Story: Terrorism and counter-terrorism

In 1969 four student activists attempted to blow up the flagpole at Waitangi as a protest against the Vietnam War. Most of the acts described as terrorism in New Zealand have been bombings as a form of protest. New Zealand is also involved in trying to prevent international terrorism through its membership of the United Nations.

Story by Lance Beath
Main image: Members of the Chemical Biological Radioactive Explosive (CBRE) team in HazChem suits, May 2008

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Terrorism is the use or threat of violence for political aims. The term is generally used in relation to organisations, but sometimes refers to the actions of individuals or of states.

19th-century concerns about terrorism

There were a number of high-profile assassinations, attempted assassinations and bombings overseas in the second half of the 19th century. These raised concerns in New Zealand about people considered to be ‘anarchists’. Suspicion generally fell on ‘foreigners’ from mainland Europe.

Terrorist acts in New Zealand

There have been very few acts that would generally be described as terrorism in New Zealand. They have often been carried out as a form of protest.

  • In 1913, during a widespread industrial strike, a bomb damaged the rail system that transported coal down from Denniston on the West Coast of the South Island.
  • During the 1951 waterfront industrial dispute a rail bridge was blown up to disrupt coal supplies.
  • In 1969–70 there were a number of bombings of military bases and other sites to protest against the Vietnam War. No one was hurt.
  • In 1982 an activist was killed while attempting to blow up the Wanganui police computer centre in protest against the government.
  • A man was killed in 1984 when a bomb in a suitcase exploded at Trades Hall, a union headquarters in Wellington. The case has not been solved, but it was presumed to have been an anti-union act.
  • In 1985 the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship, was blown up by French secret agents, and one man died. The ship had been about to lead a protest against nuclear testing by France in the Pacific.
  • In 2019, 51 worshippers died after being shot at two Christchurch mosques by a self-avowed white supremacist.
  • In 2021, seven people were injured when they were stabbed in an Auckland supermarket by an Islamist extremist.

Government responses to terrorism

Over time the government has passed a number of laws that give it special powers to deal with terrorism. These have included the Public Safety Conservation Act 1932 (since repealed), the International Terrorism (Emergency Powers) Act 1987 and the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002.

There has been some criticism of these laws from people who believe they could be used to restrict people’s rights and give too much power to police and intelligence agencies.

Securing New Zealand against terrorism

New Zealand’s geographical isolation gives it some protection from international terrorism. Police and defence force groups combat terrorism and aim to keep New Zealand’s borders safe.

New Zealand’s involvement in the ‘War on Terror’

After terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, the US led military action against Al Qaeda, a militant Islamist organisation responsible for the attacks. As part of this, New Zealand sent troops to Afghanistan to help with reconstruction work, and SAS (Special Air Service) soldiers who worked with local police units. There was some criticism of New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan.

How to cite this page:

Lance Beath, 'Terrorism and counter-terrorism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 May 2024)

Story by Lance Beath, published 20 June 2012, updated 1 September 2021