New Zealand Reassesses Counterterrorism Post-Christchurch
New Zealand faced a nationwide reckoning after right-wing extremist Brenton Tarrant amassed an arsenal of weapons and carried out deadly attacks on two mosques in Christchurch in March 2019, killing 51 people. Just 10 days after the attack, the government established a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate what happened. Almost two years later in December 2020, the commission’s report was released, calling out failings, intelligence gaps, and unbalanced priorities that led agencies to miss potential signs of an attack.
The nearly 800-page report found that New Zealand’s national security agencies had spent an “inappropriate” amount of time focusing on Islamist terror threats in the months leading up to the attack.
Researchers also dug into the life and background of the shooter, finding that he displayed racist behavior from a young age, and his life experience fueled his resentment and eventual radicalization. He had no close friends, largely avoided social situations, and was financially independent. Tarrant was able to largely stay below the radar, however, and while the report called out lapses in firearms licensing and intelligence efforts, it noted that “no single aspect of [the shooter’s background] could have alerted Public sector agencies to an impending terrorist attack.”
The assailant’s undetected radicalization has raised red flags for intelligence and security professionals worldwide, many of whom note that increasing polarization and vitriolic rhetoric from political extremists spikes in times of isolation, stress, and economic troubles—such as during pandemic lockdowns.
“Right-wing extremist rhetoric does many things. It often pits elites against the ordinary people in ways that place blame for economic troubles squarely on the shoulders of governments,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor at American University and director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, in a 2019 interview with American University. “When people experience economic precariousness, they can be more vulnerable to that kind of rhetoric. But even more importantly, we are seeing extraordinary levels of isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety among young people.”
“This is a generation that spends more time alone than any previous cohort,” she continued. “They are eager for connection and meaning, and are vulnerable to rhetoric that promises them a sense of belonging, purpose, and a way to contribute to a cause bigger and better than themselves. This is the same dynamic that motivates foreign fighters to join Islamist extremist groups—the idea that they can be a part of something and that their lives will have meaning and purpose, whether that is to restore a sacred geography like the Caliphate or rescue white people from dying out as a race. The language of ‘white genocide’ and ‘ethnic replacement’ (as cited by the New Zealand terrorist, for example) captures this quite clearly, because it is paired with a call to action. This is not to say that all young people are vulnerable to extremist rhetoric. But more young people than ever today are lonely, anxious, and want a sense of connection. That increases the number who will be vulnerable to extremist promises of meaning and purpose.”
Bruce Hoffman, senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the pandemic has created an opening for extremist content to flourish.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been like manna from heaven for [extremists] because it gives them a platform or a hook to spread the violent forms of xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and so on,” Hoffman explains. “This has just become a vehicle for all sorts of different arguments, whether it’s in contagion and contamination or in sinister conspiratorial forces manipulating international public health for purposes or profit. It’s just grist for the conspiracy theories that seem to dominate a lot of political discourse nowadays.”
Hoffman has been studying violent extremism for 45 years, most recently on the Vortex of Hate project, and he says he is increasingly concerned about violent far-right and far-left messaging online. He calls this the “message in a bottle” phenomenon—people are irresponsibly or intentionally posting messages, GIFs, and memes that encourage division, enflame tensions, and incite violence. The person setting those messages adrift may not be willing to commit acts of violence themselves, but he or she hopes someone who reads them will be inspired to take action.
“You could imagine, for law enforcement and intelligence—how do you track that? How do you predict that? How do you interdict if there’s no actual command or order being issued? How can you anticipate these acts of violence?” he asks. Those nebulous trails have left investigators in a challenging position, particularly when public support and resources for counterterrorism initiatives wane.
New Zealand’s Royal Commission found that secrecy about counterterrorism approaches across government agencies and a lack of transparency to the public had consequences for situational awareness.
“One reason for this was to avoid stigmatizing Muslims,” the report said. “But had such a strategy been shared with the public and also incorporated a ‘see something, say something’ policy, it is possible that aspects of the individual’s planning and preparation may have been reported to counterterrorism agencies.”
While the report acknowledged that lone actors are difficult for intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies to detect and stop, disruption is possible. At the time of the 2019 attack, however, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service had a limited understanding of the state of right-wing extremism within the country—the majority of the service’s scarce resources were concentrated on Islamic extremist terrorism.
“Indisputably, even up until the attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, the overwhelming threat that national security, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies were focused on—with good reason—was the threat from Salafi jihadi terrorists,” Hoffman says. “I think the challenge we face today is, despite declarations to the contrary, neither ISIS nor al Qaeda has gone away; they are still active and still pose serious threats. I think the main challenge is that now we’re turning to law enforcement and intelligence to cover an even longer, broader, and deeper waterfront.”
Meanwhile, he adds, “There’s a constriction of resources, funding, personnel, and even interest at a time when the threat is now morphing and growing in different directions—the rise of violent far-right extremism being a case in point.”
Hoffman says the New Zealand report makes clear that “there’s no longer any meaningful barrier or demarcation between domestic and international terrorism.”
While not part of the original scope of research, the commission said it became clear that social cohesion, inclusion, and diversity were essential lenses through which to view the lead-up and aftermath of the attack.
“Social cohesion has many direct benefits to individuals and communities,” the report said. “In contrast, societies that are polarized around political, social, cultural, environmental, economic, ethnic, or religious differences will more likely see radicalizing ideologies develop and flourish. Efforts to build social cohesion, inclusion, and diversity can contribute to preventing or countering extremism.”
The report made 44 recommendations organized under four main themes: improving New Zealand’s counterterrorism effort; improving New Zealand’s firearms licensing system; supporting the ongoing recovery of victims’ families, survivors, and witnesses; and improving social cohesion and New Zealand’s response to an increasingly diverse population.
The government accepted all 44 recommendations, including to establish a new national intelligence and security agency. Firearm licensing laws will be tightened, counterterrorism laws strengthened, and changes will be made so police can better record and respond to hate crimes.
In a speech on 8 December 2020, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern apologized on behalf of the government for the lapses and the work that still needs to be done.
“There are many groups of people in New Zealand who do not feel safe due to threats and victimization that most New Zealanders don’t ever encounter,” she said. “I think most of us would find hate-fueled behavior unacceptable, and totally against who we are, and what we aspire to be as a nation.”
She announced in the speech that the government was establishing a new police program to respond to hate crime, increasing Human Rights Commission funding, and proposing updates to hate speech legislation.
“New Zealand will never be immune from violent extremism and terrorism,” the report said. “Even with the best systems in the world, a determined would-be terrorist could carry out an attack in New Zealand in the future. But there is much that the government can do, starting with a greater commitment to transparency and openness with New Zealanders.”
Tarrant has since pled guilty to terrorism, the murder of 51 people, and the attempted murder of 40 people. He is serving a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.