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Of Myth and Reality in Terrorist Threat Assessment

Of Myth and Reality in Terrorist Threat Assessment

By Paul G. Buchanan

In early April Director General of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, Ambassador Richard Woods, presented his 2005 annual report to the government. In it he highlighted the potential threat of local al-Qaeda sympathisers, drawing direct parallels with the 2004 Madrid train bombings, 2005 London tube and bus bombers and the arrest of purported jihadists in Australia. He urged vigilance against a threat that, if low at the moment, had the potential to become real sometime in the indeterminate future. He also remarked about individuals in this country with contacts to foreign regimes related to the possible sale of potential weapons of mass destruction. He mentioned the presence of former Bosnian jihadis on these shores (although he neglected to mention that Muslim fighters in Bosnia where backed by the West in their fight against Serbian genocide and were admitted to New Zealand as political refugees). More recently the government has confirmed that SIS agents have, as part of their Physical Security and Security Education duties, “proactively” been querying local universities about the students and security at laboratories that deal with nuclear, chemical, biological or mechanical sciences. It seems that in spite of its relatively benign strategic environment New Zealand is confronted by a serious, multidimensional terrorist threat, however embryonic in the making.

Potential terrorist threats can never be discounted, but the issue is more one of probability. In his assessment about local jihadis and the contacts of New Zealanders with foreign terrorists or regimes interested in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, the NZSIS Director General was disingenuous at best. As for the proactivity of the SIS interest in university laboratories, it comes a decade or more after the need for tighter university lab security was disseminated throughout the Western intelligence network, and does not address a complementary component of that intelligence warning: the need to better scrutinize foreign student visas. All of this needs to be explained, and for that background is needed.

Ideally, threat assessments offered in reports like the NZSIS Director General’s 2005 statement are dispassionate, apolitical, non-partisan documents that state the objective facts of the matter at hand. The particular interpretation given to such assessments (in the parlance, “spin”) is the responsibility of the government of the moment, for reasons both material and political. In liberal democracies it is not the job nor is it ethical for intelligence agencies to spin their intelligence reporting to suit the needs of the government of the moment. To be sure, the rule is all too often violated. It may be practical as a short-term solution to pressures from above or machinations from within, but the corruption of intelligence reporting due to immediate political exigencies ultimately brings with it longer term problems.

As the build up and repercussions of the Iraq invasion have shown, politisation of threat assessments is deleterious to ongoing fulfilment of the intelligence mission throughout its three core components: collection, analysis and dissemination. The first refers to the means by which intelligence is collected. In New Zealand this means that domestic spying is a mix of human and technical means, whereas external intelligence is mostly second, third or N-th source derived (official cover and non official cover human collection being the minority of the external intelligence stream feeding into the SIS). Analysis refers to the interpretation of raw and filtered classified information. That requires a high degree of cultural and linguistic nuance when it comes to external intelligence reports (something that is the primary concern of the External Assessments Bureau or EAB), and an even better understanding of the local political, cultural, social and economic environment when it comes to domestic espionage (which is the main operational concern of the SIS. Only 13 percent of its 2004/2005 budget was directed towards foreign intelligence collection).

The third component, dissemination, has to do with who receives classified material as opposed to how it is collected and interpreted. That is a constitutional issue heretofore resolved in favour of governmental prerogatives that place severe restrictions on the number of individuals allowed to review classified materials. This is problematic because, in effect, there is no independent oversight of intelligence assessments like the SIS annual reports. What passes for intelligence oversight in New Zealand is a parliamentary committee constituted along partisan lines whose members have little intelligence experience prior to appointment to the committee (for example, Don Brash), and an Inspector General who depends on the SIS Director General for logistical support and information. The total time the Parliamentary Intelligence Oversight Committee met in 2005 was less than two hours. The Inspector general handled nine cases in 2005 and half of these were related to personnel matters, not policy issues or operational concerns. Both of these oversight bodies (a total of seven people) can be denied access to classified information if the intelligence is foreign derived.

