National Security in the Internet Age

New Zealand Centre for Political Research

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues.

What should be done about the families of foreign jihadist fighters who want to return to their home countries from Syria to keep their children safe? That is a question that Australian authorities are having to deal with, as the wife and children of convicted Islamic State fighter Khaled Sharrouf try to return home.

Mr Sharrouf, who had previously been jailed and his passport confiscated under Australia’s terrorism laws, left the country in 2013 using his brother’s passport. To avoid detection by security agencies, his wife and five children – accompanied by her mother – flew to Malaysia on a return ticket. From there, his family went on to Syria, while the mother returned to Australia.

During their time in Syria, Mr Sharrouf posted many shocking photos on Facebook, including one of his seven year old son holding a severed head.

Australian security agencies dealing with the issue are concerned that the children may be the victims of their father’s extremism.

While the Federal Cabinet has agreed to pass a law that would strip dual citizens of Australian citizenship if they are suspected of terrorism, at this stage they do not intend going so far as to strip sole Australian citizens of their rights.

When asked about these matters, Prime Minister John Key said that stripping citizenship rights was a step too far: “We can only reflect on whether we believe it is appropriate to leave a New Zealand citizen in a stateless position and I think the view we’ve taken is we don’t support that.”

Mr Key explained that if people involved in terrorist activities returned to New Zealand, the Terrorism Suppression Act would apply and they could be jailed. In addition, the Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation was passed last year to prevent people from travelling overseas to fight for terrorist groups, by giving spy agencies increased surveillance powers and enabling passports to be cancelled for up to three years.

The question of whether the law needs to be expanded in line with the proposed changes in Australia is something the Prime Minister believes could be considered as part of a high powered, independent review of security legislation that is now under way. The review is to determine whether the legislative frameworks of the Government Communications Security Bureau and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service are sufficient to protect New Zealand’s current and future national security – and safeguard individual rights. It must also decide whether the foreign fighters’ legislation, which expires on 31 March 2017, should be extended or modified.

Two reviewers have been named – Sir Michael Cullen, a former Deputy Prime Minister and member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and Dame Patsy Reddy, a barrister and solicitor with over 20 years of governance experience. Since the terms of reference for the review state a need for public involvement, a submission process can be expected to be announced shortly. The review is to be completed by the end of February 2016, and will report directly to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. Similar reviews are to be held every 5 to 7 years.

One of the problems faced by western nations that are heavy users of the internet is that it has become a key propaganda tool for terrorists. The BBC estimates that around 90,000 social media messages are generated every day by terrorist groups calling on the impressionable around the world for support.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Neil Fergus, the Chief Executive of Intelligent Risks, an Australian-based international security service that works in crisis management and the anti-terrorism field. In his article Neil, a former diplomat to the Middle East, explains how international terrorist groups have prioritised public relations:

“Daesh (Islamic State) and al Qa’ida have been competing violently on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria over the last couple of years – showing no quarter to each other. However a much more insidious aspect of their enmity – reflecting their respective ambitions to be the pre-eminent jihadist group internationally – involves the competing outreach programmes they have both carefully constructed. Daesh has developed sophisticated public relations and media units that are constantly working on new methods to get its messages to an international audience – to motivate its current supporters and to attract new supporters and fighters. Unfortunately, it is clear its outreach strategies have been achieving a worrying degree of success.

“Within Daesh’s organisational and functional structure it has a sophisticated media capability that regularly demonstrates professional broadcast standards – and issues its material in numerous languages. The al-Fuqan Media Foundation produces many of its more violent videos, including the beheadings, and presents it in a perfunctory news reader style. The al-Hayat Media Center is even more professional – aimed directly at western audiences.  It focuses on community stories aimed at influencing and seducing the Ummah (the global Muslim community). It uses computer graphics, slow motion and smoked effects and uses an enhanced colour palate. The outputs from these two ISIL media units are supplemented by a proliferation of amateur social media postings by IS fighters and supporters in Iraq and Syria – using Instagram, You Tube, Twitter, Facebook and other blogs.  As social media staff quickly delete Daesh content from their sites the group has been able to successfully maintain its online presence through a maze of backup and copycat accounts with slight permutations of names and titles.”

New Zealand’s Director of the Security Intelligence Service, Rebecca Kitteridge, agrees that the influence of Islamic State, “as it uses social media to reach out to disaffected people in the West to not just travel to Syria and Iraq to fight, but to also carry out attacks in their own countries” is a major concern: “I think it’s the first time that we’ve seen a terrorist organisation actively trying to recruit people to commit attacks internationally and that is the difference from what we see now to what we have seen before. There is an active effort to recruit anybody who might be susceptible to this kind of propaganda to give them information on how to commit attacks too.”

