Kiwis supporting Islamic State 'surprising'

STACEY KIRK AND AIMEE GULLIVER
Last updated 17:28 05/11/2014

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The number of New Zealanders looking to fight with extremist group Islamic State (IS) is "surprising" say intelligence experts.

Government agencies had a watch list of between 30 and 40 people of concern, Prime Minister John Key said in a speech today to the National Institution of International Relations.

Some of the list had travelled to Syria to fight beside Islamic State - IS, also known as Isil and Isis - while others were supporters who had been prevented from travelling by cancellation of their passports.

The remainder of the list were "involved in funding terrorism, radicalising others or are becoming radicalised themselves. Another 30 to 40 individuals require further investigation in addition to the watch list group," Key said.

Former US intelligence analyst Paul Buchanan said the first 40 on the list represented less than 1 per cent of New Zealand's Muslim population. 

The second 40, however was more concerning.

"The 40/40 split, the first part isn't that surprising if you look at other western countries proportionate the amount of Muslims in each country.

"But 40 who support them; I think the 40 who support them is more surprising to me.

"The good news is they're being monitored, and that's one of the advantages we have strategically, given our size and location is we can watch them better," he said.

Key also spelled out a number of planned legislation changes today to stem the flow of New Zealand citizens and funds to support IS, among them granting the Minister of Internal Affairs the power to cancel passports for up to three years or suspend them for 10 days in urgent cases.

Buchanan hailed Key's decision to put the proposed legislation through a select committee process as "judicious".

"And the fact that he's trying to consult with Labour in particular, that's very good. He obviously can pass any legislation he wants with the numbers that he has."

University of Waikato law professor Alexander Gillespie was surprised by the "concerning" number of people on the Government's foreign fighter watchlist.

"That, on a proportionate basis, would be higher than other countries like Australia or Canada ... the amount of people of concern in those countries would make us higher on a per capita basis, I would suggest."

While the criteria for a person being placed on the watchlist was unclear, 60 to 80 people being monitored was "a very large number" in that context.

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"It suggests a much greater infiltration than a lone wolf type scenario."

Sending a team of military planning personnel to assess if New Zealand could contribute to training Iraqi forces indicated Key "continues to walk a tightrope".

"If you go right back to when the Americans were there in 2003 to today, the Americans have spent more than US$25 billion ($32 billion) in trying to train the Iraqi military, and have 1400 advisors on the ground trying to train them," Gillespie said.

"The Iraqi military is not short of weapons, and not short of people trying to train them, they're short of an internal cohesion and a willingness to stand and actually do the fight."

Offering support in the form of troop training would be consistent with what other countries were doing, but such an exercise needed to be conducted with caution.

Buchanan agreed, and said Key had still left room for the Special Air Service (SAS) to play a role.

He echoed the concerns of opposition MPs and others that any troops sent to train Iraqi Special Forces would eventually end up in firefight.

SAS troops may still carry out on-the-ground reconnaissance to direct drone strikes, though Key would probably include that when he talked about ruling out combat troops.

"But he may be mincing his words and saying they're not actually taking the fight to the enemy and they're in a support role," Buchanan said.

"And if they do all of that, that is going to be completely covert and will never be acknowledged publicly.

"I think we're going back to the old days of simply just not talking about it. His first two terms, he said he would talk more openly about these sorts of things, but he's realised that the stakes are too high."

Victoria University Professor of Strategic Studies Robert Ayson said Key was placing a clear emphasis on intelligence being New Zealand's main contribution to international coalition efforts, while downplaying the military side.

"It's one of saying therefore, if we don't commit combat troops it's not the end of the world. But we do have partners of course operating in the Middle East right now, who do think the military response is pretty important," he said.

Ayson said Key had left room for the SAS to be part of a training mission, though possibly not in the short-term.

"This is not a short-term military response - this is a long-term issue where real problems in Iraq mean [it wasn't] able to actually create an inclusive government. There are capability issues here.

"So what he's saying is that our forces could be over there in training roles ... and there are a number of countries looking at what their long-term roles might be and while they are themselves are not so keen on ground troops at the moment, that may develop.

"So he wasn't closing that door."

Otago University Professor Robert Patman said Key was "right to endorse a multifaceted response to the rise of ISIS".

"However, the distinction between a short term strategy - sending military trainers to help train Iraqi troops, stepping up humanitarian aid to the region and taking domestic measures to boost security - must be directly linked to what the Prime Minister calls a longer term strategy, designed to deal with the root causes of terrorism," he said. 

"The measures he prescribes such as finding a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue and finding a political solution to Syria's civil war are very sensible but must, in my view, be tackled almost immediately. And if that means put pressure on other coalition partners, so be it."

Patman said more resources for the intelligence agencies should be used to target potential or actual extremist supporters of ISIS, "not intrude into the private lives of law abiding citizens in New Zealand.

"It is important to maintain the appropriate balance between security and freedom when dealing with groups like ISIS. New Zealand must not play into the hands of Islamist terrorist group by creating a garrison state in the name of national security.

"Winning the battle for hearts and minds starts at home."

- Stuff

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