In the main, threat assessments are done along a continuum of possibility ranging from potential to probable, actual and imminent. Although finite, the range of possibility is broad enough to force intelligence agencies in all but the most advanced nations to focus their attention on the higher risk potential of probable, actual and imminent threats. Given its resource constraints as an agency with 140 employees charged with foreign and domestic intelligence gathering as well as counter-intelligence operations, this would be the focus of the NZSIS. It is therefore troubling that its latest report highlights potential—some would say far-fetched--dangers and ignores or discounts the more probable, possible and imminent terrorist threats to this country. There is a whiff of politics in the report, and if that is true, the good news is that Ambassador Woods is retiring later this year. The bad news is that political manipulation of intelligence reporting and terrorist threat assessments in contemporary New Zealand may not reflect personal bias on the part of the Director General, but may reflect a cultural mindset in the civilian intelligence bureaucracy. Without independent oversight to counter bureaucratic self-interest and organisational myopia, that spells trouble more imminent than any homegrown jihadi wanna-be’s.

To draw an analogy. Speaking of the potential of homegrown Islamicist terrorists is akin to saying there are potential Catholic terrorists in New Zealand. The syllogism is simple. There are Opus Dei members in the country (Opus Dei being a Roman Catholic sect). Since Opus Dei has been linked to acts of violence in Latin America, Spain, Italy and elsewhere, and because it has proven links with fascists fleeing Europe after World War Two, by the SIS’s reasoning they would have to constitute a potential, even probable threat to New Zealand. After all, they violently oppose abortion, abhor secular humanism, and believe reverently in the afterlife—all in marked opposition to the ideological and material foundations of New Zealand’s modern social order. Yet there is no mention of the terrorist threat posed by potential Catholic warriors in the SIS report.

Instead, the SIS worries about local jihadis. In fact, the report states that counter-terrorism is the biggest single component of the SIS’s activities. That is and is not surprising. Comparatively speaking, it is surprising that a small democracy with no history of conflict with Islam would see counter-terrorism against Islamic extremists as its foremost intelligence preoccupation. Countries in similar situations like Chile, Portugal and Uruguay certainly do not. Yet it is not surprising if New Zealand law is factored into account. Under the terms of current anti-terrorist legislation, anyone who rhetorically expresses understanding of what might motivate someone to join al-Qaeda’s cause or oppose Western imperialism in Muslim lands is a potential terrorist. It includes anyone who believes that the citizenry have the right to take up arms against oppressive government (which basically means that by New Zealand’s interpretation anyone in the US who believes in the second amendment is a potential terrorist). It could even cover Opus Dei members. But it is the threat of domestic Islamic terrorism that the Director General chose to underscore.

To buttress its concerns, the SIS annual report draws parallels between local al-Qaeda sympathizers and revenue generators, the London and Madrid bombers and Australian Muslim radicals. It speaks of a shift, after 2002, in al-Qaeda’s strategy towards more decentralized, locals cells inspired by the 2001 attacks and notions of martyrdom. The trouble with the parallels is that the strategic situation of the countries mentioned is fundamentally different than that of New Zealand. New Zealand not a member of the coalition that invaded Iraq under pretext (unlike the other three). In its treatment of the resident Muslim population it does not exhibit the alienating, ostracising, ghettoization (sic) features of the other three. As a post-colonial society it has no history of independent grievance or dispute with any Muslim nation (its only post-imperial conflicts being with secularising regimes like the modern Indonesian dictatorships or extremist theocracies like the terrorist-sponsoring Taliban). It is, in effect, a country that is more strategically akin to Chile, Portugal and Uruguay than it is to Australia, Great Britain and the United States. Its terrorist threat assessments should reflect that fact.

With regard to Bosnian jihadis, it may well be true that they have combat experience and maintain links with former comrades in arms. But if that is the criteria upon which terrorist potential is assessed, than anyone coming from a conflict zone or part to foreign armed conflicts, including more than an few Americans, British citizens and South Africans, are also potential terrorists. Yet they are not listed, and if reports are correct, Bosnian refugees in New Zealand are more likely to be heavy metal listeners rather than nostalgic jihadis looking to return to the fight. Thus, in terms of internal and external security, the threat potential posed by Muslims in or towards New Zealand is leagues apart, for the better, than the countries that Ambassador Woods so pointedly used as case examples in his report.

