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Countering violent extremism for the Common Good

FEATURE: NZ Security, April 2015

Last December saw Parliament passing legislation aimed at stopping would-be foreign fighters from leaving New Zealand to join Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq or from carrying out terrorist acts in New Zealand. It followed claims by the Prime Minister that up to 80 New Zealanders were being monitored due to links to ISIS, fundraising for ISIS or attempting to radicalise others.

The Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill amends three existing laws to give the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) greater surveillance powers and the Minister of Internal Affairs greater powers to suspend and cancel passports. The SIS can now conduct surveillance for up to 24 hours on terrorist suspects without a warrant, conduct video surveillance on private property in relation to suspected terrorism, and gain access to Customs data in relation to suspected terrorism. The Minister of Internal Affairs can now suspend passports for up to 10 working days and cancel them for up to three years.

Although Labour supported the bill, they’ve nevertheless condemned the manner in which it was it rushed through the House, arguing that it denied New Zealanders a real say. Phil Goff described the handling of the bill as an “absolute travesty”, and Greens MP Kennedy Graham said the manner in which it was rushed through was a “procedural abomination.”

Opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs, David Shearer, commented that when representatives of the Muslim community appeared in front of the bill’s select committee, their basic message was: “When we hear about these it is in our interests as New Zealanders and as New Zealand Muslims to ensure that they get picked up on”, and I think what they were saying was: “Yet we are not listened to sufficiently.”

Dr Anwar Ghani, president of the Federation of the Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), said that while the legislation was technically non-discriminatory, its introduction could alienate and stigmatise New Zealand’s small Muslim community. The hurried legislation, combined with the government’s recently announced contribution to military action against ISIS in Iraq, will do nothing to prevent a paranoid atmosphere in which ordinary New Zealand Muslims are perceived as a threat.

As hurried as it was, the legislation’s passing by a bipartisan majority reflects a consensus that the threat posed by terrorism is real. The Government’s New Zealand Intelligence Community website describes the threat succinctly: “Given the degradation of Al Qa’ida networks, possibly the greatest threat of a terrorist act in New Zealand comes from “home- grown” radicalisation or a so-called “lone-wolf” attack. While the risk of such an attack may be low, its consequences could be severe.”


Are we following international best practice?

Less than three weeks before the passing of the Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill, Jim McLay, New Zealand’s ambassador to the UN Security Council, delivered a statement at the Open Debate on International Cooperation on Combatting Terrorism and Violent Extremism. In his address, McLay urged other countries to enact the Global Counter Terrorism Forum’s (GCTF) best practices for countering violent extremism and terrorist fighters.

Good Practice #1 of GCTF’s Memorandum on Good Practices for a More Effective Response to the Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) Phenomenon encourages governments to “invest in the long-term cultivation of trusted relationships with communities susceptible to recruitment, considering the broader set of issues and concerns affecting the community.” Authorities that engage communities whose members are vulnerable to becoming FTFs, it suggests, “should conduct outreach on a broader set of issues, such as national foreign policy, to cultivate trust and address the core needs and concerns of the communities.”

While its ambassador to the UNSC was busy preaching to other states the virtues of engaging with and cultivating trust with communities susceptible to FTF recruitment, it appears that our Government was busy rushing through domestic counter terrorism legislation without any meaningful engagement with the very communities in New Zealand that are particularly susceptible.

Interestingly, these best practices go on to explain the varied ways in which engagement with susceptible communities can support counter terrorism. “Governments should consistently engage youth, women, families, and civil society”, states Good Practice #4, “providing them with relevant and functional training on building counter-narrative content, outreach, and communications.”

It is through collaboration with communities, states the document, that positive and convincing alternatives may be provided to those contemplating travelling to destination countries to support terrorist groups or otherwise commit terrorist acts. “Systematic, tailored mentoring programs”, it continues, “can also be very effective, particularly for youth at risk of radicalization, because they offer individual attention.

This is a point that resonates with Dr Rob Roche, a member of the New Zealand Peace Foundation and retired Auckland-based medical practitioner, who has previously led groundbreaking work with patients suffering from alcoholism and serious drug addiction. Although acknowledging the role of security and law enforcement, he believes that the government is approaching the issue of radicalisation and violent extremism with one eye open.

According to Dr Roche, New Zealand should look to complement its security efforts with a program taking its lead from those currently operating in Europe that are countering radicalisation with tailored mentoring of those at risk. As he sees it, a mentoring program would incorporate the very elements that have served him well during decades of professional practice: community and family engagement, trust building and compassion.


Community mentoring – winning hearts and minds 

“There are two successful rehabilitation programs in operation overseas that are worthy of consideration”, states Dr Roche. “In Denmark, law enforcement officers have been working since 2007 on an evolving program designed to prevent radicalisation and to rehabilitate potentially violent extremists.”

At the centre of the program, he explains, is Infohus (Information House), which is a contact point where people are encouraged to make anonymous reports on individuals who may be at risk of radicalisation or extreme acts of violence. Most of the cases that are referred to Infohus involve young people despairing over global events and inequalities and who may have lost their private battle for self worth and acceptance by society in general.

“Infohus then uses a network of parents, social workers and teachers to collect information before therapeutic steps are taken”, Dr Roche explains. “After identification and assessment of someone deemed to be at risk, an appropriate support team is put in place, which can provide one-on-one counselling by social workers and religious leaders. Where there is financial disadvantage, job training and housing assistance may be provided.”

“To be effective, any program for the rehabilitation of extremists must be based on love, truth, trust and mutual respect”, insists Dr Roche. “It will have a better chance of success if it is non-judgmental and where there are no elements of confrontation or fear of physical punishment or condemnation.”

Another program based in Germany has been in operation since 2011 and has so far dealt with almost 500 cases. Called Hayat (Arabic for ‘life’), it is supervised by Daniel Kohler, director of the German Institute of Radicalisation and Deradicalisation and a leading figure in counter-radicalism.

“Kohler stresses the importance of treating a radicalised individual as a patient”, explains Dr Roche, “so that appropriate psychological counselling and other specialised services can be provided when needed.” And the identification of the at-risk person as someone ‘in need’ rather than a mere target of state surveillance or law enforcement action is a key ingredient for Dr Roche. “The object”, he stresses, “is to generate a sense of wellbeing and self-worth so that the patient is well equipped to find a rewarding place in society.”

“The process of rehabilitation may start with an anonymous call to a 24-hour hotline from a worried friend or family member. Counsellors can then work with families as equal partners in the therapeutic process. An important early step is simply to resolve any ongoing family problems.”

Hayat now belongs to a network of four similar organisations funded by the German government. Recently Hayat Canada has been launched, and a proposal is under consideration by the Australian Government. Across the Tasman, however, there are concerns that $13m in federal government funding allocated in October to fund community- based deradicalisation programs has remained unspent.

A Sydney Islamic leader has recently commented that community leaders there are refusing to counsel young Muslims vulnerable to being radicalised because they fear security agencies will target them as collaborators. Therein lies the risk of a lack of meaningful government- community engagement: without official backing, those most qualified and capable of identifying and supporting at-risk individuals are likely to be too afraid to help, and we all remain exposed.

According to Dr Roche, government backing of a community-based deradicalisation program is what’s needed to fill the gap left by Wellington’s surveillance-centric approach. Cancelling passports no doubt has its place, but winning back the hearts and minds of at-risk New Zealanders surely is a more desirable endgame for us all. 


 Back to Homeland

Dr Rob Roche: “To be effective, any program for the rehabilitation of extremists must be based on love, truth, trust and mutual respect”

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