Terrorism: A Grownup Threat Analysis

This essay looks at the security and economic absurdities of the anti-terrorism crusade, a crusade that despite its high economic cost has had a negligible effect on mortality. If the policy objective is to save lives the money should be spent elsewhere.

The thing that strikes me about the focus of politicians and of  law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies on the threat of “terrorism”, and the need for a whole raft of new legislation designed to combat “terrorism”, is the total lack of a grownup public threat analysis. We are asked instead to trust those who lay claim to having the secret information necessary to quantify the threat, and to trust entirely in their secret threat analysis. That’s not good enough. And more to the point, it’s total humbug.

Security should be based entirely on threat or risk analysis, and the response to perceived and actual threat should be in relative proportion to the total level of threat to the safety and wellbeing of the society. The response to threat in a liberal democracy should also be balanced against the principles of democracy and against the level of threat or risk a liberal democracy should be able to accept without compromising or eroding the democracy itself.

It is a principle of democracy that governments, law enforcement agencies, and security and intelligence agencies should have their powers curtailed to the extent that those powers do not unnecessarily encroach upon the freedoms, liberties and rights of citizens. That’s supposedly why we have the New Zealand Bill of Rights. Unlawful police encroachment does occur, for instance in the Kim Dotcom case which has caused the present public outcry against the GCSB Bill. What is necessary or unnecessary encroachment should be determined by grownup public analysis of the threat or risk.

In threat analysis we should look at the balance between threat and security, and the level of threat that can be and is presently acceptable and accepted. Criminality in society is matched by a fairly large police presence enforcing the Crimes Act and other criminal legislation. The society accepts that level of encroachment as necessary except when the police exceed their lawful powers as they sometimes do. Even so the society accepts also that the police cannot prevent all crime and that we must all accept a level of criminality and risk to person and property. We must all also take primary responsibility for our own security, for the security of our families and for the security of our businesses. We live with a level of risk and threat without demanding that Government protect us from every possible risk and threat.

That approach forms the basis of the following outline threat analysis.

What is Terrorism?

Terror is not an enemy. Terror is a weapon. There can be no such thing as a “war on terrorism”.

Terror is a weapon used by the weak against the strong. By definition terror should not be able to prevail against the strong but in recent times it has. That is because less that 1% of terror represents a physical threat to the western liberal democracies and more than 99% of the threat is psychological. It has succeeded against the West because terror is primarily a psychological weapon and the western liberal democracies have succumbed to the psychological threat in trying to protect against a relatively minor physical threat. “Relativity” is the key word that will be expanded upon later.

The West has grossly over-estimated the relative threat to their own societies and they have introduced anti-terrorism and mass surveillance legislation and regulation that far outweighs the real relative threat to society. That was the strategy of Osama bin Laden in September 2001 and he succeeded beyond his own dreams, on a worldwide basis. His killing by Seal Team 6 has done nothing whatsoever to limit the success of his strategy.

The primary target of those who employ terror in the modern context is not the western liberal democracies at all. Their targets are their own people in their own countries. They aim to demonise secular and liberal Western society and to convince their own countrymen and women of the social and moral threat those societies and their systems of governance represent. They aim to corral the minds of their own people in order to impose their preferred version of religious governance, usually under Sharia Law, in their own countries.

They demonstrate their superior political power and morality to their own people by provoking the liberal democracies to go to war against them, to drag those democracies into unwinnable wars in foreign places, and in doing so to cause mass disruption, and civilian casualties. They are then able to convince their own people that the liberal and secular democracies are waging war against the civilians in the warzones and against Islam in general. They drag the armed forces of those liberal democracies into conflicts they cannot win and they demonstrate to their own people the vulnerability of those supposedly superior forces to the tactics of the weak, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombers, and the hit and run tactics of the guerilla and insurgent.

They join their highly mobile legions of international fighters into the wars of others in order to hijack those wars to serve their own cause, such as in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. To achieve their aims they sacrifice countless thousands of their own heavily indoctrinated and religiously brainwashed foot soldiers. They know they are not going to defeat the West. But they know with complete certainty that they are going to win the war for the hearts and minds of their own people. “Allahu akbar” they cry all over the world. And behind every chant lies another captive mind.

