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.
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.
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.
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.
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.