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Terrorism and counter-terrorism

by Lance Beath

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.

Terrorism and New Zealand: the historical background

The word ‘terrorism’ derives from the Latin word ‘terrere’ – to frighten. The term has its origins in the reign of terror (1793–94) following the French Revolution, and originally referred to intimidation or rule by terror. The term began to take on its modern form with the Russian Narodnaya Volya (the people’s will) group of the 1860s to 1880s. Popularly known as ‘nihilists’, they were revolutionaries who believed that the only way to remove the tsarist regime was by a programme of assassinations and bombings.

In modern times the definition of terrorism remains contested but is generally applied to actions that:

  • have political aims and motives
  • are violent or threaten violence
  • are designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate target
  • are conducted by an organisation with an identifiable structure.

Some people believe that the term terrorism applies only to actions carried out by groups, and not to the actions of countries or individuals.

Early reactions in New Zealand to terrorism

New Zealand newspapers in the mid-19th century used the term ‘terrorism’ to refer to intimidation. Governments, politicians, trade unions, Irish land activists and Māori combatants were all referred to as using ‘terrorism’. This meant they used intimidating, but not necessarily violent, tactics. Actions such as attacks by Māori prophet Te Kooti on civilians in Poverty Bay in 1868 were not referred to as terrorism but as ‘outrages’ or ‘atrocities.’

In March 1868 Irishman Henry James O’Farrell tried to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh in Sydney during a royal tour. Extra police were transferred to guard the duke when he visited New Zealand in 1869. Events such as the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia by nihilists in March 1881 and a bombing in Haymarket Square, Chicago, in 1886 received wide coverage in New Zealand. The New Zealand press referred to the nihilists as ‘the terrorist party.’

The royal visit and Archie the anarchist

When the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York visited New Zealand in June 1901, detectives boarded ships entering the country in search of ‘suspicious persons’, including any ‘who may be members of foreign Anarchist Societies.’1 The New Zealand Free Lance complained that police were neglecting real crime in their search for would-be assassins: ‘Apparently our detectives have been so much occupied in looking out for Archie the Anarchist that they have not had time for Bill the Burglar.’2

The assassination of US President William McKinley in September 1901 by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz sparked calls in the New Zealand press to ‘exterminate’ anarchists. Assassins and anarchists were identified as ‘foreigners’ and ‘continentals’ – generally Italian, German or Russian. From the 1880s, police detectives were assigned to keep watch for the arrival of foreign revolutionaries. There was concern in 1900 that some socialist immigrants, known as Clarion settlers (named after the English socialist newspaper, the Clarion), were anarchists. These settlers, who were mostly English, appear to have been regarded as troublemakers, but not as potential terrorists.

Terrorist actions in New Zealand?

New Zealand has been fortunate to have largely been free of terrorism. There have, however, been a number of incidents that might be seen as terrorist. Most involved the actions of individuals rather than organised groups, and lacked clear political motives. One such action was by farmer Joseph Sewell, who blew himself up outside the Murchison courthouse on 14 July 1905. Sewell was angered by a dispute with another local farmer over the ownership of a heifer. In some cases the actions were clearly aimed at property rather than people. It is therefore questionable how accurately they can be described as terrorism.

Bombings during industrial disputes

In November 1913, during a general strike, a bomb caused some damage to the winding gear that lowered coal trucks down the Denniston incline on the West Coast of the South Island. In April 1951, during the waterfront industrial dispute, a rail bridge near Huntly was dynamited to disrupt coal supplies. Train drivers were warned beforehand and no one was hurt. Prime Minister Sidney Holland denounced this bombing as ‘an infamous act of terrorism.’3 It could, however, be argued that these actions were sabotage (the destruction of property for political purposes) rather than terrorism. In both cases the targets were property not people, and the intention was to disrup industrial processes rather than achieve a political aim through terror. The attacks appear to have been carried out by individuals operating without the knowledge or support of the unions involved in the industrial actions.