When not raising the alarm about resident jihadis, Ambassador Woods mentioned those who have contacts with foreign regimes on issues having to do with the sale of potential weapons of mass destruction. Here he is clearly alluding to Mr. Bruce Simpson, the Auckland engineer who is constructing a homemade cruise missile out of parts and materials easily obtainable on the Internet and from local suppliers. The irony, if we can call it that, is that Mr. Simpson repeatedly attempted to interest the New Zealand government and allied nations in his invention, only to be rebuffed. It was only until he announced to the media that he was receiving expressions of interest from Iran, Pakistan and other countries that the authorities actually took notice of him. Much like the purported Mossad agents engaged in passport fraud in New Zealand, the SIS, in spite of its counter-intelligence and domestic intelligence collection functions, appears to be the last to know on this matter of national security. Hence, two years after Mr. Simpson went public with his project, the SIS offers dark hints of untoward connections between New Zealand citizens and foreign regimes. One of those regimes happens to be that of Pakistani President Prevez Musharraf, who in spite of his authoritarian rule, Pakistan’s abysmal human rights record and the intimate connections between its intelligence services and al-Qaeda, was awarded full state honours when he arrived here last year. Mr Simpson must be perplexed.

As for the belated scrutiny of university labs for potential terrorist activity, there is an interesting twist to the issue. When President Musharraf visited New Zealand in 2005, the Labour government signed an agreement whereby up to 1000 Pakistani students would be offered visas to pursue university education in a range of hard sciences, including chemistry, physics, agronomy and other forms of engineering. Yet that agreement had no provisions for security vetting of Pakistani applicants either in Pakistan or in New Zealand. Thus there is no way of determining what regions these students came from—for example, those under central government control or the rural homelands in which Osama bin laden is reported to be hiding under the protection of tribal chiefs. There is no scrutiny of the maddrasses (religious schools) they may have attended (some of which produce jihadis on industrial scale), or their prior political affiliations or criminal records (although the state of the Pakistani justice system is such that criminal records may not be an accurate reflection of a persons character or crimes, most of which may well be ideological rather than physical).

In fact, SIS interest in laboratory security appears to be an after-the-fact exercise given that the Immigration Department has no means of ascertaining the terrorist threat posed by applicants approved by the Pakistani government. It is left for Mr. Musharaf’s regime to prevent would-be jihadis from utilising a student visa to advance their technical skills in New Zealand. His regime, to state it diplomatically, is fragile and thus suspect on its terrorist threat assessments offered to friendly Western nations. That the SIS has woken up to the problems inherent in this situation is reassuring, but then again, there are other potential terrorists closer to home that may or may not need the benefits of a university education to violently advance their cause. All they need is commitment, because prevention of a committed terrorist act is nigh impossible regardless of precautions taken. That is because human beings with unaddressed grievances and a penchant for violence are inventive.

If we take stock of recent terrorist events in New Zealand such as the anti-American cyanide letter writer, the Waiheke hoof and mouth hoaxer, the animal rights militants who destroy laboratories and threaten company executives (and their families), environmental militants of various stripes, ethnic gangs with economic clout, or indigenous separatists, the common denominator is clear: they are neither Muslim nor are they foreign. On a scale of possibility these indigenous threats are probable, actual and imminent, yet do not figure in the SIS Director General’s report. Instead, the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism is raised as a red herring designed to focus public apprehension on a minority, potential enemy within rather than those most likely to do terrorist harm to Kiwis.

This may reflect Ambassador Wood’s personal concerns regarding the terrorist threat to New Zealand, but probably not. His is a policy implementation agency, not a policy-making agency. This is what is reflected in the NZSIS Annual Report. The focus of the report, and the spin put to it under Ambassador Wood’s signature, could only come from the ultimate intelligence policy-making agency, the Prime Minister’s Office (in which the EAB is located). As a career diplomat/bureaucrat Ambassador Woods clearly understood the necessity of serving his contemporary master. Because he is retiring, he can afford the luxury of spinning yarns on behalf of his last employer because the fallout does not concern him. He joined public service, he served, and he complied until the end without complaint. In fact, his appointment as Director General of the SIS coincides with the installation of the most recent Labour government, so he is particularly attuned to the particularities of those who determine the terms of his pension. In other words, his political masters can justify the decisions that he undertook in their name. After the Zaoui case, this is clearly a man who deserves his superannuation.

For the rest of us the question remains: are we getting good value for dollar from our intelligence services? The SIS budget has gone up since 2001, as has the scope and depth the anti-terrorist legislation that it uses as a justification for its activities. Yet the quality of SIS reporting remains suspect. Put another way: If present trends continue, does this mean that within a few years non-micro chipped (urban) dogs will be added to the list of targeted terrorist suspects? Especially if they their owners are Muslim? After all, the potential is there.


Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland He started his professional career training US civilian and military intelligence officers and was a consultant to US security agencies until his emigration to New Zealand in 1997.

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