SIS head Rebecca Kitteridge has denied she was scaremongering or misleading the public about New Zealanders going to the Middle East as so-called 'jihadi brides' and says she still believes it is a serious concern for New Zealand's security.
In an interview with the Herald, Ms Kitteridge said she had spoken about jihadi brides at a select committee last December because they were a genuine security concern and the women were more likely to return to New Zealand than to Australia, even if they had previously lived in Australia. Ms Kitteridge was criticised in March after it was revealed those women had actually been living in and left from Australia rather than New Zealand. That prompted Opposition MPs and some in the Muslim community to criticise Prime Minister John Key and Ms Kitteridge for being misleading and scaremongering by failing to clarify that.
In her first media interviews since then, Ms Kitteridge told the Herald she did not believe she had been misleading. "The information I gave was accurate."
"In the case of the women who travelled to Syria, I explained they were New Zealand women who had travelled to the Middle East to marry Jihadi fighters. That was my focus, because that is the security issue. The concern for me was the fact we had these citizens in the Middle East who are quite likely, if they survive the experience, to return here."
She said it was more likely those women would return to New Zealand than Australia because Australia was likely to turn them away. Its anti-terrorism laws allowed it to deny entry and revoke citizenship from foreign fighters and those involved in terrorist groups. "So if those women survive their experience they will return, probably at some point. It is more likely they will come here than go to Australia even if they were entitled to live in Australia because the Australians are not too keen on having returnees."
She said those woman could be at risk themselves of getting killed, could be radicalised and used for terrorism activity or radicalising others online.
She said there were still women in Islamic State controlled parts of the Middle East. "We do remain concerned about them." The Prime Minister, who had asked about the jihadi brides at the committee meeting, was briefed about the women on the basis they were New Zealand citizens in Islamic State controlled areas and presented a security concern for a range of reasons.
Ms Kitteridge said the SIS was still concerned about the reach of Islamic State on social media and its recruiting power internationally, pointing to the arrest of an 18-year-old man in Australia this week suspected of planning a terrorist attack.
"We do remain concerned about that. Because of social media, it's a kind of crowd-sourced terrorism which means Islamic State's tentacles go far and wide. Just in Australia today there was an 18-year-old boy was arrested for attack planning and it appears that person was probably radicalised online. So we shouldn't be complacent about it."
However, she said New Zealand's threat level remained at low. "So I don't want to overstate it either." She said it was the job of the SIS to detect and monitor any potential threats and pass it on to Police when needed. "So it remains a real issue for us. Not one I think the public should be worried about on a day to day basis but certainly one that it is our responsibility to continue addressing."
She said the number of people on the SIS' active watchlist had not changed since 2014 and remained at 30-40 people. The SIS was usually also pursuing between 60-70 leads passed on by other agencies or the public to assess whether somebody was enough of a threat to be put on the watchlist.