The Wanganui Computer Centre bombing

On the night of 18 November 1982, 22-year-old Neil Roberts was killed while attempting to blow up the police computer at the Wanganui Computer Centre. Roberts, an anarchist with a long involvement in the anti-racist and peace movements, appears to have intended to kill himself in the explosion. No one else was harmed in the attack, which targeted the computer rather than police personnel. Roberts’s attack was aimed as a blow against what he saw as an oppressive state and society. He left the graffiti message: ‘We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity.’

Bombings as protests against the Vietnam War

In 1969 four student activists attempted to blow up the flagpole at Waitangi as a protest against the Vietnam War. Over the next year there were 13 bombing attacks against military bases and other sites, including the Auckland Supreme Court and the offices of the newspaper New Zealand Truth. No one was hurt in these bombings. Seven of those involved were convicted and served sentences ranging from four months detention to five years jail.

The Trades Hall bombing, 1984

Caretaker and unionist Ernie Abbott was killed on 27 March 1984 by a bomb at Trades Hall in Vivian Street, Wellington, at a time of heightened industrial tension. Trades Hall was the headquarters for many trade unions. The device had been left in a suitcase. No one has ever been arrested for the crime.

    • Quoted in Richard S. Hill, The iron hand in the velvet glove: The modernisation of policing in New Zealand, Palmerston North: Dunmore Press in association with the New Zealand Police and with the assistance of Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1995, pp. 125–126. Back
    • New Zealand Free Lance, 22 June 1901, p. 12. Back
    • Quoted in ‘Division and defeat’ NZHistory, (last accessed 26 March 2019). Back

Government responses to terrorism

Public Safety Conservation Act 1932

In April 1932, following rioting in Auckland linked to unemployment, the Public Safety Conservation Act was passed, allowing the government to assume unrestricted powers in a declared state of emergency. The act was first invoked by the Labour government at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. It was also used by the National government during the waterfront dispute of 1951. The act was repealed in 1987, immediately before the introduction of the International Terrorism (Emergency Powers) Act.

The attack on the Rainbow Warrior

In July 1985 the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior was sunk in Auckland Harbour by a bomb. One of the crew, Fernando Pereira, drowned. The ship had been about to lead a protest fleet against French nuclear testing. The French foreign intelligence service (the DGSE) carried out the bombing. According to many authorities, this was not terrorism as it was an action by government agents officially sanctioned by a sovereign nation. New Zealand’s Chief Justice Ronald Davison disagreed. When delivering the judgement of the High Court on Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, he stated, ‘In my view this activity may well fall within the definition of terrorist activity.’1

International Terrorism (Emergency Powers) Act 1987

The New Zealand government regarded the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior by French agents in 1985 as an act of international terrorism. In response to the bombing, the government introduced the International Terrorism (Emergency Powers) Act 1987. If an international terrorist emergency develops in New Zealand, the 1987 act allows the prime minister to call a meeting of at least three ministers of the Crown to declare a state of emergency. Emergency powers, including some powers of censorship, then apply. After seven days emergency powers cease to operate unless extended by Parliament or, if Parliament is not sitting, by the governor-general. An international terrorist incident must involve actions, or threats of actions, to kill or injure people or to seriously damage property. The actions must also be aimed to coerce or intimidate a government or person.

There was some controversy over this act. Critics argued that it did not give a clear enough definition of an international terrorist incident. They also charged that the censorship provisions were too draconian. The law remains on the books.

Criticism of anti-terrorism laws

Green Party MPs were alone in voting against the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, which was passed by 106 votes to 9. They were also the main parliamentary opponents of various aspects of the Counter-Terrorism Bill. The Greens, along with civil liberties activists, have continued to be critical of the anti-terrorism laws. Objections to the laws have mainly been on the grounds that they allow too broad a definition of terrorism and give too much power to the police and intelligence agencies.

Terrorism Suppression Act 2002

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the US, New Zealand’s Parliament passed the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. The act increased the powers available to the government to combat terrorism. It also enabled New Zealand to meet its obligations under United Nations anti-terrorist conventions and resolutions. The act made it illegal to participate in or recruit for terrorist groups. It outlawed financial assistance to terrorists and allowed the forfeiture of property or the freezing of assets of terrorist groups or their assistants. It gave the prime minister the power to designate groups as ‘terrorist’ on the grounds that they have participated in terrorist acts.

