The apprehension of New Zealand ISIS affiliate Suhayra Aden by Turkish authorities, and our reaction to it, provides an interesting insight into New Zealanders’ understanding of terrorism and how to counter it.
New Zealand was warned by its Director General of Intelligence several years ago that New Zealand women were travelling to the Middle East to join ISIS. It was subsequently clarified that the women had left from Australia, not New Zealand – but the clarification was taken to mean there was nothing to worry about.
Amid a minor media frenzy and criticism of the Director General, the actual point of her warning was drowned out – that it was irrelevant where joint Australian/New Zealand citizens left from. The problem was, and is, where they would ultimately come back to?
Despite the warning, nothing was done to prepare for the possibility that New Zealanders living elsewhere who travelled to war zones may one day return here.
It was not until New Zealand “jihadi” Mark Taylor was captured in 2019 that New Zealand rather hastily pushed through the Terrorism Suppression (Control Orders) Act into law – finally acknowledging that New Zealanders who left to join terrorist groups overseas may want to come back.
Various media have asserted that the Control Orders Act will apply to Aden, but the Act relates to people who have been engaged, or materially assisted those engaged, in a terrorist activity. It could be a stretch to get a court to accept that marrying or having children to ISIS fighters meets any such threshold. How much choice in anything do the wives of ISIS fighters usually have? There may well be no demonstrated grounds for a control order to be imposed.
The Prime Minister vented her frustration at the Australians, whose actions in removing Aden’s citizenship status were selfish, short-sighted and unhelpful in terms of counter terrorism efforts. Shifting a terrorism-related problem to New Zealand isn’t countering it.
But the Australian action was also entirely predictable. Had we moved more quickly, we could have avoided being lumbered with arguably their problem.
If Aden lacks the willingness to renounce the extremist beliefs that fuelled ISIS’s horrific and brutal cold-blooded executions of captives, or maiming for a myriad of perceived offences and throwing those suspected of homosexuality off buildings there is a risk of extremism being introduced into our communities.
Basing our decisions on “doing the right thing” and hoping everyone else will do the same, is not an effective strategy.
In any event, the “right thing” is a highly subjective concept. Had we rescinded Aden’s citizenship first, we would not necessarily have been doing “the wrong thing” – Aden had lived in Australia much longer than New Zealand, and presumably her closest family and community supports are across the Tasman, so rehabilitation efforts will have a far better chance to work there than here.
Had we put our line in the sand, Australia would have been unable to push the problem onto us. It doesn’t mean we could not have helped out – “done the right thing” – but it would mean we would do so on our terms.
On the other hand, returning foreign fighters have been far less a risk than many feared. Returned or reformed extremists have proven highly effective de-radicalisers in the US and Europe.
Often former jihadi and right wing extremists work together, and provide rehabilitation pathways for individuals across extremist spectrums. These programmes work by non-judgemental soft approaches, they operate by consent and work when those involved want them to.
Someone with the experience of living with ISIS, and wanting to help others to avoid extremism, could be invaluable to such efforts.
On the evidence to date, Australia has more of a need for this than New Zealand.
Despite the headlines, this is not a big or insurmountable problem. But had we heeded warnings when they were given and taken a sensible and pragmatic approach from the outset – it may not have been a problem at all.
Countering terrorism is about pragmatism – achieving national security goals as pre-emptively and peacefully as possible.
First and foremost, we need to heed warnings when they are given. We need to act more decisively. And we need to stop being pushed around by our neighbour across the Tasman.
• Dr John Battersby is a Teaching Fellow at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University, specialising in terrorism and counter terrorism.
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