Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: 'Jihadi brides' apology needed

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SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge. Photo / Mark Mitchell
SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Kiwi jihadi brides! When, at a parliamentary committee hearing in December last year, SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge assented to John Key's use of the term "jihadi brides" as a label for what she called the emerging "issue of New Zealand women travelling to Iraq and Syria", news editors must have rubbed their hands together. What a terrifying, yet captivating thought: jihadi brides in our midst! The debate around intelligence and surveillance is very often esoteric and convoluted. But this cut chillingly through: Kiwi jihadi brides!

TVNZ went with the headline: "New Zealand women are travelling to Iraq and Syria in large numbers to be jihadi brides, says New Zealand's spy agency". Seven Sharp's Mike Hosking summed up: "Kiwi jihadi brides - everyone's talking about them this week. How many are there? What kind of threat do they pose? The Government's taking this very seriously and the SIS, they're all over this apparently."

Beneath the headline "Kiwi Jihadi brides on the rise", meanwhile, the news website Stuff reported: "Kitteridge said after the committee hearing the numbers leaving from New Zealand were small but significant - but declined to give further details."

Except they weren't, it turns out, leaving from New Zealand at all. This handful of women had travelled to Syria and Iraq from Australia. No wonder the NZ Islamic Women's Council were utterly mystified by the claims - they believed there had been no "jihadi brides" in their community, presumably because there were none.

And while neither Kitteridge nor Key seems to have explicitly used the words "leaving from New Zealand", it's deeply puzzling that they didn't correct reports that surmised, understandably, just that. Somebody hire the SIS some comms staff!

The minister responsible for the SIS, Chris Finlayson, insisted this week there had been nothing said to suggest the women had been living in New Zealand. "If you go back to the statements that were made there were no implications or winks and nods," he told media, pirouetting on the end of a pin.

The fact of the matter, however, is that Kitteridge's description of the women, which prompted Key's "jihadi bride" characterisation, came directly in response to a question from Key, the committee chair - a question about sympathy for Islamic terrorism "in this country at the bottom of the earth". He didn't mean Australia.

The jihadi bride hyperbole gave dramatic and persuasive edge to heated arguments for increased powers for New Zealand spooks. Those increased powers - as elaborated in last week's Cullen-Reddy review - utterly depend on New Zealanders trusting the agency bosses, and the politicians to whom they report, to behave in a sober and responsible manner, without misdirecting and misleading the media and the public. Key and Kitteridge owe us all, and NZ Muslim women especially, an apology.

Debate on this article is now closed

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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