Hiding in plain sight: New Zealand has thousands of Mark John Taylors; the mentally unstable who hate Western Society and are looking for an outlet for that hatred, looking to make a name for themselves. Except Taylor is not mentally unstable, at least not by Islamic standards. Taylor is faithful, committed, believing, dedicated to what he has been taught in his local mosque.
BEING WATCHED: Mark Taylor is also is subject to travel restrictions.
His Twitter handle is “Kiwi Jihadi”.
He posts pictures of himself posing with guns, and – chillingly, in light of recent beheadings – long knives. In one tweet he informs his 46 followers: “I just love mortars and rain.”
Mark John Taylor is the only known Kiwi face of the “foreign fighter” threat. The former Hamilton man now appears to be aligned with the Al-Nusra front – the Syrian arm of al Qaeda.
Taylor, also known as Abu Abdul-Rahman and various other names, resurfaced in Syria earlier this year – a terror suspect whose travel was supposedly restricted three years ago.
Taylor’s Indonesian wife says he is a “good man”. She sends photos of Taylor as proof – him donating blood, or surrounded by young children in Indonesia, where he worked as an English language teacher. In one picture, a young Taylor poses in army greens – his wife, who does not want to be named, claims he was a soldier once, though that can’t be verified.
“Marky is a good man. He is not a terrorist,” she insists.
But a friend, who hooked up with Taylor at a Sydney mosque, is convinced his mate is mentally ill.
He says he gets random communications from Taylor posing with weapons. He finds Taylor’s violent views disturbing. He thinks it unlikely Taylor has hurt anyone, however. His training for the “jihad” was a role-playing war game, which he played for hours on the internet, the friend says.
“I think he is in touch with [al Qaeda] but he’s no use to them other than to be paraded around like some kind of mascot, maybe to try and attract other Westerners to come there and join their cause.”
The Australian and New Zealand governments think otherwise: Taylor is on a terror watch list, and subject to travel restrictions. Prime Minister John Key has confirmed intelligence agencies monitored Taylor for some time.
And Taylor may be just the tip of the iceberg. Key plans to outline the scale of the “foreign fighter” threat in a speech as early as next week. He will likely put numbers to the problem – sources say it’s a lot more than a handful, and significant enough to cause concern.
An unspecified number of Kiwis have had their passports cancelled to stop them travelling to Iraq or Syria to join the cause.
It is not clear whether Taylor’s passport was cancelled; some reports suggest it was, but sources have said he may have left New Zealand before there was an opportunity to remove it from him.
Taylor has publicly stated his desire to come home, however.
Key’s speech is a precursor to even tougher restrictions on the freedom to travel, and potentially new offences imposing stiff sentences on any foreign fighters once they return to New Zealand.
Key may also use the speech to spell out New Zealand’s likely contribution to the United States-led fight against militants in Iraq and Syria, who call themselves the Islamic State (IS).
Green Party co-leader Russel Norman is wary of the Government using the current fear over IS, also known as Isis, to justify a “whole new set of laws breaching basic human rights”.
“My view is it’s really driven by the desire of the Government to please the United States Government; I think that’s what it’s all about. That’s where it all goes back to.”
New Zealand police and the intelligence community are already very powerful agencies with “enormous powers” to intercept anyone who is a genuine threat, Norman says.
“If they’ve got credible evidence that someone is a genuine threat they can go to a judge and get all sorts of surveillance activities or arrest warrants. It’s not like there’s a shortage of laws.”
So what should the Government do instead?
“We could try to take the side of resolving the problem rather than make them worse. We’ve had half a century of US intervention in the Middle East and all it does is make it worse.”
Worldwide, governments are grappling with the foreign fighter dilemma. There are fears that any moves will only add to the domestic terrorism threat – such as the deadly assault on Canada’s Parliament, the work of an angry extremist trapped at home.
Government sources confirm that risk has been weighed up.
“Once you have told people they can’t go [to Syria, or Iraq], all of the evidence suggests they then look for domestic trouble to cause,” says a senior government source.
But letting them leave to fight overseas is not an option either.
“They come back not only radicalised and with evil intent but also reasonably solid tuition from the field.”
