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New Zealand Eyes Reforms After Christchurch Attack Report

New Zealand’s focus on potential threats from Islamist terrorism rather than right-wing extremism enabled Brendan Tarrant to amass an arsenal of weapons—which he used to carry out deadly attacks on two mosques in Christchurch in 2019—without alerting authorities, according to a new report from the Royal Commission.

The 792-page report found that the country’s national security agencies spent an “inappropriate” amount of time focusing on Islamist terror threats in the months leading up to the attack, and the commission criticized lax gun laws, underwhelming counterterrorism efforts, “fragile” intelligence agencies, and ineffective leadership, NPR reported.

Despite these criticisms, the report declared that there was “no plausible way” officials could have detected Tarrant’s plot except by chance. But that does not mean the New Zealand government is not taking drastic action to correct the gaps found by the commission.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that there had been “failings” by the government leading up the attack, and she apologized for the lapses. Tarrant has pled guilty to the attacks and is serving a life sentence.

The government accepted all 44 recommendations in the report, including establishing a new national intelligence and security agency. The government will also appoint a minister to coordinate the response. Firearm licensing laws will be tightened, counterterrorism laws strengthened, and changes will be made so police can better record and respond to hate crimes, Reuters reported.

Fears of growing right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism have spread more broadly, especially as the pandemic appears to be fueling conditions that increase radicalization risks. In Australia, a new inquiry has been ordered to investigate whether the government has the right tools to combat evolving violent extremism threats. According to the International Business Times, Australia has been facing an increasing threat from the far-right—in September, intelligence officials said that white supremacist extremism accounted for 40 percent of their caseload, up from 15 percent in 2016.

In the United States, right-wing extremists—including white supremacists—were responsible for the majority of extremist-related murders in the United States in 2019 and more than three-fourths of extremist-related murders in the country since 2010, according to Anti-Defamation League data. One of the deadliest attacks was the mass shooting at Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which left 22 people dead. The alleged shooter targeted Hispanics and posted a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto online prior to the attack, authorities said.

According to a 2019 interview with Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor at American University and director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, right-wing extremism is particularly dangerous in times of isolation, stress, and economic troubles.

“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. 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,” she said.

“This is a generation that spends more time alone than any previous cohort. 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.”

The COVID-19 pandemic may be driving this vulnerable population even further toward radicalization and extremism. However, counterstrategies do exist. For more, read “The Art of Radicalization Resistance” from Security Management.