Gordon Campbell on the government’s review of security laws

So the Key government is about to launch a four week review of the ability of our existing legislation to deal with “suspected and returning foreign terrorist fighters, and other violent extremists.” According to its terms of reference, the review will consider whether the SIS, GCSB and Police are sufficiently able right now to (a) investigate and monitor suspected and returning foreign terrorist fighters ‘and other violent extremists’ (b) restrict and disrupt their ability to travel to conflict zones and (c) whether specific criminal offences should be created to address their behaviour.

Given that Kiwi jihadi wannabes and returnees from fighting for the likes of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are the ostensible reason for launching this review, who are these “other violent extremists” that are also being targeted, Scoop asked SIS and GCSB Minister Chris Finlayson at yesterday’s post-Cabinet press conference. Finlayson confirmed that the violent “others” would also be New Zealand citizens, but engaged in domestic activities. Apparently, the government is seeking to expand the powers of the security services to monitor and intercept all forms of terrorism activity involving Kiwis, both IS-related or otherwise, over there or here at home, and with a view to criminal prosecution.

The four week review is being conducted with urgency to bring New Zealand anti-terrorism measures into line with those still being formulated by our traditional allies, and – as Prime Minister John Key indicated – any new measures will have to be consistent with the far wider review of the SIS, GCSB and their oversight arrangements that has to commence before 30 June 2015 and which. Key added, will probably take a year to complete. So any measures that the four week review recommends will have a sunset clause – but even if they’re not perpetuated by the wider review, the sun won’t be going down on them until mid to late 2016 at the earliest.

Haste tends to make bad law. In this case, the balancing acts are, or should be, difficult ones to make with any legal rigour. Given that the route of most jihadis is via Europe and from there into the arms of IS recruiters based in Turkey, any jihadi with half a brain could readily make their outward journey look like a traditional Kiwi chap’s OE. Sure, wide ranging fishing expeditions using electronic intercepts may identify suspects with terrorism intent – but even so, a willingness to travel to Syria or Iraq would have to be sensitive to separating out (a) those aiming to become IS fighters (b) those seeking to do aid and refugee work among the region’s flood of refugees (c) those legitimately seeking to oppose the brutal Assad regime, and (d) those wishing to support the elusive Syrian ‘moderate rebels” that the West says it supports, and which are enemies of IS.

It would be nice to think that the SIS eavesdroppers would be sensitive to which of those categories, their Kiwi suspect truly belonged, but on past performance – hello, Ahmed Zaoui – the security services have an excitable tendency to add two and two together and make it eight. Dumb, but also human nature. Give the chaps in the SIS some new surveillance tools on the basis they’re for finding Kiwi jihadis, and you can reasonably bet they’ll go out and find some people fit for purpose.

As for making new law on the hoof in four weeks, aimed at pre-empting criminal behaviour…Any new ‘specific criminal offences’ to emerge from the urgent review would presumably entail a “conspiracy to engage in terrorist activity” – and thus, any suspect’s outward bound protestations of innocent intent may have to made under oath, so that they can be used in the context of criminal charges laid on their return. Presumably, the UN list of terrorist organisations will be the yardstick with which Kiwi jihadis are measured and judged, by the company they keep.

Yet even this approach isn’t without problems, given that some of the organisations on that UN list – (eg Hizbollah, and the YPG units of the Kurdish PKK) are right now in the front line of the fight against Islamic State. The embattled city of Kobani on the Turkish border for instance is currently being defended by YPG fighters. It would be ridiculous if any idealistic young Kiwi – motivated by Turkey’s villainous abandonment of the Syrian Kurds to the wolves of IS – was stopped from travelling because the vulnerable Kurds in question happen to be on a terrorist list compiled years ago by UN bureaucrats in New York.

Lastly, will New Zealand be carrying out any rehabilitation and de-radicalisation work among its returning jihadis? Those who (a) don’t get killed (b) don’t go on to fight in other conflicts may well return to New Zealand feeling absolutely repelled by what they have seen and done, rather than feeling motivated to expand the jihadi cause at home. In previous columns I’ve referred to the Channel programme funded by the Cameron government in Britain, which seeks to re-integrate returning British jihadis back within their communities. The East Jutland Police in Denmark run a similar programme of rehabilitation, one that runs in parallel with a tough security crackdown.

Conceivably, participation in a de-radicalisation programme could be made a compulsory condition of re-entry for Kiwi jihadis, but funding and training for that resource has to be put in place now. At yesterday’s press conference, a role for de-radicalisation and re-adjustment measures were not ruled out, by either Key or Finlayson. For now though the government’s emphasis is on (a) identifying those outward bound to fight in the IS ranks, and (b) criminalising them on their return.

Currently, it is hard to see how our present Terrorism Suppression Act currently fails to provide the SIS and Police with all the tools that could possibly need – including the criminalising of those who aid and abet the UN list of terrorist organisations. However, this four week review exercise will be running in tandem with the responses that our traditional allies are still in the throes of formulating – so one can safely predict that the Key government will move in step in them, regardless of the impact on our civil liberties.

JD, short for jihad?
Don’t know about you, but to me this song has always sounded pretty sinister. I mean…so lonesome he could die? Leavin’ but comin’ back again and when he does, he’ll bring that wedding ring. And we know that’s code for wedded to jihad, right? Don’t forget that he died when he crashed his plane…