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Q&A: Radicalisation and terror in New Zealand

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2017

Low threat - good fortune or good management?Low threat - good fortune or good management? 

Line of Defence fires some quick questions at Chris Wilson, coordinator of the University of Auckland’s new Master of Conflict and Terrorism Studies, an interdisciplinary programme focused on the study of war, ethnic and religious conflict, cybercrime, terrorism and radicalisation.


LoD: There’s not much by way of political discourse or government advisories in New Zealand relating to terror attack preparedness and threats relative to in the US, UK and Australia. Is this deliberate, or is it simply the case that terrorism does not pose the same threat to New Zealand that it does to those countries?

CW: “I think the lack of discourse / advisories reflects the much lower threat we face here. However, given this lower threat, it is probably wise for the government to keep discussion of the issue to an appropriate level so as not to bring unnecessary attention to it. Attention and publicity are crucial as motivators for prospective terrorists.”


LoD: Online ‘radicalisation’ can potentially occur anywhere, but New Zealand appears to have been largely immune from this. Is this just luck, or good management?

CW: To the extent that New Zealand has had less online radicalisation is not really due to good management (at least of the online space). I imagine it is more reflective of the lack of extremist networks here. There are not many cases of terrorists becoming radicalised solely online: they normally have some face to face contact with people convincing them to carry out an attack.

However, we have not been completely immune. We had two people convicted for disseminating or possessing ISIS-related material, with one jailed (for I think 5 years). There are almost certainly others being radicalised online: whether they plan or carry out an attack is another matter.


LoD: You’ve mentioned previously that the terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘terror attack’ get used far to liberally and applied to a range of violent crimes involving Muslims that don’t necessarily fit the definition of terror. How is this a problem in the New Zealand context?

CW: The point I was making was that, contrary to people who argue that crimes by non-Muslims should also be called terrorism immediately, instead we need to be reticent for all attacks naming them terrorism until we get the full picture (ie find out they are doing it for political purposes or to intimidate a community).

Rushing to call Muslim violence terrorism is problematic (in the New Zealand context but mainly elsewhere) because it creates an impression that terrorism is a Muslim phenomenon and that numerous numbers of Muslims are terrorists.


LoD: Is there a misconception among New Zealanders that there is widespread support for terrorist activities within the country’s Muslim population?

CW: Probably, although I think most New Zealanders still realise that it is a tiny minority of extremists who would think about carrying out these attacks. We are lucky so far.



Dr Chris Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland, having held a number of roles in conflict analysis and prevention with the World Bank, UNDP and other international agencies. 

His research and teaching is focused on violent conflict and terrorism. He is coordinator of the Master of Conflict and Terrorism Studies.



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