N.Z. terror case has implications for region: expert

An international security expert says a Sri Lankan terror suspect’s visit to Samoa in 2016 has implications for the region and governments should remain vigilant.

Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen, who was living in New Zealand when he travelled to Samoa and spent 4 days in the country, was shot dead by New Zealand police last month following a knife attack in an Auckland supermarket.

But Jose Sousa-Santos, who is a Pacific Policy Fellow at the Australia Pacific Security College, wrote in an analysis for the Asia and Pacific Policy Society blog on Tuesday that there is reason to be concerned and governments in the region should remain vigilant.

“The Samsudeen case highlights two key issues for regional security. First, terrorist activities beyond the islands – including Australia and New Zealand – can have direct implications for the Pacific Island region,” writes Mr Sousa-Santos.

“This is not because Pacific Islands will become radical training camps, but because the Pacific is vulnerable to becoming a thoroughfare for terrorist organisations and groups targeting Australia and New Zealand.”

According to Mr Sousa-Santos, this could be done in conjunction with transnational criminal syndicates whose numbers in the region continue to increase.

“The factors which allow criminal organisations and terrorist groups to use the Pacific as a thoroughfare are the same, namely a low risk of detection, porous borders, limited resources to combat crime, and corruption,” he added.

“Second, this case highlights the need for effective intelligence sharing and enforcement mechanisms within the region. 

“Samsudeen’s choice of destination to do a test run was likely deliberate; Samoa presented a much lower risk of detection at the border than Australia.”

Mr Sousa-Santos said counter-terrorism has a “patchy history” in the Pacific islands, which he said wasn’t surprising due to the region experiencing little to no threats from terrorist attacks.

“A spike in attention took place following 9/11, however this was largely driven by Australia as it aligned itself with the United States-led ‘war on terror’.”

Nevertheless, there are a number of Pacific nations which appear to be proactive, in terms of their national response to counter the terror threat with Mr Sousa-Santos making reference to four states – Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – launching their own national security policies which identified terrorism as a transnational security threat.

He said that while there is unlikely to be a terror attack in the region, the potential for the region to be used as a stepping stone to targets in Australia or New Zealand remains.

“As unlikely as a terrorist attack in the Pacific is, there is potential for the Pacific to be a thoroughfare or gateway to targets in Australia or New Zealand,” he wrote.

“This potential is heightened by the likelihood of terrorist activity increasing globally, including in Southeast Asia and as a consequence of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

“However, with the policy focus shifting towards great power competition, there is a risk that countering terrorism and the crime-terror nexus will be given diminishing attention by policymakers.”

As a way forward for the region, Mr Sousa-Santos suggested that more attention is paid to sharing intelligence and enforcement mechanisms. 

“As Samsudeen’s case demonstrated, the Pacific is seen as a soft security environment. But counter-terrorism initiatives can be strengthened in the region by other means,” he wrote.

“Efforts to combat transnational crime will result in a less permissive environment and assist law enforcement and security agencies to target entities utilising the crime-terror nexus to facilitate their operations.

“Moreover, paying more attention to the nexus between state-based competition and grey-zone activities in the Pacific could result in enhanced intelligence sharing and enforcement mechanisms, as well as training. 

“A more capable Pacific in the face of complex security threats will be better placed to respond to new terrorism threats.”

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