A young New Zealand Muslim who believes she was profiled as a “jihadi bride” says comments by the SIS and the Prime Minister about women travelling to Iraq and Syria are scaremongering.
Earlier this week, the Security Intelligence Service warned that the country was seeing, for the first time, New Zealand women travelling to IS-controlled areas in the Middle East.
SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge told Parliament that up to a dozen women who had travelled from New Zealand to the Middle East could be there to fight or support other fighters.
“Something that has changed over the last year is the issue of New Zealand women travelling to Iraq and Syria, which is something we haven't seen previously or been aware of,” she said.
“It's difficult to see what they do when they go. We definitely do have intelligence that they went. Whether they are going to fight or whether they are going to support other fighters is not clear.”
Kitteridge would give no specific numbers to Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee and afterwards told reporters it was a “small number... less than a dozen”.
Hela Rahman, a 25-year-old who has been a NZ citizen for more than 20 years, says these comments aren’t backed by evidence and are causing more harm than good.
A few weeks ago, she returned from a trip visiting her family in Iraq. When she arrived at Auckland Airport she says she was instantly made to feel like she’d done something wrong.
“I was going through with my E-passport and it was automatically declined. I had to go over to the counter.”
The Border Control officer asked Rahman why she'd been in Iraq.
“I told her I was there to see my family. She just looked at me with an awkward uncomfortable expression. She didn’t say anything and just drew a red line through my arrival card.”
Rahman continued to the customers area where the officer, after taking a look at her card, told her to go down the far side.
"Everyone else was being let through, even my parents. I was the only one in that lane."
She was told to unlock her bags and was put into a holding room for a “long time” while the staff talked about her behind double-sided glass.
“The thing is, they make you feel so uncomfortable that you start questioning yourself. You start wondering if you have done something wrong,” she said.
She was asked a series of questions about why she’d gone to Iraq, what she had done there, and who had bought the flights for her.
Although Rahman had travelled to the Middle East with her mum and dad, she was the only one who was pulled aside for questioning.
“I thought my parents would be questioned too, but they weren’t. I wanted to ask ‘why me’ but I couldn’t. The opportunity never came up. I was just feeling so uncomfortable.”
Rahman spent the next few weeks confused about what had happened. Her Iraqi friends reassured her that it was just standard airport security Muslims have to face now.
But she still wondered why she had been taken aside, and not her parents. Rahman’s mother has travelled to Iraq twice this year without being stopped at the airport.
When the SIS director told Parliament about the heightened risk of Kiwi jihadi brides, Rahman came to believe she was profiled as a jihadi bride.
“It suddenly become clear that ‘Oh, I’m a young, single woman who travelled to Iraq.’ That’s why I was stopped.”
Prime Minister John Key has backed Kittredge’s concerns, telling reporters he was aware of some cases: “There's certainly a few women that have left, engaged in these weddings effectively at the very last minute, and gone to Syria, and all of those factors would point to the fact that they're going as jihadist brides.”
There are about 40 people on a terror watchlist here, including one or two under 24 hour surveillance, and Kitteridge told reporters the Paris attacks had caused a lot of excitement. She said sometimes it was a case of the worse the attack, the more excited they became.
Last week's massacre in San Bernardino, which left 14 people dead, is now being linked to “homegrown” extremists who the FBI believes were inspired by foreign terrorist organisations.
“These incidents overseas that occur that are so horrifying, if you're you or me, they act like a kind of exciting factor for these kind of people,” said Kitteridge.
Writing on her blog, Rahman said the PM and SIS were fuelling prejudice against Muslims.
“In today’s current political environment where anti-Muslim sentiment is rife, the comments Kitteridge has made about Kiwi women travelling to join ISIS has caused the media to pick this up within a heartbeat and has created a sense of fear amongst the general public.”
She believes there is no proof that any of the New Zealand women who have gone to Iraq and Syria support the Islamic State.
“I am a prime example of how they don’t actually have any proof. What if those other women were just going to see their families?”
Rahman’s comments are echoed by others in the Muslim community, including Islamic Women's Council spokesperson Anjum Rahman who said that without any any real evidence, the comments were unhelpful.
“The comments that are flying around are really not helpful for our community because they do induce a level of fear where perhaps it's not really justified, or at least we haven't seen evidence that it is justified at this point,” she told Checkpoint on Wednesday.
Social activist Tayyaba Khan, who works with Muslim and refugee communities, said it was “irresponsible” of Ms Kitteridge to brief the select committee without any supporting proof.
“That leaves so much room for interpretation in terms of what's happening and that just maligns the Muslim community even more,” she told Checkpoint.
She also questioned why the SIS did not step in before these women left the country.
Rahman thinks she’s probably being monitored now because she’s a young, single Muslim woman who has returned from the Middle East. It is a strange feeling, she says, but she is more interested in getting the message out that this type of information can be far more damaging than it is useful.
“One only needs to look at the comment section on the NZ Herald or TV3 News Facebook page to understand the deep hysteria and divide such comments make.
“These comments are damaging for our community and will only harm our ever-growing multicultural society in New Zealand.”
UPDATE: Immigration New Zealand assistant general manager Peter Devoy responds to questions about heightened security and checks for New Zealanders returning from the Middle East:
“It’s important to note that everyone who applies for a visa and entry permission to come to New Zealand must be of good character and not pose a risk to the country’s security.”
“Immigration New Zealand (INZ) is very alive to global threats and has taken a number of steps to improve security at the border to keep out unwanted people, including continuously reviewing its security to further strengthen its border controls and enhance its ability to identify and manage immigration risk.”
“INZ also works closely with other border agencies such as Customs and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) in all of New Zealand’s international airports to tighten up security at the border.”