New Zealand recently designated two U.S. far-right groups, the Proud Boys and the Base, as terrorist organizations. This puts them in the same category as groups such as the Islamic State and makes it a crime for any New Zealander to support or join the group.
What does this designation mean?
Terrorist designation, also called proscription, is a policy used by many countries to declare organizations as serious threats to security. The United States, for example, has a list of 68 officially designated foreign terrorist organizations, along with other lists of individual terrorists and related entities.
The New Zealand list, like those of other countries, makes it a criminal act to belong or provide support to listed groups, even by donating online. New Zealanders can face up to 14 years in prison for providing funding to a terrorist entity.
Why were these groups designated?
Countries regularly add and, less frequently, remove groups from their lists as they get more information about threats. My research with Mirna El-Masri into six countries’ terrorist lists found that Islamist groups have been the most likely to be designated in recent decades. This is consistent with other work showing that (Western) governments and publics have been less likely to consider white supremacists terrorists than other violent individuals or groups.
But some Western countries have been changing that recently. Last year, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom added the Base to their terrorist lists. Canada also designated the Proud Boys and other far-right groups. In designating the Proud Boys and the Base, New Zealand has followed that pattern.
Why would New Zealand have designated these groups, given that the Proud Boys or the Base do not seem to be operating in the country? Most likely, it’s because New Zealand has been on high alert against right-wing violence since a 2019 white-supremacist shooting that killed 51 people in Christchurch mosques. The shooter drew on propaganda from other countries, and inspired other extremists, like the U.S. gunman who attacked an El Paso Walmart later the same year, killing 20 people.
In other words, the government is recognizing that the growing right-wing violence in Western countries has global causes and consequences. Both designated groups operate in many countries. The Base is a white-supremacist network with global ties. New Zealand’s case for designating the Proud Boys mentions the group’s transnational presence and its organized involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Although the Proud Boys claim not to be racist, they advocate what they call “Western chauvinism.” Members of the group appeared prominently at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Consequently, they are considered broadly part of the same racist, transnational, far-right movement as the Base.
How will this affect the two groups outside the country?
Despite New Zealand’s population of only 5 million and its physical isolation from most developed nations, its designations can have important consequences.
The Proud Boys and the Base rely on online support, including donations. Groups that depend on donations are more likely to be affected by terrorist designations. As the Christchurch shooting showed, New Zealand has far-right sympathizers, some of whom might have helped finance the Proud Boys or the Base. The designations make such potential donations a serious crime, which could discourage them. Further, when one country designates a group, other countries often follow suit. The more countries that list a group, the more likely it is that others do, too. That could hurt fundraising even more.
But donations are just the beginning. Designations can actually lead to fewer attacks, my research suggests, specifically among the military allies of the designating country. That’s because international cooperation is essential in global counterterrorism. When one country designates a terrorist group, it collects more information that it can then pass along to those allies — like the United States.
In other words, New Zealand’s designations may be important in the growing effort to fight the financing and operations of far-right extremist organizations.