They are also very worried in the UK. Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty has warned that there was “no end in sight to the parade of British Muslims, some 700 so far, being lured from their bedrooms to Syria by Islamic State propaganda”. Half of them are now thought to have returned home.

The Commander says that the propaganda is so influential that children as young as five are being detected showing signs of anti-western sentiment, and he believes that communities need to be far more watchful for general signs of radicalisation: “subtle changes in behaviour, such as shunning certain shops, sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol, social occasions or western clothing”. He says that parents and friends should try to understand what is driving such changes in behaviour, and if worried, they should seek help.

Scotland Yard says the Police are making nearly an arrest a day as they try to counter a severe Islamist terrorist threat, including the potential grooming and radicalisation of young girls who are being encouraged to run away to become a “jihadi bride”.

In February, three teenage girls from a school in east London slipped away from their families to travel to Syria. Their families say there were no clues that they were being radicalised. But the Commander thinks there must have been some change in the children: “My view as a parent is there must have been signs.”

A new report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, estimates that amongst the 20,000 or so foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State, some 4,000 are Westerners, including 550 women. Some of these young women are now said to be at the heart of the IS propaganda machine, including the 16 year old twins, Salma and Zahra Halane, who left their home in Manchester last July to become brides in Syria. Widowed, after their husbands died fighting for IS, they are now said to have ‘influential roles’ among a group of British women who are using social media to lure other Westerners to Syria with promises of an ‘Islamic utopia’.

Rebecca Kitteridge says the SIS has a ‘watch-list’ of 30 to 40 New Zealanders who are being closely monitored. Some have travelled to Syria to fight, while others have tried to go but had their passports cancelled. Some are involved in funding terrorists, some are trying to radicalise others, while some are considering terrorist action in this country. Another 30 to 40 people are under ‘further investigation’.

Asked why authorities cancel the passports of extremists to prevent them from travelling rather than just letting them go, the Prime Minister explained that New Zealand does not want to gain a reputation for exporting foreign terrorist fighters – and we also have to abide by a UN Security Council resolution to prevent their international travel. But he also made the point, that were they allowed to go, “Should they return to New Zealand fully radicalised and skilled in fighting, they would represent a significant threat to the safety of New Zealanders”.

The sophisticated use of the internet by the Islamic State means that greater care should be taken on how the Iraqi conflict is being reported, the Australian Defence Association’s executive director Neil James has warned. Asked by Radio NZ to comment on calls by a New Zealand politician to bring our troops home from Iraq following the capture of Ramadi – 100 km from Camp Taji in Baghdad, where our New Zealand troops are based – he said, “One point everyone needs to realise – in the era of the world wide web, the enemy knows what we are saying and discussing and we need to discuss things really carefully because the last thing we want to do is give the idea that attacking New Zealanders and Australians might make us come home.  So any discussion of the commitment in Iraq has to be done reasonably responsibly, because there are almost immediate security implications for the troops we’ve got on the ground”.

He believes the Australian media has a “better understanding” of the risk and warns that if the discussion is not carefully couched, “you could give the enemy the idea that all they have to do is attack us and we will leave” – causing “greater danger to the diggers”.

The safety of our New Zealand troops in Iraq is being constantly monitored – if the Defence Chiefs consider they are in danger, they will immediately be brought home.

The deployment of troops to Iraq for training purposes comes at a time when the state of New Zealand’s armed forces is under review. A Defence White Paper 2015 was issued by the government last month to assess defence policy and plan how best to advance the nation’s national security and interests. New Zealand has some 14,000 personnel serving in our defence forces – 9,000 in the regular forces, 2,200 in the reserve forces, and 2,800 civilians. Of the service personnel, 55 percent are in the Army, 23 percent in the Air Force, and 22 percent in the Navy.

While protecting the country’s security and territorial integrity remains the priority, military personnel are now involved in a wide range of specialist activities including peace keeping, capacity building, maritime protection, cyber security, counter-terrorism, civil defence, search and rescue, emergency management, disaster relief, bio-security, and youth development.

Public consultation on the future direction of New Zealand’s Defence Force is now underway – if you would like to make a contribution to the future direction of defence and national security then please send in a submission before the closing date of June 22, 2015.


Do you think the government’s response to countering terrorism is about right, insufficient, or excessive?


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