Late last year New Zealand raised its terror alert from ‘very low’ to ‘low’. Prime Minister John Key warned that terrorist groups, like Islamic State, were beginning to have an influence in the country, encouraging people to travel to the Middle East to fight or commit attacks here.
“Government agencies have a watchlist of between 30 and 40 people of concern in the foreign fighter context,” he said.
“These are people in or from New Zealand who are, in various ways, participating in extremist behaviour.”
LISTEN: Radio New Zealand Insight investigates: How real is the terrorist threat to NZ?
A leading Australian security analyst told Morning Report it is only a matter of time before an Islamic extremist attempts a headline-seeking attack in New Zealand.
Neil Fergus, chief executive at Intelligent Risks Group, said groups like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have “carefully crafted outreach programs” and are putting “sophisticated materials on the internet to both motivate their current supports and to try to attract new supports.”
Parliament rushed through legislation giving the country’s Security Intelligence Service greater powers to monitor people, and more money to counter the threat.
We have somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 Muslims in New Zealand who are quietly going about their lives
But the changes have some questioning how serious the threat in New Zealand really is and whether the Government’s response is appropriate.
In February, Prime Minister John Key announced the country would be joining the fight against Islamic State and sending troops to help train the Iraqi army.
Key justified the deployment by arguing New Zealanders were at risk from terror attacks, not just while they travel overseas, but at home as well.
He told opposition parties who expressed reluctance in supporting the deployment to “get some guts and join the right side.”
Labour Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson David Shearer says Key exaggerated the risk of potential attacks in New Zealand to justify the Iraq deployment and giving the SIS greater spying powers.
“No doubt the motivation for us being in Iraq is because the US and Australia have said we want New Zealand to be there and I can’t help but think that the so called ‘threat’ to New Zealand has been talked up in order to try and provide the justification for that.”
Director of the Security Intelligence Service, Rebecca Kitteridge, says while the risk has grown she doesn’t think she’s made it out to be worse than it actually is.
“I think I can put my hand on my heart and say we haven’t been over dramatizing the situation in New Zealand.”
“I’ve always said very consistently thought that it’s a very small group of people, having said that, the very small group has increased in number even over the period of time that I’ve been in this job.”
Kitteridge says there is “no one particular group” the SIS is monitoring and the watchlist is made up of people from a wide range of ethnicities and countries.
“There are a range of different reasons that people may be of concern to us, it may be that they are encouraging or inciting others. It could be that they are providing funding or facilitating travel for people who want to travel to Syria to join Islamic State. It could be that they’re actively thinking about doing something in New Zealand and we have those people as well.”
If I hold an opinion that is different to the Government, does that mean I’m extreme?
But they are Muslim and Kitteridge acknowledges that can create problems for the vast majority of Muslims who don’t have extremist views.
“We have somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 Muslims in New Zealand who are quietly going about their lives, productively contributing to our society, making our country a richer place and bringing to this country many wonderful things.”
“The most important thing to think about with these people is not what is their religion, but what are they doing? What behaviours are they exhibiting that means they may be terrorist risk to this country?”
Professor Ramesh Thakur from the Australian National University in Canberra believes governments throughout the Western world are playing politics with the threat of terrorism at the expense of local Muslim communities.
“It’s an exaggerated threat. It has allowed some governments to manipulate public opinion of fear in order to justify things. It has allowed conservative political parties in Western societies to differentiate themselves from their political opponents for being “soft” on terrorism.”
Tayyaba Khan, chief executive of the Change Makers Refugee Forum in Wellington, says the Muslim community in New Zealand feels threatened by the Government’s terror response.
“Muslims are the centre point target of everything around war on terror and post 9/11 policy. Certainly since the legislation got passed last year without the involvement of the Muslim community in terms of our concerns, people would feel a lot more under siege because they feel unheard.”
Auckland student and blogger Latifa Daud believes Muslims are being subjected to greater scrutiny, leaving them uneasy about what they say and do.
“If I hold an opinion that is different to the Government, does that mean I’m extreme? The understanding of what it actually means is really vague and I think a lot of people are really nervous that anything they say can be misconstrued and then they’ll become the target even though they haven’t done anything wrong.”
The 23-year-old feels the Government's response has left some Muslims feeling unwelcome in New Zealand.
“We’re here because we actually like it here. Not all Kiwi Muslims are immigrants, a lot of us were born here. I just think that we’re here to stay and this is our home…I don’t think the solution is to make us feel like we’re the target.”