Groups designated as terrorist under the act have included those listed by the United Nations as connected with Al Qaeda, a militant Islamist organisation responsible for the 2001 attacks on the US. Also included were the Real IRA (Irish Republican Army), the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan or Kurdish Workers’ Party), the Colombian FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and the New People’s Army of the Philippines.

Counter-Terrorism Bill 2003

The Counter-Terrorism Bill aimed to widen both the investigative powers and the criminal penalties that could be applied against terrorism. The bill was subsequently divided into six amendment bills, which inserted the desired legislation into six pre-existing acts.

The amendments added as offences the improper use of nuclear material or unmarked plastic explosives, the causing of sickness or disease in animals, and the contamination of food crops. It also became an offence to harbour or conceal terrorists. Terrorism was declared an aggravating factor in sentencing for other offences. The amendments also increased police ability to use tracking devices, to access computers and to obtain interception warrants. All the amendments were passed into law in 2003.

    • Quoted in Omer Yousef Elagab, ed., International law documents relating to terrorism. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1997, p. 726. Back

Securing New Zealand against terrorism

Geographic isolation

Geographic isolation provides New Zealand with some level of protection against terrorism. Countries such as the US, the UK and other Western powers are perceived by groups such as Al Qaeda as being ‘enemies’ of Islam or supporters of governments in the Middle East that such groups wish to see overthrown.

The 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, in which 51 people were killed, made it clear that New Zealand is not immune to terrorist attack. New Zealand supports the work of the United Nations and other international organisations in countering terrorism.

The ‘anti-terror’ raids

On 15 October 2007 armed police carried out raids throughout the North Island, arresting 17 political activists. During the raids the small Tūhoe community of Rūātoki was completely closed off. Police claimed they had arrested participants in a terrorist training camp in the Urewera region. The solicitor-general turned down police requests to charge those arrested in the October raids under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. In September 2011 firearms charges against 13 of the defendants were dropped. In February 2012 the remaining four stood trial on various charges, including belonging to a criminal group, but were convicted only on firearms charges. The case remains controversial, as some people think that police used the fear of terrorism to suppress genuine political dissent.

Counter-terrorism capabilities

New Zealand invests significant resources in building and maintaining counter-terrorist capabilities. In the early 2000s police responsibility for counter-terrorism was held by the Special Tactics Group (STG). Formerly known as the Anti-Terrorist Squad, the STG was a full-time tactical and counter-terrorist unit. The police also had a Specialist Search Group charged with finding and neutralising bombs.

In 2002 the New Zealand police established the Strategic Intelligence Unit (SIU) in response to the heightened awareness of terrorism. The unit’s job was to provide intelligence on domestic and international security matters, including terrorism and transnational criminal activities.

Within the New Zealand Defence Force, responsibility for counter-terrorism was principally vested in the Special Air Service (SAS).

In the 2000s the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) also had a greater focus on working to combat terrorism.

Ahmed Zaoui

In December 2002 Ahmed Zaoui arrived in New Zealand on a false passport and asked for refugee status. Zaoui, an Algerian academic, had fled Algeria following a military coup. He was detained on the recommendation of the SIS, which wanted him deported. Information from European security agencies had convinced the SIS that Zaoui had links to terrorist groups. In contrast, the Refugee Status Appeals Authority recognised him as a genuine refugee. Zaoui eventually won a long legal battle for the right to stay in New Zealand. The SIS withdrew Zaoui's security risk certificate in September 2007 on the grounds that changed circumstances and new information indicated he was no longer a threat.

Security preparations

New Zealand goes to considerable lengths to plan for and implement security measures designed to prevent terrorist disruption of major political events. Some examples of events with high security include the APEC ministerial meeting in Auckland in 1999, other major international political meetings, royal visits to New Zealand, and international sporting events such as the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

Border security

New Zealand has been an active supporter of new international trade and transportation security standards, and is working to further strengthen critical infrastructure against possible terrorist attack. New Zealand’s adoption of the Border Security Act 2004 was designed to enhance its border security regime. In addition, the New Zealand and US customs authorities have agreed on a comprehensive security arrangement that allows both countries to work together to identify and intercept high-risk containers as early in the supply chain as possible.