The proper and mature response to psychological warfare is to ignore it. To have trust and confidence that our own liberal democratic and secular societies are strong and robust and well able to withstand the minimal physical threat the wielders of terror actually pose. The immature response is to succumb to the psychological threat and to vastly inflate the physical threat.

Who are these so-called “terrorists”

Who are the people who wield the weapon of terror?

The Terrorism Suppression Act empowers the Prime Minister to declare persons and organisations as terrorist. That latest list of “terrorist designated entities” can be downloaded here.

They are overwhelmingly Taliban and Al-Qaeda entities throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa. They are also United Nations designated entities in Iran, Peru, Turkey, Bangladesh, Palestine, Columbia, Philippines, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Ireland, Somalia, Spain and France (the Basques). They are all overseas, far from New Zealand’s shores.

What is obvious from the list of “terrorist designated entities” is that the real targets or enemies are Islamic extremists around the world, except that we cloak them in the mystique of “terrorism”. In doing so we magnify in the public mind the real threat that Islamic extremism poses to New Zealand, and broaden our security response far beyond what is necessary to combat the actual threat level of Islamic extremism. It is the immature response to psychological warfare.

Perhaps by focusing on “terrorism” we also seek to alleviate the concerns of the majority of peaceful Muslim people by not actually naming the threat as Islamic extremism. But in naming it as “terrorism” we achieve the opposite by creating in the public mind a belief that all Muslims are potential terrorists. We might all be better off calling a spade a spade. And by changing the language we would change the nature of the security debate as well.

How many Islamic extremists are there in New Zealand? Less than 1000? Less than 100? We don’t know because that’s a secret. Perhaps we can infer from Prime Minister John Key’s public statements that there are less than 10 a year. Whatever the number, real or imagined, in a population of 4 million plus it is a very low threat level.

We can safely assume that the SIS has infiltrated Muslim communities and has many Muslim informants. We can safely assume that the SIS has the names of real or potential Islamic extremists in New Zealand and has them under surveillance. Why therefore do we need to enact legislation that has the potential to bring the whole population under surveillance, whether intended or not. Why therefore do we impose security legislation and restrictions on the whole population? In the face of that level of threat why do we enact legislation that erodes democracy?

I know, they going to tell us that the level of threat is much much greater but they can’t tell us about it and publicly prove it. Humbug.

What are acts of terror?

“Terrorist Acts” are defined in the Suppression of Terrorism Act 2002.

(1) An act is a terrorist act for the purposes of this Act if—

(a) the act falls within subsection (2); or
(b) the act is an act against a specified terrorism convention (as defined in section 4(1)); or
(c) the act is a terrorist act in armed conflict (as defined in section 4(1)).

(2) An act falls within this subsection if it is intended to cause, in any 1 or more countries, 1 or more of the outcomes specified in subsection (3), and is carried out for the purpose of advancing an ideological, political, or religious cause, and with the following intention:

(a) to induce terror in a civilian population; or
(b) to unduly compel or to force a government or an international organisation to do or abstain from doing any act.

[Subsection (3) below contains the actual definition of terrorist acts].

(3) The outcomes referred to in subsection (2) are—

(a) the death of, or other serious bodily injury to, 1 or more persons (other than a person carrying out the act):
(b) a serious risk to the health or safety of a population:
(c) destruction of, or serious damage to, property of great value or importance, or major economic loss, or major environmental damage, if likely to result in 1 or more outcomes specified in paragraphs (a), (b), and (d):
(d) serious interference with, or serious disruption to, an infrastructure facility, if likely to endanger human life:
(e) introduction or release of a disease-bearing organism, if likely to devastate the national economy of a country.

(4) However, an act does not fall within subsection (2) if it occurs in a situation of armed conflict and is, at the time and in the place that it occurs, in accordance with rules of international law applicable to the conflict.

