The Government should have acted over concerns IS fighter Mark Taylor could return to New Zealand long before they had to put forward a new counter-terrorism bill, a foreign policy expert says.
The Government's new Terrorism Suppression Control Orders Bill, which could see the courts constrain potential terrorists for up to two years, will receive its first reading in Parliament today.
The bill was designed to detain people such as Taylor, who could potentially return to the country after fighting for IS in the Middle East prior to being imprisoned by the Kurds in Syria.
Global security expert Robert Patman, from the University of Otago, explained that in early March, the Government was approached by the Kurds who, at the time, had "much of the ISIS militants under detention in northern Syria", to say New Zealand should "look at taking Mark Taylor off their hands".
"He was told if he could make his way to the consulate in Ankara, in Turkey, then we could take him back from there," Mr Patman told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning. "It was a slightly 'wait and see' approach. We were certainly taking responsibility for the fact he was a New Zealand citizen, but it didn't show, I think, the urgency that was required.
"I just think we were a bit slow off the mark but I welcome what's happened recently."
Mr Patman added that the Government "is naturally concerned" over the Hamilton-born Taylor, adding that it would "take some time to build a case, because what Mr Taylor’s been doing for ISIS remains to be fully seen".
"He claims he was just a bit player, but we don't know that, and so that would take some time."
He noted that the current act, which was put together around 2002, "was designed to deal with the possibility of people coming into the country, such as Al-Qaeda operatives – now, we're in a different situation where someone's returning – a New Zealander is returning from ISIS."
Mr Patman said that it "may be difficult to immediately detain that person under the terms of reference of the current act", adding that a potential holding order, "whereby someone can be taken out of circulation, they can be effectively monitored and before the case can be made and the evidence assembled", could help ease the public's concern.
"The public will be gravely concerned if someone like Mark Taylor got off the plane, couldn’t be detained under our laws, and was free to go about his business while the Government was building a case."
Mr Patman said the New Zealand Government has been "nonchalant and casual" about Mr Taylor, who has been described as the "bumbling Jihadi".
"I don't buy into the view he's a bumbling fool. I think this idea that bringing him back quickly will be a compassionate act is completely wrong - in fact, quite the reverse," Mr Patman said.
"It would show that we're business-like and professional in dealing with people who've joined one of the most extreme and barbaric organisations around, and the fact that we hesitated and acted, I think, in anything but like a business-like manner, it wasn't consistent with our support for the international, rules-based order.
"If a terrorist is released or appears to be released from custody, it’s our business to make sure that person face the rule-filled rigor of the law, and since it's a New Zealand citizen, he must face justice in his country."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said later on Breakfast that the bill has been worked on since around September 2018, adding that "some claims that it was only in response to the recent changes in the landscape in Syria just isn't correct".
She also said the Government's seemingly late response to Taylor's potential return to New Zealand was not over "a lack of interest in Mark Taylor", but the difficulty of discerning information on the ground.
"The point that I've been making is that in Syria, we do not have a consular assistant, we do not have representation on the ground. It’s not a field that we have deployments into, so it's very hard for us to establish what's happening at any given time with any potential New Zealand citizens involved in foreign terrorist fighting," Ms Ardern said.
"That does not mean that we should not be prepared, in New Zealand, for the potential return, which is what this law does.
"It's about keeping New Zealanders safe. We cannot be complacent, even though there’s a very small number of New Zealanders potentially involved."