Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

NZ's terror risk 'low' but English warns against complacency

Brussels was the target of terror attacks last year. Photo / Getty Images
Brussels was the target of terror attacks last year. Photo / Getty Images

A meeting with Nato head Jens Stoltenberg has given Prime Minister Bill English an insight into the terror attacks across Europe, as well as a warning about New Zealand's security.

Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), met English in Brussels this morning.

When asked afterwards how safe countries such as New Zealand were from the terror attacks that have blighted Europe, Stoltenberg said Isis was losing ground in Iraq and Syria and was now on the defensive.

"At the same time we see that [Isis] is responsible for terror attacks all around the world and we have to be vigilant. We have to be aware of the threats - and they are present and they are all over the world, including of course far away from Europe and from Syria and from Iraq."

He said that underlined the importance of continuing to fight Isis and stabilising the countries where the terror group was prominent.

English said it had been valuable to hear Stoltenberg's assessment of the security situation in Europe.

"While we are not directly affected by some of the more recent instability and changes in different countries' views, the decisions that are made about that ultimately affect New Zealand and they certainly affect the open multi-lateral system we support and which underpins our economy."

English downplayed the risk of a terror attack in New Zealand, saying it was "low risk" because of its location and because it had "beefed up" security in intelligence and at the border.

"We are happy to be in a situation where our risk is low, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be vigilant. We want New Zealanders to be safe and you don't do that by ignoring the problem."

Former PM John Key had sometimes talked of the risk to New Zealand from radicalised New Zealand citizens returning home, partly to justify measures such as the foreign fighters legislation and expanding the powers of intelligence, as well as revealing about 70 New Zealanders were on the intelligence agencies' watchlist because of suspected links to terror groups.

English said Nato was a valuable relationship for New Zealand, which was a "considered and consistent" participant in international security system.

"We see a connected world as delivering great benefits, not just to New Zealand but to many other countries. Equally we understand our responsibility to be part of maintaining the security of that world, and in our own case of course, the protection of New Zealand citizens who are among the world's most inveterate travellers."

English met Stoltenberg on his last day in Brussels, which was itself hit by a terror attacks in March last year at the airport and Maalbeek Metro station.

That ensured security was tight in some parts of the city and armed police patrolled key transport hubs.

Nato and the European Commission headquarters all had signs advising of the current threat level - Bravo at Nato and 'yellow' at the European Commission - and security to enter was tight.

Afghanistan: A long road ahead

Stoltenberg also told English he believed Nato coalition countries, which include New Zealand will have to be in Afghanistan for a long time to come, despite the bulk of combat troops withdrawing in 2013.

Although he downplayed talk of a return to combat work, he said Afghanistan faced difficult challenges and there had been several terrorist attacks in recent times.

"I believe we have to stay for a long time. We have to assess and develop as time evolves, but we are committed to Afghanistan."

English said a decision on New Zealand's deployment in Afghanistan would be made closer to the end of the current deployment of trainers to Afghanistan's army academy mid next year. New Zealand also has about 120 people in Iraq training Iraqi forces.

Although he would not rule it out, English indicated he would be reluctant to involve New Zealand in combat roles or to re-deploy the SAS if the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan escalated.

"Generally the Government has been fairly cautious about that. The decision to send people to Iraq to do training is under quite specific conditions and you'd need to have a pretty strong case to adjust those."

He said the New Zealand work training Iraqi forces had been effective and Iraqi forces had reclaimed territory from Islamic State.

"So we are not contemplating some big change that would require combat troops there."

However, he said it was "a long, slow job".

"As circumstances unfold, those decisions have to be reviewed. If there are changes in circumstances we take that into account at the time. But the current framework stays as it is."

English said Stoltenberg had been optimistic about the prospects of long-term stability in Afghanistan.

New Zealand withdrew its main peacekeeping force from Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2012 as part of a wider drawback of troops by other coalition countries, including the United States.

Since 2013, New Zealand has contributed a small group of trainers in Kabul at the Afghanistan Army academy as part of the Nato-led "Resolute Support Mission". Last year, that deployment was increased from eight to 10 trainers and extended until June next year.

The SAS has previously also been deployed in Afghanistan and although it wa technically in support to Afghan special forces, it was sometimes drawn into combat during attacks by insurgents.

Nato and NZ: Work ahead

Stoltenberg thanked New Zealand for its contribution to Nato operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan and on anti-piracy missions at sea in areas such as off the Horn of Africa. Although that operation had ended, Nato was discussing further maritime cooperation with New Zealand.

"New Zealand may be far away on the map, but New Zealand is one of Nato's closest global partners. We share the same values, we share the same commitment to peace and security and New Zealand and Nato work together in many different operations and missions to secure peace and stability."

In response, English pledged to continue to contribute, pointing to the recent Defence White Paper and saying it set out the investment needed for New Zealand to work alongside others and take on the roles expected of it, especially in maritime exercises.

English said he expected New Zealand to undertake more work alongside Nato after hearing Stoltenberg's views.

"It does seem to fit our skill set, where they want to focus a bit more on prevention in some of these fragile states rather than combat and civil breakdown. So if the future focus is going to be a bit more on peacekeeping and training, then that would fit our skill set."

The visit to Nato was one English's last meetings before leaving Brussels for London where he will met London Mayor Sadiq Khan and British Prime Minister Theresa May tonight (NZ time).

- NZ Herald

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