(5) To avoid doubt, the fact that a person engages in any protest, advocacy, or dissent, or engages in any strike, lockout, or other industrial action, is not, by itself, a sufficient basis for inferring that the person—

(a) is carrying out an act for a purpose, or with an intention, specified in subsection (2); or
(b) intends to cause an outcome specified in subsection (3).

The Act then goes on to detail a number of those offences including:

  • Bombing
  • Financing designated entities
  • Belonging to or dealing with designated entities
  • Recruiting
  • Participating
  • Harbouring or concealing
  • Plastic explosives and nuclear material
  • Radioactive material

That is a relatively small range of offences in relation to the criminal law in New Zealand. All of them are already contained in or could be added to the Crimes Act 1961 and other relevant legislation without the need for a separate terrorism act.

What seems to be obvious is that the criminal acts that are defined as “terrorist acts” in the Suppression of Terrorism Act are not that much different from the normal everyday criminality that we live with. What is different is the response, and the much greater powers the Act confers upon the Prime Minister, the Parliament and the response agencies. And that seems to be the real purpose of the Act.

If a comparison is made between those “terrorist” threats to society and the real everyday threat from the transnational criminal bikie gangs, and other transnational gangs and crime syndicates in the illegal drugs, weapons and slave prostitution markets, the threat is small. They don’t tell us much about those real threats either, from behind the veil of secrecy, security and intelligence.

The relativity of threat

We look now at the crime statistics reported by the NZ Police for the year ending 31st December 2012. A copy can be downloaded here. I summarise the statistics below in broad outline. The detail is in the downloadable file.

  • Murder – 42
  • Manslaughter – 14
  • Assault etc – 40,851
  • Sexual assault etc – 3,512
  • Dangerous or negligent acts endangering persons – 1,022
  • Various offence against the person – 12,476
  • Robbery etc – 2,199
  • Unlawful entry etc – 52,031
  • Theft etc – 119,476
  • Fraud etc – 8.013
  • Drugs – 20,792
  • Weapons & explosives – 6,063
  • Property damage – 48,901
  • Public order – 42,522
  • Justice process, government security (5), government operations – 15,797
  • Miscellaneous – 1,384
  • Total – 376,013

I would add:

  • Acts of terror – NIL

What do we New Zealanders die of?

These are the major causes extracted from the Ministry of Health morbidity statistics for 2009.

  • Cancers – 8,437
  • Heart disease – 5,553
  • Strokes – 2,488
  • Diabetes – 869
  • Motor vehicle accidents – 420
  • Suicide – 510
  • Assault and murder – less than 100

To which I would add:

  • Acts of terror – NIL

So I conclude that:

From the crime and morbidity statistics it would seem that the chances of dying at the hands of Islamic extremists, or of being the victim of their criminality, are extremely remote. The likelihood of suffering at the hands of our own home grown criminals is much greater than at the hands of Islamic extremists yet it is still not so great that we cannot and do not accept and live with the threat of criminality on a daily basis.

At the age of 70 I am greatly assured that I will most likely die from one of the common medically defined conditions or simply of old age at some time within the next 30 years. I am greatly assured that I will probably not die at the hands of Islamic extremists. Although I stand a greater chance of being murdered or the victim of manslaughter at the hands of our own criminal class (or at the hands of my own family) I am assured that that too is only a remote possibility.

In fact if you were to analyse the detail of murder, manslaughter and assault in its various forms you would probably find that you are at much greater risk from members of your own family than you are from Islamic extremists. Just to put things into perspective.

I suspect that the Terrorism Suppression Act and the raft of other terrorism related and surveillance legislation does not and will not affect the level of risk and threat I face on a daily basis as a free citizen in a democratic society. For I suspect that the perception of threat from Islamic extremism in New Zealand is immature and inflated in response to psychological warfare launched from far away places, rather than in response to a real physical threat in New Zealand.

What New Zealand needs is a grownup risk and threat analysis conducted in public, and not conducted from within the secrecy confined, limited worldviews of gullible politicians and the law enforcement, security and intelligence establishment.