Intelligence assessments into the anti-vax movement say there is a "realistic possibility" a violent protest or terrorist act could be carried out by extremist elements linked to the "overwhelmingly peaceful" opposition to the Covid-19 vaccine.
The assessment comes from the Combined Threat Assessment Group, which is housed in the NZ Security Intelligence Service but draws expertise and information from security-focused agencies across the government sector.
Four separate assessments into the anti-vax movements show a shift in concern from February last year through to November.
And the reports, released through the Official Information Act, show an escalation in warnings from June onwards with the prediction Covid-19 "mitigation" efforts - vaccine mandates and passports - would be "likely to have an impact on the New Zealand terrorism threat environment over the near-to medium-term".
While the intelligence reports repeatedly emphasise the broadly peaceful nature of the anti-vax movements, they highlight the vaccine mandates and passport as particular policies that might drive an individual to violence and the presence of extremist elements.
The contrast between June and November is striking as the earlier CTAG assessments predicted any acts of violence as likely to be "an isolated instance of violent protest rather than an act of terrorism".
By November, CTAG found the risk exacerbated by increasingly violent online rhetoric and people among anti-vax groups with personal grievances and extremist beliefs.
It stated that most opposed to such steps were "unlikely to have the intent to conduct an act of extremist violence there is a realistic possibility that one or more individuals in New Zealand have the intent and almost certainly the basic capability to conduct an act of terrorism in relation to the COVID-19 mitigation programmes.
"We assess the most likely scenario for a terrorist attack in New Zealand remains a lone actor attack, using a basic capability." The reference to a "basic capability" is security service-speak for attacks by methods available to the general population, such as driving a vehicle into a crowd or using a knife.
The assessments accurately forecasted growing social division and protest if New Zealand went down the path of mandates and vaccine passports.
The reports - or at least the content - would have been made available to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and at least some Cabinet ministers ahead of making the decision to pursue the mandates and vaccine passports. It shows the decision to forge ahead with a public health approach wasn't made without knowledge it could spark strong opposition.
The Prime Minister's office did not respond to a request for comment.
The first "threat assessment" was dated February 19, 2021 - the day the first vaccinations were given. It aimed to measure the "potential for violent extremist threat to New Zealand's national Covid-19 vaccination programme" and stated "anti-vaccination movements globally are not inherently violent".
But it did warn that "individuals pursuing an anti-vax agenda abroad have expressed intent to conduct acts of violence against ideological opponents" including health professionals and politicians promoting vaccination.
In the June "threat insight" report, CTAG identified two incidents overseas in which saw individuals opposed to public health measures and motivated by conspiracy theories who attempted to use vehicles as weapons.
The first case didn't name but referred to Canadian Christopher Saccoccia who had protested against public health measures and was accused of driving his car at a police officer attempting to arrest him for threatening to kill politicians.
The second case referred to was that of Tennessee's Virginia Christine Lewis Brown - "almost certainly motivated by QAnon and Covid-19 conspiracy theories" - who drove a vehicle at speed through a vaccination event, almost hitting several people.
The CTAG report said the incidents showed the "willingness of some individuals to use Covid-19 conspiracy theories or personal grievances to justify violent or threatening behaviour". The report said the incidents highlighted how "ideologically-motivated violence could occur with little or no forewarning".
Sections of the threat assessment were redacted with the NZSIS citing the need to protect national security. It did note the presence of "anti Covid-19 rhetoric" in New Zealand and stated: "Should any such violence occur, we currently assess this would more likely manifest as an isolated instance of violent protest rather than an act of terrorism."
The tenor of the CTAG reports changed by September when it warned "extremist violence in opposition to Covid-19 mitigation" efforts had occurred overseas and was almost certain to continue.
The CTAG report said such actions were "highly likely to influence the New Zealand terrorism threat environment over the medium term". The report warned "violent extremists" would focus attacks on symbolic targets such as Covid-19 testing sites and vaccination clinics to "maximise impact and attention".
