysis


New Zealand security specialists Carlton Ruffell and Stewart O’Reilly dampen down media hysteria on the threat of terror attacks, injecting dispassionate logic into what is an often emotive topic.


Mixed reaction met a 6th August New Zealand Herald article titled "Personal Security - Keeping You Safe", which reported on a ‘leaked’ memo from the NZDF Chief Security Officer to Defence personnel. The memo, which stated that NZDF staff were especially vulnerable to attacks by terrorist groups, was viewed by some with ridicule and others with suspicion.

The article quoted Jeffrey Sluka, a Massey University academic who specialises in political terrorism, as stating that the memo was “patently ridiculous and deranged”. “It's irrational and dangerous to ramp up people's fears to see dangers where they don't exist," he commented.

Social media has even elicited conspiracy theories on the topic, with one blogger asking “is this memo just a distraction because the national government have been caught up to something else - or are they sending more troops in[?]”

Stewart O’Reilly, Director of Training at the New Zealand Security Association sees things differently. “In general terms, the contents of the memo are fairly standard personal safety suggestions, and are worth reading by anyone.”

“The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requires employers to provide their staff with information and training regarding potential risks to their safety, and this memo may a measure by NZDF to comply with that requirement,” he suggested.

According to O’Reilly, the memo not only made good sense, but should also constitute a standard for government agencies and also for the private sector. “Any NZ business sending staff overseas should be considering all of the potential threats to their safety,” he said. “Those engaged in certain sectors within New Zealand, such as hospitality and major events should also be factoring in terrorism in the health and safety planning.”

He pointed out that the UK Ministry of Defence had also issued an official warning to military personnel that they could be targeted by terrorists while holidaying with their families in August. “They have been warned to cover up tattoos showing regimental logos, slogans or numbers during summer breaks abroad.”

The risk of a terror inspired attack on NZDF personnel, he pointed out, would have to be considered in light of the recent history of attacks or attempted attacks on other five-eyes soldiers in civilian settings, including the:

  • Murder of British fusilier Lee Rigby in May 2013
  • Arrest of five teenagers in Melbourne in connection with a plot that officials said would have been carried out at the Anzac Day ceremony in 2015
  • Conviction of Junead Ahmed Khan for plotting to kill US servicemen in Britain in April 2014
  • Attack on a uniformed member of the Australian Defence Force in September 2014
  • Attempted kidnapping of a RAF member outside a base in Norfolk in July 2016


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Terrorist threat to New Zealand

According to a spokesman for the New Zealand Intelligence Community, terrorism threat levels are assessed by the multi-agency Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) and are “used by government agencies to inform their management of risk and their advice to the public (for example, through travel advisories).”

According to the spokesman, the international threat environment has deteriorated over the last couple of years, and the domestic terrorism threat level has changed from VERY LOW to LOW. “What this means is that the risk of a domestic terrorism event has been assessed as possible, but not expected.”

According to O’Reilly, although the threat level here remains low, 30-40 people nevertheless remain on NZSIS’s watchlist, and, importantly, it is those that the agency is not aware of that pose the greatest danger. “’Lone wolf’ terrorists, such as the attackers in Nice and Orlando can operate under the radar of intelligence services”, he said. “They can be disaffected individuals with no known links to terrorist groups who act out their sick fantasies without any specific external direction.”

Carlton Ruffell, author of Protecting People in New Zealand, stresses that clarifying exactly what is meant by such terms as ‘terrorist’ and ‘extremist’ is important in assessing the threat.

“If by extremist we mean teams of trained people traveling to our country intent on committing violent acts, I think the likelihood [of an attack] is relatively low,” he suggests. “If we mean a disaffected person committing an attack, we face the same risks as the rest of the world.  These disaffected people can come from the periphery of more mainstream Issue Motivated Groups or may be the loners, with very specific and personal grievances, questing for their own idea of justice.”

“When assessing the terrorist threat, the likelihood is so low in most parts of the world – not just New Zealand - that we need to use a different kind of risk assessment.  We look at the desirability of the target from the point of view of threat groups and then look at the current tactics of those groups.  If we see a vulnerability, the organisation can then decide if to take counter measures.


Putting ‘terrorism’ into perspective

“It’s very important to be careful in our use of language,” Australian Attorney-General George Brandis told the ABC Television’s Insiders program in the wake of the Munich shooting in July. “Not every mass casualty attack is an act of terrorism. Not every premeditated act of violence is an act of terrorism.”

Brandis points out that Australian legislation provides for a very specific definition of terrorism. “If we’re going to understand this problem we have to anatomise it correctly”, he said. “We must be very careful in our use of language so that we don’t spray the word terrorism around too loosely.”

According to Ruffell, there is a tendency internationally for the term “terrorist” to be used in relation to any extreme act of violence. “This is pejorative and appears to be used by any government who disagrees with opposing non-state actors,” he said.

“The term ‘terrorist’ is not very helpful when trying to understand why a person would commit an act of targeted violence.  Once someone’s been labelled a terrorist, all further analysis is seemingly unnecessary, as if there is nothing to be learned from the person’s motivation or situation… This is a poor approach if your goal is to prevent future acts of targeted violence.”

Citing the German public as an example, Ruffell suggests that a well informed, educated public which puts these attacks into perspective is important. “They have the wisdom to see recent extremist attacks in Germany for what they are: attempts by some very angry people to ruin a good thing, which is the acceptance of Syrian refuges into their country.”

“An over-reaction to extremist acts by the populace can create a very unpleasant society”, he warned. “Sometimes this means a populace that accepts major curbs on privacy, sanctions military action with ill-defined goals or, elects a populist politician who maintains tension to keep personal power.”

“The ability of the public to put these terrible acts in perspective puts great pressure on the media to responsibly report the nuances of situations, which will allow a well informed public to make wise decisions.  The media, which is under great pressure just to survive under current business models, must resist the temptation to turn tragedy into “click-bait” with sensationalist, emotive headlines.”


Stewart O’Reilly is NZSA Director of Training. Stewart's background is a mixture of education and security roles, including a 15-year stint as an intelligence officer helping develop New Zealand's Counter Terrorism capacity. He has held the designation of Certified Anti-Terrorism Specialist (CAS) from the international Anti-Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB) since 2008.

Carlton Ruffell PSP CPP, director of Ruffell and Associates Ltd, has directed protective security strategies for diplomats, Members of Parliament and military personnel in New Zealand and in high-risk conflict zones overseas. He is a former Security Information Officer for New Zealand’s Parliamentary Service, and has served in the NZ Police and NZDF.

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