Need for better detectives than counter-terrorism agency - security expert

8:55 am on 9 December 2020

A security expert warns that creating a new counter-terrorism agency might just add to the confusion.

The final report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques on 15 March 2019.

The final report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques on 15 March 2019. Photo: RNZ / Sam Rillstone

In more than a dozen of the 44 recommendations by the Royal Commission into the mosque terror attacks, is a push for a new agency to make up for widespread weaknesses.

The commission's report found the attacker did not slip by unsuspecting public agencies and no one is to blame.

But almost a quarter of the report's 800 pages describe a plethora of weaknesses that persist across police and security agencies' counter terrorism efforts - failings those agencies apologised for yesterday.

At the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), for instance, at the time of the attack, the "majority of the investigators had less than one year's experience", and were considered "apprentices", the report said.

A lack of staff, of strategy and coordination, led to a lack of appreciation of the threats:

"The national security system was carrying a risk - the threat of non-Islamist extremism - the nature of which was not understood in any detail."

It had been this way since 2015 at least, when the SIS was the only one of the Five Eyes intelligence agencies that did not have a dedicated strategic intelligence analysis capability to help spot emerging threats.

A catch-up on degraded capabilities began in 2016, but it was mid-2018 when a baseline project to gauge emerging risks was started.

That delay meant "there was a risk that was not being addressed", the report said.

"The existence of this risk was not explicitly highlighted with the Security and Intelligence Board and the Counter Terrorism Coordination Committee."

For two years, till mid-2018, the SIS knew that it did not know much.

It was "unsighted to any individuals or groups who espouse an extreme right-wing ideology and promote the use of violence to achieve their objectives about the far-right risks", it said in July that year.

More competent people on ground 'rather than more bureaucracy'

Massey University Security Studies specialist John Battersby said it looked like the inquiry "has picked up that there is no particular centralisation in terms of who actually controls counter-terrorism".

The national counter-terrorism strategy put out in February this year - after years when the country did not have one, feeding through to lack of a CT strategy at police too, the report said - was "light" at just six pages and showed up this diffusion.

"It was not particularly clear whose relative responsibility was where" in the strategy.

"We do have quite a fragmented national security approach to terrorism across the board and the inquiry has, rightly and with considerable evidence, shown that up."

RNZ Insight highlighted the fragmentation and lack of strategy in mid-2019.

Playing catch up now, the Royal Commission is recommending the government set up a whole new intelligence and security agency.

It would set counter-terrorism strategy, ensure action was taken on it, and publicise that regularly, instead of the moves remaining behind closed doors.

Coordination was needed, but perhaps not more officials, Battersby said.

"We just keep adding bureaucracies on, we keep adding on extra silos, where information has to cross from one to another.

"The best counter-terrorism work happens with good experienced detectives ... and good community-based organisations that do that kind of work of drawing people out of extremist organisations.

"For me, I'd like to see competent people on the ground ... rather than more bureaucracy."

Another of the commission's recommendations is to recruit graduates from an Ethnic Communities Programme into the intelligence agencies.

However, the SIS in particular struggled to keep staff from ethnic minorities - the turnover was double that of other staff, the report showed.

Gayaal Iddamalgoda, who hails from migrant and activist communities, said it sounded good but questioned if change would be genuine while the same people stayed in charge.

"It's not going to be as simple as revamping the existing secret services.

"What we need is a more open, community-centred approach to dealing with these matters, where we actually respond to real threats," Iddamalgoda said.

The security agencies already got hundreds of million dollars of funding so it was more bias, than lack of resources, that was hampering them, he said.

"They have been investigating communities and organisations and individuals, based on some biases of their own, without actually being in touch with what's going on, in touch of the real threats and extremist threats ... which comes from far-right activism."

Anjum Rahman of the Islamic Women's Council was also sceptical of a system trying to overhaul itself.

"You can't have the same people bringing the same values, and expect them to get different results."

The report highlighted other weaknesses:

  • The SIS and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) did not do any training on white supremacy or rightwing extremism prior to the mosque terrorist attacks.
  • The National Assessments Bureau did not have a single dedicated terrorism analyst till 2018.
  • The police's intelligence function was "degraded" by 2015, and still degraded by March 2019.
  • The police lacked counter-terrorism staff and the Security Intelligence Board knew this but did not tell other public agencies.

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