Has the PM made his case?
By general consensus, Islamic State is the world’s wealthiest and most successful terrorist group – on the battlefront and on the internet, where it runs a sophisticated propaganda operation.
Last week, an official Islamic State speech was released in seven languages. It also has a slick recruitment drive on social media platforms, and operates a network of ‘‘recruitment hotels’’ in Turkey to deliver volunteers to its training camps, and onwards to the battlefield.
Given the diplomatic pressures involved, Prime Minister John Key probably felt obliged to sign New Zealand to the ‘‘coalition of the willing’’.
This 23-member group has been formed to support United States President Obama’s pledge to stop the Islamic State advance, and to ultimately destroy it.
The Islamic State countermeasures announced by Key last week had two dimensions, overseas and local.
A handful of New Zealand troops will be deployed in ‘‘training’’ roles inside Iraq – not to fight Islamic State, but as advisers to the beleaguered Iraqi army.
The bulk of the training will not occur until next year, assuming the Iraqi Government in Baghdad has not been over-run by then.
The controversial part of Key’s announcement concerned the expansion of SIS surveillance powers at home, to monitor and intercept any budding jihadists.
As Key indicated, 30 or 40 people are being monitored, and 30 or 40 others are of concern.
To expand its surveillance operations, the SIS will receive an extra $7 million to hire staff.
Also, the Government will seek to extend its powers to cancel passports from the current oneyear period to three years, and – under certain conditions – wants to enable the SIS to carry out surveillance operations for 48 hours without a warrant.
Much of the forthcoming parliamentary debate will hinge on whether the SIS needs powers beyond those it currently possesses.
As lawyer Graeme Edgeler has argued, the Terrorism Suppression Act already grants powers of surveillance, passport seizure and prosecution against any group – such as Islamic State – that has been branded by the United Nations as a terrorist organisation.
‘‘They can already be arrested, they can be charged, and even if all you’re doing is making the sandwiches, you’re probably still guilty of [an] offence,’’ he said.
Five New Zealanders, Key stated, are already fighting in Syria.
However, as security analyst Paul Buchanan has pointed out, such people could well be fighting against the Islamic State and the Assad regime for moderate rebel forces that the West supports.
To Buchanan, the Government’s response is a virtual admission of failure: ‘‘It implicitly recognises that the combined resources of the GCSB, SIS, Immigration, Customs, New Zealand Defence Force, Police and other security agencies are unable to monitor the activities of the dozen or so Kiwis who may have jihadist pretensions, despite the fact that New Zealand is an isolated archipelago with no land borders [and] with a very small Muslim community from which potential jihadists are drawn.’’
Around the world, the public is being asked to trade off basic liberties for the promise of greater security.
In this case, the Government probably still needs to convince the public that Islamic State poses such an immediate threat to New Zealand’s interests as to justify expanding the Government’s powers of surveillance.