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By Van Jackson
New Zealand may appear to be a paradise in the Pacific, but it is afflicted by many of the problems facing other liberal democracies, such as a rising suicide rate and deep socioeconomic inequalities with no clear solution. To this list of shared problems, tragically, one can now add white nationalist terrorism.
The terrorist attacks in Christchurch on March 15, in which fifty were killed and dozens more wounded, was the worst such attack in New Zealand history. Focusing on transnational strategic threats, and looking from New Zealand, policymakers generally have not viewed white nationalist terrorism as a strategic concern, though both New Zealand and Australia have histories of white nationalism, including long histories of exclusionary immigration laws. But the brand of terrorism that resulted in the massacre in New Zealand is a strategic threat, and one that has been a blind spot for New Zealand and the national security establishments of its Five Eyes partners—the United States, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, whose bureaucratic-level intelligence sharing was established decades ago.
The Five Eyes intelligence partnership among these five states has, over time, been effective in monitoring and responding to the challenges of the Cold War, the threat of Islamist terrorism, and more recently in managing the evolving strategic threat that China poses in the Asia-Pacific and other regions. The threat of terrorism from white nationalists, however, is in some ways a more dangerous threat than either of these challenges, simply because it has been largely ignored by policymakers.
Terrorism from white radicals is a transnational threat. Similar attacks to the Christchurch killing have occurred in Canada, European countries like Norway and the United Kingdom, and the United States. More will come, and these extremists view themselves as part of a war that is only just beginning. A manifesto from one of the alleged New Zealand attackers says as much, but white nationalist groups in the United States have discussed the idea of a battle emerging around the world as well.
Radical white nationalist terrorism has been a blind spot for the national security communities in many countries. Although law enforcement agencies like the FBI have highlighted the threat—the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security noted in a report in 2017 that white nationalist extremists had committed more attacks in the United States between 2001 and 2017 than any other group—policymakers still often have not taken this threat seriously enough. In part, national security leaders and politicians in many states may have ignored white nationalist terrorism as a transnational threat since white nationalists traffic in theories and ideas that echo rhetoric found in some more mainstream political circles. The extremists express shared beliefs about a white race under threat, the inferiority of other races and non-Christian religions, and other conspiracy theories.
White nationalist terrorists are acting on ideas of hate that transcend borders, using technologies, like social media and live streaming, that transcend borders, and celebrating other white nationalist figures from around the world, to create an imagined future (of theirs) that they believe transcends borders. The national security communities of the Five Eyes countries need to work together to combat the transnational ideas and the technologies that can be used to turn extremist ideas into action, and ensure that mainstream politicians’ rhetoric does not dampen a meaningful response to this growing threat, or obfuscate its character.
Yet while intelligence officials have noted that Five Eyes partners have created a massive intelligence sharing network regarding other types of transnational terrorism, they also have noted that this intelligence sharing has not generally extended to domestic terrorists and terrorist groups, even white nationalist ones. Indeed, intelligence officials told the Washington Post that while Five Eyes countries might tell a partner state about a potentially imminent terrorist attack by a domestic extremist in that other country, they do not routinely share information about domestic terror threats in partner states. Now, that must change.
Van Jackson is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, the Defense & Strategy Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies: New Zealand, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.