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OPINION: Towards an economics of the terror threat in New Zealand

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2017

Internationally, the threat posed by terrorism in New Zealand is comparatively low.Internationally, the threat posed by terrorism in New Zealand is comparatively low.


According to the NZSIS, “While the terrorist threat to New Zealand is currently assessed as low, terrorism is a growing international problem. This means that New Zealand needs to take the threat seriously.” But what, asks Nicholas Dynon, does ‘low’ mean in terms of the threat, and what should ‘seriously’ look like in terms of how we deal with it?


The threat: how low is ‘low’?

At a public talk on the Middle East and New Zealand in his Mount Albert electorate last February, David Shearer, reports North & South, “reckoned people had more chance of dying on the road as they drove home, or having a heart attack from the burger they ate for dinner” than being blown up by a terrorist bomb.

According to an article by economists Michael Jetter and David Stadelmann in The Conversation, terrorists kill 21 people worldwide on an average day. “On that same average day,” they write, “natural or technological disasters kill 2,200 people – or more than 100 times as many.” Indeed, the global homicide rate is 15 times the death rate from terrorism.

“The likelihood of dying at the hands of a terrorist,” they suggest, “is comparable to the odds of drowning in one’s own bathtub.”

Based on Global Terrorism Database statistics on the number of terrorist attacks and casualties between 1970 and 2014, Jetter and Stadelmann’s research places New Zealand in the quartile of countries least affected by terror attack – an enviable position it shares with Mongolia, Oman, Greenland, Iceland and Lithuania.

There is no denying the human misery wrought by acts of terrorism, but the numbers indicate the probability of attack to be far lower than what is often assumed.

Although a statistically driven approach to the study of the terrorist threat runs the risk of looking freakonomically glib – and misplaced given terror’s irrationality and asymmetry – it nevertheless provides an alternative lens worth glancing through.

According to the 2016 Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, deaths from terrorism in OECD countries in 2015 increased by 650 percent compared to 2014. This was the second worst year for terrorism in the OECD after 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks.

The only known New Zealand terror case of that year involved the threats made by Auckland businessman Jeremy Kerr to contaminate Fonterra milk powder with 1080 (made public in March 2015). He was arrested after a year-long investigation the following December.

Also in 2015, police took "further security measures" after Kiwi jihadist Mark Taylor urged Islamic State followers in New Zealand to launch attacks on Anzac Day. Taylor is the Syria-based ‘bumbling jihadist’ who mistakenly broadcasted his exact location to intelligence agencies after forgetting to turn off a tracking function on his phone. No attacks eventuated.

New Zealand’s Global Terrorism Index ranking based on 2015 data was 112 out of 130, with a GTI score of 0.23 (out of 10). This compares with a ranking/score of 66/2.518 for Canada, 59/2.742 for Australia, 36/4.877 for the US, 34/5.08 for the UK, 12/7.098 for the Philippines, and 1/9.96 for Iraq.

So, by the above accounts, the probability of terror attack internationally when compared to other criminal and safety threats is low, and even then the probability of terror attack in New Zealand compared to the international and OECD average is lower still.


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Taking the threat seriously?

The mantra of our political leaders and security agencies is that “the threat is low but we are not immune”. In the words of former Prime Minister John Key, “New Zealand is not immune from the threat of terrorism, although the threat to New Zealand remains low.”

It’s a mantra echoed by Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy in their 2016 Report of the First Independent Review of Intelligence and Security in New Zealand. “Unlike many other countries, including our closest neighbour, New Zealand has not recently experienced terrorist attacks or serious, publicly-disclosed security threats. However, that does not mean threats do not exist or may not arise in the future.”

In other words, the threat is low, but it is there, and it should be taken seriously.

There are, after all, the 30 to 40 New Zealanders on a ‘watchlist’ of IS sympathisers. And then there are Imran Patel and Niroshan Nawarajan who, aged in their 20s, were the first to face New Zealand charges linked to homegrown radicalisation.

Patel, 26, was sentenced to three years and nine months jail for possessing and circulating objectionable material related to extreme violence. Nawarajan, 27, was sentenced to five months home detention for a similar charge of possessing objectionable material, and ordered to complete post detention conditions to address his alcohol and drug problems which were considered by the judge to be “at the heart” of his offending.

These young men were lone, misguided actors, like the “self-radicalised computer jockey" that 36th Parallel Assessments’ Paul Buchanan told is “the most common ‘terrorist wannabe’ in New Zealand.”

Many have attempted to draw links between ‘lone wolf’ attackers, such as Man Haron Monis, the Sydney Lindt Café hostage taker, and their violent or drug-taking past, misogyny or their need to be noticed. But the problem with this is that there is no definable ‘terrorist personality’.

According to USAID’s report Guide to the Drivers of Violent Extremism, terrorists and other violent extremists do not exhibit common psychological attributes. “The readiness to kill for the sake of a particular political and/or agenda – and sometimes to sacrifice oneself in the process – cannot be predicted through potential insights into the psychology or personal history of those who commit these acts.”

Furthermore, as former intelligence officer Stewart O’Reilly has previously told Line of Defence, ’Lone wolf’ terrorists, such as the attackers in Nice and Orlando, tend to operate below the radar of intelligence services. “They can be disaffected individuals with no known links to terrorist groups who act out their sick fantasies without any specific external direction.”

In the absence of any specific intelligence about a possible terror plot, there is potentially no way of preventing a person harbouring extremist views from carrying out some sort of attack. It would be nice to think that a friend, family member or nosy neighbor might report a person on the path to violent extremism to authorities, but families, friendships and neighbourhoods don’t necessarily work that way for everyone.

The national government’s approach to dealing with the terror threat to-date has been heavy on legislation around state surveillance powers, and preventing the financing of terrorism and the travel of foreign fighters – none of which is particularly focused on the prevention of home-grown terrorism. Similarly, attempts to censor online extremist propaganda may shut down one medium but only to make way for others.


So, we come back to the numbers

According to the Global Terrorism Index, in OECD countries, “socio-economic factors such as youth unemployment, militarisation, levels of criminality, access to weapons and distrust in the electoral process are the most statistically significant factors correlating with terrorism. This reinforces some of the well-known drivers of radicalisation and extremism.”

New Zealand scores well in relation to many of these factors, but not all of them all of the time or to everyone. To what extent, for instance, is social and economic policy discussed within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC), and to what extent is countering violent extremism (CVE) on the agenda of social and economic policy makers, particularly those focused on the demographic most targeted by extremist propaganda: our youth?

Marginalisation, disenfranchisement and disengagement make young people vulnerable to the pull of extremism and its recruiters.

In the 2016 Global Youth Development Index published by the Commonwealth Secretariat, which ranks countries according to their levels of education, health and wellbeing, employment and opportunity, political participation and civic participation for young people (aged 15-29), New Zealand is ranked a credible 11th out of 183 overall. But we’re a woeful 83rd for health and wellbeing, 27th for employment and opportunity, and 49th for political participation.

Addressing such shortfalls is in the national interest, and should be part of a whole-of-government CVE/CT/National Security strategy. The statistics tell us that enlightened government policies that address such socio-economic factors will keep the risk of terrorism low – with the added benefit of promoting an inclusive and just society in the process.


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