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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Christchurch Terrorist Attack Inquiry Finds Failures

An inquiry into the March 15 2019 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand has found a series of failures, particularly in relation to firearms regulation and a focus on Islamic extremism. 

Ten days after the attack, the New Zealand government announced that a Royal Commission of Inquiry, generally reserved for matters of the gravest public importance, would be established to investigate and report on what had happened. The investigation covered three broad areas – the actions of the attacker, the actions of relevant public sector agencies, and any changes that could prevent such terrorist attacks in the future. 

The attack was carried out by Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who acted alone and has since been convicted of terrorism, the murder of 51 people and attempted murder of 40 people. He first opened fire on worshippers inside the Al Noor mosque, broadcasting the attack on Facebook Live via a headcam he was wearing, before driving to the Linwood Islamic Centre where he shot people outside and then shot at the windows. He planned to target another mosque but was delayed by a member of the public and caught by police officers before he could continue. He is now serving a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. The inquiry report refers to him mainly as “the individual”. His name is mentioned only once to deny him the notoriety he sought.

He is a white Australian who was 28 years old in March 2019. He displayed racist behavior from a young age and the inquiry report said his life experiences appear to have fueled resentment and he became radicalized, forming extreme right-wing views about people he considered a threat. Eventually, he mobilized to violence.

The individual arrived in New Zealand on 17 August 2017. As an Australian, he was entitled to live in New Zealand. Within a few days of arrival, he moved to Dunedin and from this time, his life was largely devoted to planning and preparing for the terrorist attack. The inquiry studied his use of online platforms before and during the terrorist attack. It also examined how the individual obtained a firearms licence and how he was then legally able to acquire firearms and ammunition. His application for a firearms licence was approved within about three months of his arrival in the country. He had named his sister as a referee but, because she lived in Australia, firearms licensing staff asked for a replacement referee.  In the end two New Zealand-based referees (an adult and their parent) described as “friends” of the individual, vouched for him as a “fit and proper” person. The adult had played online games with the individual over ten years but had been physically in his company for only approximately 21 days in that entire decade. The friend’s parent had spent only approximately seven days in the individual’s presence over four years. In both cases, time spent with the individual was sporadic.

The inquiry found that New Zealand Police’s administration of the firearms licensing system did not meet required standards. The reasons for this include a lack of guidance and training for licensing staff and incomplete guidance for dealing with applications where nominated referees cannot be interviewed in person. The report adds that regulation of semi-automatic firearms in New Zealand was found to be “lax, open to easy exploitation and was gamed by the individual”.

The individual trained for the terrorist attack by developing firearms expertise and working out at a gym and taking steroids to bulk up. 

He had no close friends and largely avoided social situations and, in that sense, he was socially isolated. He was financially independent and widely traveled. In his preparation and planning for his terrorist attack, he was methodical and single-minded. The individual could present well and conduct himself in a way that did not attract suspicion. He was not identified as someone who posed a threat. 

Media reports at the time said the authorities had been aware that the individual was planning an attack, but the reality is not that simple. The individual sent an email to the Parliamentary Service (as well as politicians, media outlets and individual journalists) just eight minutes before the terrorist attack began. The critical information about the attack, including the location, was within a 74-page manifesto attached to and linked within the email. It took some minutes for the Parliamentary Service to open the email, read and make sense of the manifesto and then pass the details on to New Zealand Police. By this time, the terrorist attack had just started.

There was no intelligence on the individual to suggest he was planning an attack before this email was received. As the report notes: “The idea that intelligence and security agencies engage in mass surveillance of New Zealanders is a myth.” The report continues that intelligence and security agencies were in a fragile state in 2014 and a rebuilding exercise did not get underway until mid-2016 and was unfinished in March 2019. Looking at the period between 2016 and the date of the attack, the inquiry found that counterterrorism agencies did follow up on some right-wing threats but were primarily focused on Islamist extremist terrorism. In addition, the enquiry also found that the intelligence function of New Zealand Police had degraded and from 2015 was not carrying out strategic terrorism threat assessments.

Therefore, resources were scant and they were primarily focused on Islamic extremism without the benefit of risk analysis.

The inquiry said however, that even if the agencies had been more focused on right-wing extremism, they would not have detected the individual unless by chance. This is largely due to his operational security as well as legislation and reduced capacity and capability of the agencies.

The report calls for systemic change and for New Zealand to create a national intelligence and security agency. The agency should, it says, “provide strategic policy advice, develop a counterterrorism strategy and administer relevant national security legislation”. A total of 44 recommendations are made in the report, covering counterterrorism strategy, firearms licensing, and social cohesion.

Since 2015, New Zealand has been reluctant to proceed with a public‑facing counterterrorism strategy, in part to avoid stigmatizing Muslim communities further. But, the inquiry noted that had a “see something, say something” policy been effectively communicated, the individual may have been reported to counterterrorism agencies. A public-facing counterterrorism strategy would also be likely to have included policies to make crowded places safer and to protect possible targets from attack. And ultimately, if the known risk that a terrorist could take advantage of New Zealand’s lax regulation of semi-automatic firearms had been addressed earlier, the inquiry found it likely that there would have been no terrorist attack on March 15 2019. 

Read the full report at the Royal Commission

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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