New Zealand spy bosses have revealed Kiwi men and women remain alongside Islamic State and other extremist groups in the Middle East.

While politicians grappled over legislation aimed at protecting the country from the risks posed by people returning here after engaging in terrorism activities overseas, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) provided them with some of their latest intel, including the "threat" posed by some on their potential return.

The latter includes conducting a terror attack themselves, or "inciting" others to do so – a stance which is backed by a New Zealand-based security and intelligence expert who has previously done consultancy work for the US Government.

In a briefing to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee – which had considered the Terrorism Suppression (Control Orders) Bill - the SIS said it believed Kiwis continue to work alongside Islamic terrorist groups.

Advertisement

"There is a small number of New Zealanders – men and women – some of whom are dual citizens, believed to remain in Syria or Iraq alongside Isil and other extremist groups," the SIS said in the document obtained by the Herald.

"It is possible there may be other New Zealanders that have travelled to the conflict zone that we do not know about."

A Rod Emmerson cartoon which appeared in the New Zealand Herald in June 2016
A Rod Emmerson cartoon which appeared in the New Zealand Herald in June 2016

The bill – which passed its third reading in Parliament on December 12 – would provide police with the power to seek a control order from the High Court for Kiwis returning here after having been involved in terrorist activities.

Conditions covered by an order include electronic monitoring, a requirement to live at a specific address, restrict access to the internet, and enforce regular reporting to the police.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said of the legislation when it became law earlier this month it was "designed to prevent terrorism and support de-radicalisation in a way that is consistent with New Zealand's human rights laws."

In the earlier SIS briefing – provided to the select committee on November 14 – the SIS said it was "very difficult" to obtain accurate information about New Zealanders who had travelled to some of the terror hotspots as "situations are very fluid".

The spy agency was working with its international partners to get all the information it could on New Zealanders "who may be involved in the conflict".

The Bill was introduced by Little amid the likelihood some New Zealanders would soon start returning home.

Advertisement

That was something touched on by the SIS which stated the Turkish offensive in north-east Syria had "increased the likelihood that foreign fighters and extremist travellers will be deported back to their countries of origin or third countries".

Caged Kurdish prisoners being paraded through Kirkuk by Islamic State fighters in 215. Photo / Supplied
Caged Kurdish prisoners being paraded through Kirkuk by Islamic State fighters in 215. Photo / Supplied

Turkey was considering deporting foreigners it had detained, with the SIS saying Turkish authorities had given "no indication" they would flag the pending arrivals to respective nations.

"Should a foreign terrorist fighter arrive in New Zealand, there are a range of threats the individual/s may present to New Zealand's domestic security," the SIS stated.

"The threat each individual would pose to New Zealand national security should they arrive in New Zealand would be specific to their own circumstances, including their activities in the conflict zone, their intent and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in New Zealand, awareness of their arrival by authorities or any conditions placed upon them."

As well as launching their own attack, other threats they could pose were "radicalising others", and "inciting, encouraging or supporting others to conduct an attack".

The information shared with the select committee came as no surprise to 36th Parallel Assessment's Dr Paul Buchanan – a security and intelligence expert – who said previously it was believed up to two dozen New Zealanders had travelled to the Middle East since the creation of Islamic State.

New Zealander Mark Taylor has been dubbed the
New Zealander Mark Taylor has been dubbed the "bumbling jihadi" and has become the face of new anti-terrorism laws here. Photo / Supplied

However, he said it was unclear how many were aligned to the terror group, or who had travelled to join the Free Syrian Army who initially formed in 2011 to bring down Bashar al-Assad's Syrian Government and have since waged brutal war with Islamic extremists.

Buchanan said New Zealand security officials were right to consider any returning would-be Kiwi jihadhis a security risk.

"Now that they [Islamic State] have lost the physical caliphate, they are urging [foreign fighters] to go back to their home countries and continue with low-level, lone wolf, small cell type operations like we have seen in Europe over the last few years," he said.

"This is the next evolution of the irregular warfare game. They have reason to be concerned even if there is one of these people wanting to come back."

Security expert: Kiwi 'bumbling jihadi' not the biggest threat to New Zealand

Global security and intelligence expert Dr Paul Buchanan says while the dubbed 'bumbling jihadi' Mark Taylor may have become the face of new terrorism laws, he should not be considered a major public enemy to our national security.

Taylor – also known as Mohammad Daniel and Abu Abdul Rahman – travelled from New Zealand to Syria in 2014 to join Islamic State.

A year later he was tagged the 'bumbling jihadi' after mistakenly revealing the location of Islamic State fighters on Twitter after failing to turn off a tracking function on his phone.

He has been in custody in Syria since December 2018 and wants to return home. And earlier this year Taylor told a journalist he would like to set up a medicinal cannabis company in New Zealand.

His face was widely used in coverage of the Bill designed to place restrictions on any New Zealanders returning after fighting alongside terror groups.

A Rod Emmerson cartoon on the expected return of New Zealand would-be jihadis which appeared in the New Zealand Herald in March
A Rod Emmerson cartoon on the expected return of New Zealand would-be jihadis which appeared in the New Zealand Herald in March

Little said in October: "He might be a bumbling idiot, but he has gone there [Syria] to fight and participate in and support extremist activity.

"He hasn't denounced his views and ideologies ... this guy is not safe."

But Buchanan – from 36th Parallel Assessments, and who has previously done consultancy work for the US Government - said while Taylor was being used as the "face of this law", he believed he would not be at the top of the list for potential home-based security threats.

"He was never in combat," Buchanan said. "He was just a gopher, mailman, bodyguard and messenger ... quite frankly he lacks the intellectual capability.

"But he is a good face to hang on this bill because we all know him, we all know about him.

"This guy wants to come back here and start a legal cannabis enterprise. I doubt a hardcore jihadist is going to worry about [something like that]."

But Buchanan stressed he wouldn't classify other New Zealanders who trained and fought alongside Islamic State, or other terror networks in the Middle East, in the same light as Taylor.

In a briefing paper to Parliament's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee during its consideration of the Bill, the New Zealand SIS revealed there were a "small number" of Kiwi men and women who they believed remained in Syria or Iraq with Islamic State or "other extremist groups".

And he said he expected returning women to be treated differently to men.

"Let's say there are six people out there and they all come back, and two of them are women," Buchanan said.

"And those two women now have a flock of kids as they were used as reproduction devices by Isis fighters. Dealing with them and their reassimilation into society is going to be fundamentally different than dealing with the four guys.

"The women I doubt very much that they will have had a lot of weapons training, that they would be as murderously inclined [as the men]."

Deradicalisation programmes should also be onhand to those who return, he said.

The extent of help they would require would depend on the country and "brand of Islam" they had been accustomed to, he said.