A Comment On Terrorist Conspiracy
The subject of terrorism in New Zealand has taken on the character of political theater, as a form of tragic comedy
where important questions of rights and rules serve as the backdrop to what will be a long journey through the courts
for those arrested and accused of planning the first domestic act of terrorism in this country (the bombing of the
Rainbow Warrior being an instance of state sabotage undertaken by the French). To clarify the debate given continued
evidence suppression and putting legal wrangles aside, the question as to whether at least twelve of the Urewera 17 were
involved in a terrorist conspiracy reduces to four fundamental principles: capabilities, preparation, planning and
targets in the construction of a terrorist plot. Beyond that, it is a matter of ideology and law.
Capabilities refer to the right weapons and the required amount of training to successfully undertake such an operation.
Conventional armies usually take three months to train recruits in the rudimentals of organized combat. New Zealand
reserve forces, in the form of “territorials,” train regularly to maintain basic competence (i.e. shooting straight,
staging ambushes, engaging in land navigation etc.). Osama bin-Laden’s “terrorist training camps” in Afghanistan lasted
four to six months, as did the development of guerrilla cadres in revolutionary Cuba. Urban guerrilla warfare such as
that conducted by the Provisional IRA against British occupation of Northern Ireland requires precision training in
small group and individual tactics with an emphasis on secrecy given the dense strategic environment in which cadres
operate. That takes time and effort. There is more to developing a competent armed capability than weekend exercises,
and the problematique of such operations usually requires full time dedication to it.
With regards to those currently detained under suspicion of plotting a terrorist act, the question is simple. Would a
few weekend excursions practicing live fire para-military drills in the bush make for a competent terrorist cadre? If
some of the accused had military training in explosives and firearms, then it is feasible that the potential was there.
For the majority of those arrested who have no military training, it would seem a stretch to believe that they could
carry out a terrorist act (unless they were to be suicide bombers, in which case courage and conviction rather than
training is the requirement). Among the group are a librarian, a filmmaker, a young renaissance woman, a 19-year-old
student and a well-known Maori activist. There are twins in the group, and their older sister. There is someone with
criminal connections and an uncertain state of mind. None of them appear suicidal and most of the non-Tuhoe are known to
be pacifists as well as left-wing activists.
The weapons allegedly to be used (most were found in the vicinity of Ruatoki) are not formidable. So-called “spud guns”
can be misconstrued as grenade launchers. Semi-automatic rifles and shotguns are common hunting weapons. Home made
napalm in the form of jellified petrol or kerosene-paraffin/detergent mixes are commonly made and used in rural
communities for a variety of innocent purposes. So is fertilizer and chlorine in industrial quantities. Even if they
have the potential to be used for untoward ends, making improvised explosives or incendiary devices in and of itself
does not demonstrate terrorist intent or capability.
Nor is the possession of military equipment. Purchasing military regalia and camouflage survival gear is common to
hunters, reenactment societies, collectors and fetishists. Buying military weapons (such as AK-47s) on the black market
or stealing them from armories is a firearms violation, with the number of weapons purchased and degree of criminal
intent determining the severity of the punishment. Although the procurement of military weaponry is certainly cause for
alarm and should be taken seriously, possession or use of these weapons may or may not be connected with a terrorist
conspiracy. Buying weapons on the Internet for the purposes of committing acts of political violence could well be
handled under the Mental Health Act.
The second baseline for ascertaining potential for a terrorist attack is degree of preparation. Lengthy preparations
usually need to be made if terrorist operations are to be successful. These would include determining points of entry
and exit to the kill zone, surveillance of targets in order to garner intelligence on routines, movements and security,
stockpiling of weapons and materials, completing combat training, establishing escape routes, monitoring police
communications, engaging in detection and avoidance counter-measures, etc.
Assuming they had the capabilities to undertake a terrorist act, at what stage of preparation was the Urewera 17? How
far along were they in their training and build-up to the event? How much operational and communications security was
being practiced? Were the cadres moving between safe houses, dispersing their weapons caches, and engaging in
counter-detection maneuvers? Were all 17 involved in the plot, or was there a core element that surrounded itself with
hangers-on and dilettantes? From what has been revealed so far, apparently 12 individuals are being considered for
charges under the 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act, which makes it a rather large conspiracy if in fact the charges prove
true. That would require a considerable degree of preparation, secrecy and coordination.
If the basic elements of a terrorist conspiracy existed, attention should turn to the planning of an attack. At what
stage of planning were the alleged plotters? For example, were they loading a panel truck or van with a load of petrol
jelly and chlorine wired for remote detonation in the Viaduct? That would be a clear indication of terrorist intent.
Give that the police acted quickly on October 15 in response to some precipitant, one can assume that planning had
entered its penultimate, if not final stages. After all, that is where proof of intent can be most clearly ascertained.