Security Intelligence Service director Rebecca Kitteridge says the threat is real – and closer to home than any of us realise.
“This is actually what I think about, all of the time,” she says.
Kitteridge transferred to the SIS six months ago, from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. As Cabinet secretary, she handled constitutional issues and advised the Government on process. It is a world away from the reading material she produces today. In front of her is a thick pile of Isis propaganda material.
Some include shocking images – in one, the severed head of journalist Steven Sotloff, a Western hostage beheaded by Isis, is balanced on his torso. This is what Kitteridge refers to as “crowd sourced” terrorism. A passage from one of the documents urges Muslims to target the citizens of “crusader” nations “wherever they can be found”.
Australia, Britain, the United States, France and Germany get specific mention.
Kitteridge reads aloud from one manual, which tells followers: “Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader and kill him. It is important that the killing becomes attributed to patrons of the Islamic State who have obeyed its leadership. Secrecy should be followed when planning and executing any attack.
“The smaller the numbers of those involved and the less the discussion beforehand, the more likely it will be carried out without problems. One should not complicate the attacks by involving other parties, purchasing complex materials, or communicating with weak-hearted individuals.
“Rely upon Allah and stab the crusader should be the battle cry for all Islamic State patrons.”
This is the sort of material that causes converts like Taylor to take up arms across the other side of the world. Kitteridge refuses to discuss individual cases, such as the self-proclaimed Kiwi jihadist.
But she says people should be in no doubt that Isis has been successful in recruiting Kiwi converts, just as it has been elsewhere in the world.
“It’s not difficult to find this material. There are people who read these sorts of things. There are people who advocate it. There are people who fund it. There are people who facilitate it, so there is a range of people who we are concerned about here,” Kitteridge says.
Asked whether the funding she refers to is aimed at assisting travel to Syria, or facilitating domestic terrorist acts, Kitteridge responds: “It’s a bit of both.”
When pressed further on whether there is evidence of such acts being planned in New Zealand, she says: “There are people who we know are interested in these kinds of acts.”
In another manual, detailed instruction is given on how to set a fire in Australia “in a way that would create the most damage and the most deaths”, Kitteridge says.
“It actually gives step-by-step instructions on how to set a fire to make sure you are upwind, to make sure you are at the right time of year to make sure you would kill the most people.”
The first time she read such a manual she felt “completely sick”, she admits. “What I know is around the world there are particular individuals – and there’s a very small percentage, a tiny percentage, but every single one of these people is of huge concern to an agency like [the SIS], and they are just sucking this up and believing it and wanting to do something about it.”
Last month, the Government raised New Zealand’s threat assessment from very low to low.
That means the assessment of the threat of a terrorist attack has gone from unlikely to possible, but not expected.
It is the first time the New Zealand Government has publicly commented about the threat level.
Kitteridge says people should not be afraid to leave their houses – but nor should they assume that New Zealand is immune from what they were seeing overseas.
“I did actually see quite a humorous cartoon that said it had gone from ‘nah’ to ‘yeah nah’ and I know that it might look like, ‘What’s the big deal?’
“I guess what I can see and what everybody can presumably see is that events that have been happening have been very dramatic globally in terms of the rise of Isis and there is a very small percentage of New Zealanders who actually buy that rhetoric.”
Again, Kitteridge refuses to discuss individual cases. But the national spotlight has already fallen on a mosque in Avondale, where there have been sensational claims that a former teacher, Sheikh Abu Abdullah, encouraged his followers to “jihad” against infidels.
Two men who attended his classes had their passports cancelled before they could board a plane to Syria.
There have been several violent incidents but Abdullah’s followers claim intelligence agencies are harassing innocent people.
Kitteridge says the Avondale situation is “quite distressing for the Muslim community generally”. She acknowledges, meanwhile, that her comments could contribute to a backlash against the same community.
“The worst thing that can happen is that anything I say would be seen as building up fear of this particular community because I don’t think that would be warranted.
“We are talking about a small number of what I would consider disturbed individuals, a tiny percentage of particular individuals who happen to buy into a tiny sliver of this kind of rhetoric. But they are not typical.”