Christchurch shooting: security agencies were focused on Islamist terror, inquiry finds

By Phil Taylor in Wellington

New Zealand’s security agencies were “almost exclusively” focused on the threat from Islamist terrorism at the time of the 2019 Christchurch shooting, in which a gunman shot dead 51 Muslim worshippers, an inquiry into the country’s worst peacetime massacre has found.

The landmark Christchurch royal commission report, which was released on Tuesday after 20 months of consultation, also revealed police failed to enforce proper checks on firearm licences.

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, apologised for the failings but noted: “The commission made no findings that these issues would have stopped the attack.”

“Going forward, we need to ensure an adequate focus of resources on the range of threats New Zealand faces and enhance our security and intelligence, and social cohesion work,” she said. “You and others have made New Zealand your home. You, and every New Zealander, deserve a system that does its best to keep you safe.”

Ardern said she would accept all of the 44 recommendations contained in the 792-page document.

Initial measures to be taken by the government include the establishment of a ministry of ethnic communities, improvements to help police identify and manage hate crime and be more responsive to victims, improvements to hate-speech laws and research on extremism, and the creation of an early intervention programme for people showing early signs of radicalisation.

More time would be needed to develop a response to some of the recommendations, she said.

Christchurch attacks: Jacinda Ardern apologises for failings found by inquiry – video

The Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand (IWCNZ) said in a statement that justice had not been served by the inquiry, saying it was severely restricted by its terms of reference and suffered from a lack of transparency.

“There are multiple areas of evidence that have not been investigated, and questions raised by IWCNZ have been ignored,” it said. “We find it concerning that the commissioners found systemic failures and an inappropriate concentration of resources towards Islamic terrorism, and yet state that these would not have made a difference to the terrorist being detected prior to the event.”

On 15 March 2019, an Australian gunman shot dead 51 worshippers during Friday prayers at two mosques in the city of Christchurch. The attacks were the largest mass shooting in New Zealand’s history and the first act of terrorism in decades, prompting an outpouring of grief in the normally peaceful nation, and calls from many in the Muslim community to confront what they said had been a rising tide of white supremacist threats.

Prior to the attack the gunman posted multiple troubling references online, was able to legally obtain a gun licence, and carried out reconnaissance missions to both mosques.

On Tuesday, it was reported the gunman had accidentally shot himself while cleaning a firearm months before the attack, and required treatment in Dunedin for bullet fragments in his eye and leg. At the time, there was no mandatory legislation regarding the reporting of gunshot wounds.

In the wake of the attack, Ardern commissioned the inquiry into why and how the massacre took place, and whether it could have been prevented.

Andrew Little, the minister in charge of the country’s spy agencies, has been given the job of coordinating implementation of the wide-ranging recommendations.

One factor the report identified was the secrecy surrounding counter-terrorism approaches by successive governments. “One reason for this was to avoid stigmatising Muslims. 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 may … have been reported,” the report said

“With the benefit of hindsight, such reporting would have provided the best chance of disrupting the terrorist attack.”

Ardern noted that despite reports back to the 1990s identifying the firearms control system as lax, significant changes were not made until after the attack.

The police commissioner, Andrew Coster, said on Tuesday legislative changes this month will clarify the criteria for determining whether someone was fit to own a firearm, including specifying criminal convictions that disqualify them.

New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) chief, Rebecca Kitteridge, acknowledged there was insufficient focus on right-wing extremists until 2018 but said it was a misconception that the Muslim community was specifically targeted. It was a small agency and only a small number of individuals were monitored, she said.

The NZSIS needed to explain its role to the public better, said Kitteridge, who said she was working on building a better relationship with the Muslim community.

Ardern said no individual was found in the report to be at fault and no one would lose their job. Despite the inappropriate focus on Islamist extremism, the report did not conclude the security agencies were Islamophobic.

After the report’s release, families affected by the attacks supported the recommendations and said they would work together to make sure they were implemented.

Rashid Omar, who lost his son in the attack, welcomed the report but called for more accountability. “Though the report brought hard memories, it answers some of those questions, however not all,” he told Stuff. “The affected families, survivors, and witnesses have not had their questions answered, particularly the question of accountability.” He raised concern about the redacted names on the final report.

Muslim groups have repeatedly said their warnings about threats from white supremacists before the attack had been ignored.

The Islamic community told the inquiry that it knew it was “vulnerable” to a terror attack, and that security forces had wrongly focused on terrorism committed by Muslim extremists.

The opposition National party pledged to work with the government on the reforms called for in the report, which identified years of inaction by Labour and National governments. Party leader Judith Collins said: “In principle, we support strengthening the role of our security and intelligence agencies but we must tread carefully to safeguard New Zealanders’ rights and liberties.”

In August the killer, who livestreamed the massacre on Facebook and published an extremist manifesto online detailing his anti-Islamic views, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The inquiry took place behind closed doors and interviewed everyone from top security officials to survivors, current and former prime ministers and Tarrant.

During the course of the inquiry, more than 400 meetings were held, 340 non-disclosure orders were made, 73,500 pages of evidence and submissions were analysed and 217 public sector agencies were asked to provide information.

More than 1,100 people wrote formal submissions.