Distribution of sniper rifles and Molotov’s amongst cadres for an assault on a foreign or domestic political figure
might constitute proof of conspiracy to murder, but does necessarily constitute proof of terrorism. Political
assassinations—regicide or tyranicide in the case of heads of state—are not necessarily terrorism. For terrorism to be
at play, the intent of the perpetrators would be to sow irrational fear and dread amongst the adult majority in order to
make them psychologically malleable to the political will of those who organised the attack. Would the killing of a
single political figure induce chaos, or at least pervasive fear amongst the New Zealand population? That may be a
source of morbid jokes in Kiwi political society, but is an important nuance that the police have chosen to overlook.
Which brings up the issue of targets. Spreading widespread irrational fear and panic is the goal of the terrorist
enterprise. Although it is a heinous crime, killing a political dignitary does not constitute a terrorist act. For that
to happen the attack would have to involve innocent civilians in everyday places. Planning to bomb Britomart at rush
hour, or to explode incendiary devices in a Wellington traffic tunnel, or to launch a machine gun and firebomb attack on
a political rally in which a politician is addressing the crowd, or the scenario of an attack on the Viaduct
entertainment district on a Friday night would all constitute terrorism. Planning for any of these types of operations
would clearly be proof of terrorist intent. Police interrogations of the suspects will say much about this, and from the
police perspective, confessions of such intent would be priceless.
There is a larger context to the issue of terrorism in Aotearoa. Terrorism has a subject, object and a target. The
target is the immediate objective, acting as a precipitant to mass action based upon long simmering socio-economic and
cultural grievances. The subject is the general population, who need to be ideologically uprooted and disoriented so
that counter-hegemonic ideological campaigns can be successfully launched. The object is to achieve political control,
or at least to destabilize the political status quo.
In order for things to work according to the terrorist plan, there must be a clearly defined ideological project.
Ideological viability is the ultimate determinant of whether terrorism, or armed struggle approaches in general, have a
potential for success. That ideological or counter-hegemonic alternative has to secretly resonate at the economic,
social and political levels within the hearts of the polity in question. That is a product of history.
Given its modern history, armed struggle in New Zealand is futile because the ideological terrain is not conducive to
success. There are not enough societal contradictions to produce compound fractures of the economic base and
socio-political superstructure that result in an organic crisis of the New Zealand state. Even Leninists and Trotskyites
–a label that has been applied to some of the accused--understand that fundamental contradictions have to be present
before the revolutionary vanguard can use armed struggle techniques to advance their cause.
In contemporary New Zealand drawing attention to political claims via armed means will result in a uniformly negative
reaction by the majority. Rather than garner supporters and engender more acts of violent collective action, it will
alienate potential followers and steel the resolve of the political elite. This is true regardless of the claim, be it
indigenous separatist or class-based in nature (pre-modern or modern, as it were). Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, Mao
Tse Tsung, Ho Chin-Minh, Franz Fanon and Regis Debray all noted that counter-hegemonic struggles are more ideological
than physical, and that the physical battlefield had to be constructed according to the lay of the socio-economic,
political and cultural environment, not just the lay of the land. Nothing indicates at this point that perpetrating a
terrorist act would generate broad support for a political cause in this country. Even if they had been plotting to
undertake some sort of political violence, the Urewera 17 would have failed to understand the basic realities of
In assessing the potential for terrorism in New Zealand attention should be paid to the problem of creating a separate
body of law that deals with "political crimes," in which the normal rules of natural justice and transparency do not
apply. Like so-called “gateway drugs,” creating a category of “terrorist” crimes represents the beginning of the road
towards criminalising political dissent. When terrorist conspiracy charges can be laid based upon “intent” and “credible
threat,” (as is the case under the 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA)) it behooves the authorities to offer proof that
at a minimum, the capabilities, preparations, planning and targets involved unequivocally demonstrate both.
What is of concern to civil libertarians is that the Terrorism Suppression Act is broad enough to construe terrorist
intent even if the four elements of a terrorist conspiracy are virtually non-existent, and even if there is little
ideological support for the cause being espoused. That would appear to be the situation of the Urewera 17. But a hard
fact remains. Although the TSA makes things easier for the police when it comes to laying terrorism charges, the real
criteria by which any alleged terrorist conspiracy should be judged are the objective facts, not the letter of that
particular Law. Hard evidence, in the form of the baselines mentioned above, will be important criteria upon which a
jury will decide whether a terrorist conspiracy occurred. The Solicitor General needs to be cognizant of this as he
considers laying charges under the TSA against this heterogeneous group of political dissidents, because if the evidence
is not conclusive then the law itself, to say nothing of public confidence in the judgment of the police, will be
Paul G. Buchanan studies unconventional warfare and its underlying causes.