- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.
Earlier this month, as the United States rushed to shutter embassies in response to a terrorist threat, New Zealand’s prime minister made a remarkable but largely overlooked assertion. According to John Key, there are al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-trained individuals at large in his country.
"In New Zealand there are people who’ve been trained for al-Qaeda camps who operate out of New Zealand, who are in contact with people overseas, who have gone off to Yemen and other countries to train," he told a radio program in New Zealand on Aug. 1. "Some are still offshore and some are in New Zealand."
Key told the radio program that he had signed off on surveillance of al Qaeda-trained individuals in New Zealand, but could not legally arrest them. "It does not necessarily mean that they have broken the law at this point," Key said.
The prime minister’s comments come amid New Zealand’s own domestic surveillance controversy: Key has been championing proposed legislation that would allow the country’s Government Communications Security Bureau to cooperate with New Zealand’s domestic intelligence agencies on investigations, which could include domestic surveillance. Political opponents criticized Key’s comments about al Qaeda as a scare tactic and terrorism experts contacted by New Zealand’s media downplayed the potential threat, pointing out that the country is an unlikely al Qaeda target.
But perhaps the most striking thing about Key’s comments is the contention that attending an AQAP training camp isn’t necessarily illegal under New Zealand’s current laws. No one has ever been charged with terrorism under New Zealand’s anti-terrorism law — the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA), passed in 2002. New Zealand’s solicitor-general called the law "unnecessarily complex" and even "incoherent" in 2007. A cable from the U.S. embassy in Wellington, released by WikiLeaks, cites the solicitor-general’s report, complaining that "In the post-9/11 world, one would expect that New Zealand would have an adequate law to deal with foreign as well as domestic terrorism — it does not. Critics of the TSA say that it was never envisaged to apply to domestic terrorism, but one wonders if it would have applied to foreign terrorists plotting much the same activities [as the Maori dissident group Rama] … leaked by the press."
"Terrorist groups including Al-Qaida and other UN-listed groups are designated as terrorist entities under New Zealand law," a spokesperson for the New Zealand embassy in Washington, D.C. told FP by email. "It is an offence in New Zealand to participate in a terrorist entity, to finance a terrorist entity, and to recruit members of a terrorist entity. In some circumstances these offences also apply outside New Zealand." That seems to contradict Key’s statement that individuals with link to al Qaeda have not committed a crime.
The conditions for arrest are lower in the United States. "Material support is a very low threshold," Dina Temple-Raston, NPR’s counterterrorism correspondent and author of The Jihad Next Door, told FP by email. "One could be INTENDING to send money, or even provide a sleeping bag, and be found to be providing material support. Even advice could be seen as material support."
There are potential reasons to allow al Qaeda-affiliated individuals to remain at large and under surveillance, though. "The only circumstances in which the government might leave an AQ trained individual at large, that I can think of, is in the course of an investigation when it is trying to determine if there are others involved in the support," Temple-Raston writes. That was the case with the "Lackawanna Six," the subject of The Jihad Next Door, who were arrested about a year and a half after returning to New York from an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. The FBI, Temple-Raston told FP, "wanted to see if their recruiter, Kamel Derwish, would return to Lackawanna. He never did. He was killed in 2002 in a drone strike in Yemen."
When asked if the government of New Zealand is taking any extra precautions in light of the recent AQAP terror threat, the embassy spokesperson wrote that "New Zealand is closely monitoring the security situation in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. We are keeping in very close contact with other governments, including the US. Although our embassies remain open this decision will be regularly reviewed in response to any new information."