Jacinda Ardern exercising caution with comments about Louisa Akavi over fear of Islamic State propaganda manipulation

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will exercise caution when commenting on abducted New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi for fear the Islamic State (IS) could manipulate her words for propaganda, Newshub understands.  

Sources told Newshub given Ardern's increased visibility on the world stage following the Christchurch terror attack, the terrorist group could exploit the situation for propaganda purposes.

It's understood the Prime Minister is unlikely to even speak Akavi's name. 

It comes after the terrorist group issued a propaganda recording last month promising vengeance after 50 people were killed in the Christchurch mosque shootings on March 15. 

The 44-minute audio recording was the first statement issued by their spokesperson, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, after nearly six months of silence.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters thanked media organisations in a statement on Monday for not publishing information about the 62-year-old Porirua woman's abduction as a Red Cross aid-worker in Syria. 

Peters, the Foreign Minister, said since Akavi went missing in 2013, successive governments have not disclosed any information about her, and media were asked not to do so either.

Louisa Akavi.
Louisa Akavi. Photo credit: Red Cross

"In these situations the priority must be the safety of the hostage and we received clear advice that any publicity would place Louisa at even greater risk," he said. 

"The Government is very grateful for the cooperation of media outlets over many years in respecting this advice and undertaking not to publish."

The Government has kept Akavi's capture by IS secret the entire time with cooperation from Newshub and other media. But an article by The New York Times has made it public.

"We recognise the media context has changed with Louisa's situation now public via international publications," Peters said, adding that it "does not alter the fact that this is an ongoing situation".

"The New Zealand Government will continue to work to identify and develop any, and all, opportunities to find Louisa and bring her home."

There is reason to believe Akavi is still alive. Red Cross New Zealand head of crisis management John Dyer said on Monday the last sighting of Akavi was in December and that there was a "strong indication" she was alive, but there have been "no leads since then".

"The information that we had was that people who were doing the investigations, the information that we had was that they had a high degree of confidence that it was Louisa that was seen."

The New York Times reported that two people told the Red Cross they had been treated by Akavi at a clinic in Sousa, a village in east Syria overrun by international forces earlier this year. 

IS area of control 2015-2019.
IS area of control 2015-2019. Photo credit: New Zealand Government

Akavi was among seven people abducted around five years ago during a convoy delivering supplies to a medical facility. She was detained alongside other Westerners including American aid worker Kayla Mueller.

According to The New York Times, negotiations were held between the Red Cross and IS over text, phone calls and emails. The US newspaper said initial demands made by the terrorist group the release of the detainees was $1.67 million which rose to $33 million.

But New Zealand - like the United States and United Kingdom - has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists. European governments like France, Italy and Spain do pay, and have secured the release of hostages held by IS.

Waikato University law professor Al Gillespie said New Zealand's policy of not negotiating "would not matter here, as I doubt NZ would have had the authority to even control this decision as Louisa appears to have been connected to two other high value foreign hostages".

Peters said where a New Zealander is held by a terrorist organisation, the Government "takes all appropriate action" to recover them.

"That is exactly what we have done here," he said, adding that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has been working with a wide range of other agencies, and cooperation with international partners, to find Akavi.

He said that included the deployment of a small multi-agency team based in Iraq, with involvement from members of the New Zealand Defence Force, drawn from the Special Operations Force.

"This non-combat team was specifically focused on locating Louisa and identifying opportunities to recover her."

Peters acknowledged that most of IS' territory has now been liberated, but that the current whereabouts of Akavi is unknown. He said the New Zealand Government "continues to work tirelessly to locate her and bring her to safety".

Akavi is a veteran aid worker, and in 1996 she narrowly survived a massacre in Chechnya in which six of her Red Cross colleagues were gunned down in their sleep.