New Zealand’s spy chiefs say the rising threat of white identity extremism now makes up half of their counter-terrorism work, and have warned the lingering influence of the Christchurch mosque attacks means a lone terrorist could launch a terror attack.
The intelligence agencies also claim to have had “real success in curbing foreign interference and spying in New Zealand, as foreign countries increasingly try to gain access to sensitive government and commercial information.
A high-powered parliamentary select committee met on Wednesday to question the two spy chiefs, Security Intelligence Service (SIS) director-general Rebecca Kitteridge and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) acting director-general Bridget White, as part of an annual review of their agencies.
There is no doubt we are seeing an increase in white identity extremism in New Zealand, as around the world. That is an unfortunate trend, Kitteridge told the senior MPs on the committee.
Director-general of the Security Intelligence Service Rebecca Kitteridge, centre, fronted a parliamentary select committee on Wednesday.
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She said a recent annual review of the terror threat level had determined the threat remained at medium, or that such an attack was feasible and could well occur.
Such an attack was most likely to come from a lone person who might be unknown to intelligence agencies or police, Kitteridge said, and would likely involve accessible weapons such as blades, vehicles, or guns.
It is not yet clear what the impact of Covid-19 will be on violent extremism in New Zealand. In other countries, social isolation and increased time online has allowed grievances and conspiracy theories to thrive, increasing the risk of radicalisation, she said.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, chair of the intelligence and security select committee, asked SIS director-general Rebecca Kitteridge to explain how white identity extremists were organising differently from others.
The agencies, as with their counterparts in Australia and Canada, have now adjusted their descriptions for the ideological motivations behind possible terror threats, deeming them either identity motivated violent extremism or faith motivated extremism.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, chair of the intelligence and security committee, asked how these ideologically driven extremists, particularly white identity driven extremists, were organising differently from others meaning they might not fit the Terrorism Suppression Acts terrorist entity definition.
Kitteridge said there were both loose associations between these possible extremists and there are some organisations that are quite tightly controlled.
But others are just people that are connected to the internet that don’t even know one another’s identities but are sharing quite radical, kind of, ideas, she said.
Director-General of the SIS Rebecca Kitteridge, left, and acting Director-General of the GCSB Bridget White, at the committee on Wednesday.
Kitteridge last year told MPs that between 30 and 50 people were being actively investigated by New Zealand’s spies at any one time a number that she said remained the same.
The recent Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch Mosque Terror Attacks had said that, as of January 2020, there were 31 possible Islamic extremists and 16 Right-wing extremists being investigated by the SIS.
Prior to the attack, the entire list consisted of possible Islamic extremists.
On Wednesday, Kitteridge was unwilling to specify how many on the current list were possible white supremacist extremists and how many were possible Islamic extremists.
The intelligence agencies have been at pains to explain their capabilities are limited since the release of the royal commissions report, which criticised the agencies for an inappropriate focus on the risk of Islamic extremism and said the national security system as a whole was led by confused bureaucratic decision-making.
Kitteridge said the SIS continued to transform itself in the aftermath of the mosque attacks, and had created a new organisational strategy called Discover which would allow it to identify previously unknown and emerging threats.
Neither agency would confirm whether they had acquired any new tools since the Christchurch mosque attack to improve their ability to identify possible terror threats online.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Kitteridge said the SIS had identified New Zealand citizens or residents that were acting as proxies for foreign states, or had relationships with foreign intelligence agencies.
Senior MPs that make up the intelligence and security select committee met on Wednesday for the annual review of the spy agencies.
Where we have become aware of that, in a number of cases we have taken steps to disrupt it. But I won’t tell you exactly how many.
Minister Andrew Little, who is responsible for the intelligence agencies, told reporters that white identity terrorism required a greater counter-terrorism effort and was likely a result of both a rise in the ideology, and the agencies now seeking out the threat.
He said it was not surprising that organised white identity extremist groups were operating in New Zealand.
I am not prepared to go into it … because I get the reports and I sign out warrants but what the director-general said this morning is correct.
Intelligence Agencies Minister Andrew Little, right, says he is satisfied with the way the agencies are responding to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Christchurch Mosque Terror Attacks.
There are groups, the SIS and the GCSB can apply for warrants to do surveillance activity on groups of concern, put those two together and conclude what you like.
White, the acting GCSB director, said there were no attempts from state actors to influence the 2020 elections and that increasingly criminals were launching sophisticated cyber-attacks that were previously only being perpetrated by state-backed actors.
There had been 352 cyber-attacks in the past year and 30 per cent of these were linked to state-sponsored actors. That was an increase from the 339 attacks on the prior year, of which 38 per cent were linked to state-sponsored actors.
White stood in for GCSB director-general Andrew Hampton at the committee on Wednesday, as he was on medical leave following surgery.