It noted "anti-vaxx, political-motivated extremism" incidents in New Zealand but none involving "extremist violence or terrorism to date". The report said it was expected domestic "online threatening rhetoric" would increase as vaccine mandates and other strict public health policies developed.
In a section titled "Nexus to Violent Extremism", it described the anti-vax movements as not "an inherently violent extremist ideology" but one at risk of "online radicalisation" through "anti-vax rhetoric" that drew on "a wide variety of fringe conspiracy theories".
It said anti-vax rhetoric resonated most closely with the "politically-motivated extremist community" such as the QAnon conspiracy and the Sovereign Citizens movement that believes individuals can choose which laws to obey.
The CTAG report said such rhetoric "continues to manifest across all violent extremist ideologies" with Covid-19 conspiracy theories popular on pro-Islamic State social media.
It warned it was "almost certain that moderate individuals within the anti-vax community face increasing exposure to extremist rhetoric with a realistic possibility of increased rates of radicalisation as a result."
It was "highly likely that violent extremist ideologues" would use opposition to Covid-19 measures like vaccine mandates and passports "to advance their respective ideologies within the anti-vax community".
By November, the CTAG assessment noted "a significant increase in anti-government rhetoric, including some that is explicitly violent", largely driven by the vaccine mandate and passport and the lockdown then still under way in Auckland.
The CTAG report assessed most of those adopting or supporting "violent extremist rhetoric" would be "highly unlikely to have the intent to conduct violence".
"We judge, however, that the volume and nature of the rhetoric is creating an environment that normalises and justifies violent rhetoric as a legitimate response to public policy."
Intelligence analysts considered the normalisation along with individual personal grievances "increases the likelihood that individuals will be radicalised and inspired to mobilise to violence".
The volume of violent language online, along with its broad adoption by others, created the risk that security services could miss genuine threats among the mass of threatening language.
The CTAG report said it had also now identified "faith-motivated extremists" and "white identity-motivated extremists" alongside politically-driven extremists. The groups were "a very small proportion of those opposed" to the public health approach, who it described as "driven by a diverse set of ideological frameworks and personal grievances" and were "overwhelmingly peaceful".
It was this November assessment that described a "realistic possibility" one or more people had the intent and capability to carry out an act of violent protest or terrorism.
Extremists - from 'Saviour' to 'Avenger'
Terrorism risk assessments released to the Herald include a behavioural typology of extremists - the "Saviour" and the "Avenger".
The terms describe profiles for the roles that "violent extremist actors" identify as filing.
In the case of the "Saviour", the CTAG assessment described the role as one taken on by an extremist "attempting to pre-emptively 'save' or 'preserve' a community or ways of life from an external threat".
The report described how that could play out in an anti-vax framework, with extremists seeing themselves as "attempting to 'free' society from government restrictions or stop a nefarious plot to use vaccinations to alter the DNA of the human race".
In that context, those "Saviours" who fixated on a target might include vaccination and testing centres, lockdown checkpoints and government places linked to the vaccination policy.
The "Avenger" profile was the other side of the coin with the CTAG report describing it as someone "seeking to undo changes that have already occurred or to punish the perpetrators".
For anti-vax extremists, it could see them "seeking to punish government or private industry" for restricting access to travel and employment options.
The report said targets of anti-vax "Avengers" could include politicians fronting Covid-19 protection laws, law enforcement seeking to enforce the laws or private companies that endorsed and took on pro-vaccination employment practices.
The briefing also sought to identify the dominant "extremist narratives", "most of which are heavily intermingled with conspiracy theories".
It reported that those beliefs fell into two categories - "control" and "depopulation".
The "control" narrative was one in which Covid-19 health approaches were seen as part of a government plan to "erode civil and religious freedoms". That included the perception non-vaccinated people suffered "segregation" through restricted access to places and services, and conspiracy theories such as mass surveillance being carried out through microchips some believed within vaccine doses.
The "depopulation" narrative was built around the belief the vaccine was intended to wipe out or alter the global population. It included theories the vaccine was developed to sterilise certain ethnicities or religions or to "alter the DNA of the global population for nefarious purposes".
No credible evidence has emerged to support any of these theories.