The SIS carries out security checks on people entering the country, and works to ensure New Zealanders are not involved in spreading weapons of mass destruction.

New Zealand in the ‘War on Terror’

From the mid-20th century terrorism was increasingly used by disaffected groups of many nationalities, in particular those engaged in asymmetrical struggles against states and governments. It has been used by militant groups of the right and the left, by separatist nationalists and by religious extremists. Following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US by adherents of the militant Islamist group Al Qaeda, terrorism became associated in the popular mind with Islamic extremists.

Over the years New Zealand has been an active contributor to the international military, political and financial campaigns against terrorism, including most recently those against Al Qaeda and Islamic State.

New Zealand flag retrieved from rubble

A New Zealand flag stored in the flag room of the World Trade Center in New York was found in the rubble of the twin towers after the 11 September 2001 attack. It is now displayed in the stairwell of the New Zealand Parliament’s first floor foyer. The battered and torn flag is dedicated to the memory of New York firefighters, police and others who died as they went to the rescue of people trapped in the buildings after the attack.

United Nations resolutions

As part of its commitment to United Nations (UN) actions to counter terrorism, New Zealand has ratified 14 UN anti-terrorism conventions, including the 2005 Nuclear Terrorism Convention and the 1999 Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.

New Zealand also fully complies with the UN Security Council’s counter-terrorism resolutions, including through regular reporting to the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee and to the UN committee on sanctions against Al Qaeda.

New Zealand casualties

Until the 2019 Christchurch mosque killings, New Zealand itself was not the victim of a large-scale terrorist attack. However, New Zealanders living or travelling overseas were amongst the victims of such attacks. At least two New Zealanders were killed at the World Trade Center in 2001, three in bombings in Bali in 2002, one in bombings in London in 2005, and one in a bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2009.

New Zealand and the Afghanistan war

New Zealand public reaction to the war in Afghanistan was relatively muted. This may be due to the limited media coverage of the activities of New Zealand forces and the relatively small number of casualties. The awarding of the Victoria Cross to SAS soldier Corporal Willie Apiata, for bravery under fire in 2004, was generally greeted with public approval. On the other hand, investigative journalists claimed that SAS troops were involved in operations in which civilians were killed in August 2010, and transferred Afghan prisoners to US and Afghan forces that used torture in interrogations in early 2011. An inquiry into the former allegation found in 2020 that the SAS operations had been justified but that there had been deficiencies in subsequent NZDF investigations into possible civilian casualties.


In November 2001 New Zealand committed military assistance to ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, a United States-initiated and -led military operation in Afghanistan that ran in parallel to the NATO-led stabilisation operations of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). 

Between 2003 and 2013 a 122-person Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) was deployed in Bamyan province on six-month rotations, maintaining security in conjunction with local authorities and the Afghan National Police. The PRT undertook patrols and acted as project manager for New Zealand Aid Programme teams. The PRT consisted of liaison teams supported by infantry, engineers, staff officers, and communications and logistics staff.

Other New Zealand Defence Force officers were deployed to Afghanistan in a variety of logistical, instructional, liaison, and policy and planning roles. They worked to a number of different headquarters, including ISAF, UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission Afghanistan), HQ CJTF (HQ Coalition Joint Task Force) and CFC (Combined Forces Command).

Thirty-eight support personnel and SAS soldiers worked as a training and support element alongside the Afghanistan National Police Crisis Response Unit. This group provided personal protection to key Afghan figures and responded to terrorist incidents in the Kabul area.

Ten New Zealand soldiers died while stationed in Afghanistan, eight of them in combat.

Earlier commitments to the operations included the deployment of a navy frigate and an air force Orion to the Persian Gulf for participation in maritime operations.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Lance Beath, 'Terrorism and counter-terrorism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 12 December 2023)

Story by Lance Beath, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Sep 2021