Concern over NZ Defence Force-trained extremists

6:00 pm on 25 October 2022
New Zealand Army soldiers inside an Australian Army vehicle during the mission rehearsal exercise for Task Group Taji 3 at RAAF Edinburgh, with about 300 Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen prepared for deployment to Iraq in exercise at RAAF Edinburgh in Adelaide, South Australia.

Photo: NZDF / Supplied

The Defence Force has carried out 16 investigations into extremism among current and prospective personnel in the past two years.

New Zealand security officials shared concerns with Australia last year about the potential threat from violent extremists being trained by security forces.

The Defence Force (NZDF) said it could not say how many of the 16 inquiries it conducted had found proof of extremism. Some related to job applications, which were cancelled during the recruitment process, and others had not found evidence of extremism.

Some investigations led to "provision of mental health support, close monitoring and management of an individual's conduct by Command and charges being laid in accordance with the AFDA [Armed Forces Discipline Act]."

One man faces court-martial on charges that include being a member of right-wing groups Dominion Movement and Action Zealandia.

"With respect to New Zealand Defence Force personnel with extremist views, since 2020 there have been 16 in-depth inquiries into current and prospective personnel whose conduct or alleged association with a particular group did not align with the values and behavioural expectations of the NZDF," said a spokesperson.

"A definition for extremism does not exist in NZDF policy, the Defence Act 1990, or any New Zealand legislation. This response refers to policy, Defence Force Orders, and processes which ensure that current and prospective members of the NZDF conduct themselves in alignment with expected values and behaviours. NZDF members are required as part of their security clearance requirements to report concerning behaviour. Members of the NZDF are also required to achieve and maintain a security clearance."

NZDF would not say how many of the 16 were still serving personnel.

"NZDF has a rigorous recruitment process that aims to ensure prospective members of the organisation conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the Defence Force's values and behavioural expectations. All individuals seeking to join the NZDF must be vetted for a National Security Clearance (NSC) by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS).

"Security vetting is undertaken by NZSIS in accordance with the Protective Security Requirements which detail that people must meet certain criteria before being recommended for a NSC by the NZSIS. This includes demonstrating honesty, integrity, and a high moral character in order to be suitable to have access to official and classified material."

A March 2021 national security dialogue with Australia included briefing material from the National Security Group, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and input from SIS and GCSB. The briefing pack set out concerns about extremists with access to military training or firearms.

"A small number of identity motivated violent extremists have access to firearms. While the firearms law reform has affected the supply and lethality of legal weapons it has not significantly impacted the ability to access firearms, either legally or illegally. Some known identity motivated violent extremists have recently applied for firearms licenses, and others may have access to firearms through family, friends or associates.

"We are concerned about the potential threat posed by individuals with a violent extremist ideology serving in or being trained by security forces. We are aware of a small number of identity motivated violent extremist persons of interest who have received military training, including firearms training within the New Zealand Defence Force.

"We also concerned about the online environment supporting and driving violent extremist narratives, including the increasing use of encryption and faster pace of technological change."

"Fascination with violence"

Inclusive Aotearoa Collective Tāhono said extremists were infiltrating defence forces, and overseas the police as well, in order to build their skills.

"What that means for communities that are the targets of these kinds of extremists, is 1) one that it lowers the trust in those agencies, if we can't be sure that they're making sure that extremists aren't part of their workforce," said its project co-lead Anjum Rahman.

"But secondly, it's the training aspect - they get all the skills from the military or the police or other agencies. So there is particularly a concern when it comes to someone deciding to carry out a violent mass murder attack.

"We expect that all agencies in Aotearoa New Zealand would have strong [vetting] systems. I know that it's not easy because we also have human rights legislation that protects people from being discriminated against for their political views and people have the right to have political views - where it's really concerning is where they're part of groups that are talking about committing violence, they're talking about cleansing, or other kinds of harm.

"Then it is beyond just having political differences and having political opinions, you're moving into the space of people thinking that it's okay to hurt other people, kill other people. And that is where the line needs to sit."

NZDF needed to have guidelines and a culture protecting people from extreme conspiracy theories and discrimination as well as strong vetting and training against radicalisation, she said.

Senior Auckland university lecturer in politics and international relations Chris Wilson said far-right extremists were often attracted to defence jobs because of their nationalist views.

"Defence forces have tried to crack down on that in various countries, but there does seem to be a pattern and it seems to be a problem that it's difficult to get on top of.

"The same people who will be attracted to far right groups also have a strong sense of nationalism and they feel an attraction towards the defence force. Often some of them also have a fascination with violence and also focus on military history and paraphernalia and and so on.

"It poses a higher risk of having people in those [far-right] groups who are more familiar with weapons and training, military procedures so it raises the risk - if not violence being more likely, then violence being more effective."

Wilson said once people were recruited, they could become more extreme. "We found that members of far-right organisations claimed to have been radicalised further while they've been serving.

"That's obviously not through any intention on the part of the armed forces themselves, but in terms of just their withdrawal from normal society and being within quite a nationalistic, patriotic environment. A hyper-masculine environment, with training to use force - all of those things can play a role in terms in further radicalising people - we also have to recognise that many of these people were already prone to those ideas."

He had heard claims, but found no hard evidence, that far-right groups were encouraging members to join the army.

Last week, NZDF revealed four former serving personnel had left for jobs with Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA), which is reported to have hired pilots from Britain, Australia and New Zealand to work for it in China.

British media alleged the flight school was acting as an intermediary for China's People's Liberation Army to recruit pilots.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs