Opinion: Understanding counter-terrorism needs serious scholarship

Friday 7 June 2024

By Dr John Battersby

He Whenua Taurikura needs to be staffed by serious security studies scholars, says Dr John Battersby.

Last updated: Monday 10 June 2024

It’s well overdue. Serious security studies scholars have been silent for too long.

He Whenua Taurikura (HWT) was established following recommendation 14 of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques on 15 March 2019. That recommendation anticipated a new intelligence and security agency with an appropriation “to fund independent New Zealand-specific research on the causes of, and measures to prevent, violent extremism and terrorism.”

No new intelligence and security agency has yet been created, its value proposition questioned, and its initiation opposed, by those agencies whose patch it would be encroaching on.

Despite the previous Government accepting ‘in principle’ all of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, a work-plan to revise and implement them had stalled before it lost office. Under the fiscal priorities of the current Government, the work plan is unlikely to restart.

In attempting some semblance of fulfilling recommendation 14, HWT, a Centre of Research Excellence, was established in August 2022. In a process devoid of accountability, members of the panel chosen to appoint its new director were themselves appointed as co-directors. Its significant budget has just been cut.

HWT’s website claims to contribute to the safety of New Zealand by “coordinating research into countering and preventing terrorism and violent extremism, while promoting social cohesion.”

HWT’s lengthy list of research associates is wafer thin on those previously interested or experienced in researching terrorism. Besides, the link between social cohesion and the countering or preventing of terrorism and violent extremism is debatable. Any informed glance at the type of violence that could be defined as terrorism in New Zealand in the last 50 years has generally germinated among individuals absenting themselves from social norms, objecting to the cohesion of society rather than being deterred by it. It has more oftenemerged from the left, rather than the right of New Zealand’s tiny cadres of extremists. Although, at times, an ideological identification has not been possible.

Dr John Battersby.

This is a conclusion drawn from serious research undertaken before 15 March 2019, wellbefore HWT’s claim to coordinate such endeavours. It comes from analysing past examplesof New Zealand’s peculiar non-sequential, disconnected, intermittent and predominantly individually perpetrated political violence. It comes from looking at state responses, the adequacy of legislation and from observing trends and implications of ‘counter’ and ‘prevention’ attempts in other countries. Deriving wisdom from the direct and relevant experience of other countries, which may be applicable to New Zealand, is a key benefit of this approach. This is what independent research should look like. It should not push its own political agendas.

However, HWT appears to have conceived countering and preventing terrorism as a career into the untamed wilds of identity studies, grievance politics and activism. It recently calledfor contributors to a special issue of Crime Media Culture entitled ‘Unravelling Violence, Gendered Extremism: Interdisciplinary and Global Perspectives and Challenges’.  Not only does Crime Media Culture have no security credentials, but the content of this special issue is unlikely to have any practical value to New Zealand’s understanding of its own terrorism or violent extremism risks. Or how, or even if, they can be countered.

In its March 2024 newsletter, HWT celebrated co-hosting the launch of The Shaming State, a book that focuses on the United States and on the “neglect of social solidarities on communities in neoliberal societies in the wake of political and natural disasters”. Another academic is reported to be in Europe discussing our Government’s abandonment of the recommendation to amend hate speech laws. But criminalising speech is complex and problematic, demanding careful consideration even if it can be done.

Perhaps all of these topics have a value somewhere, but was this what the Royal Commission of Inquiry intended? Is this independent New Zealand-specific research on the causes of, and measures to prevent, violent extremism and terrorism? Did the Royal Commission intend to encourage academics to research on the United States and present critique of New ZealandGovernment decisions in Europe? How is any of this aiding the countering or preventing of terrorism and violent extremism in New Zealand?

The latest budget has attempted to alleviate the burden of our mounting national debt, but the pain continues regardless for those ordinary New Zealanders trying to put food on the table.Many have lost their jobs. The civil service is shrinking. It is a time when those entrusted with public money to perform their duties should be directing it to the purposes to which it was intended. He Whenua Taurikura needs to be staffed by serious security studies scholars prepared to engage with security professionals to genuinely look for the wisdom we need to counter the possibility of future threats.

Dr John Battersby is a Senior Fellow in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University and a specialist on terrorism and counter-terrorism.