‘No plausible way’ Christchurch mosque shooter could have been detected
New Zealand police and intelligence services made a string of errors ahead of last year’s Christchurch mosques attack, but may not have been able to prevent the massacre of 51 Muslim worshippers, an inquiry found Tuesday.
The royal commission — the most powerful judicial probe available under New Zealand law — called for sweeping changes to counter-terrorism operations in response to the white supremacist attack by lone-wolf gunman Brenton Tarrant.
The 800-page report said spy agencies had placed an “inappropriate” focus on Islamist extremism before the attack without giving due weight to the threat of right-wing terrorism.
It also said police incorrectly approved the firearms licence that allowed Australian national Tarrant to amass the arsenal of high-powered weapons used in New Zealand’s worst modern-day massacre.
But it stopped short of saying authorities could have prevented the deaths, finding the “fragmentary” information available about Tarrant before the killings was not enough to mark him as a threat.
“There was no plausible way he could have been detected except by chance,” said the report on the March 2019 attack, in which Tarrant targeted men, women and children who had gathered for Friday prayers in the South Island city.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed the review and vowed to adopt all 44 recommendations, saying the counter-terrorism focus on Muslims was being reformed and her government had already addressed lax firearms laws.
“The commission made no findings that these issues would have stopped the attack, but these were both failings nonetheless and for that I apologise,” she said.
Tarrant, 30, became the first person in New Zealand to be jailed for life without the prospect of parole in August after pleading guilty to terrorism, 51 counts of murder and 40 of attempted murder.
The royal commission was originally due to report in December last year but was delayed first by the sheer volume of responses and then by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Headed by Supreme Court judge William Young and former diplomat Jacqui Caine, it interviewed more than 400 people and received 1,100 submissions.
Tarrant was questioned as part of the probe, but the commission permanently suppressed the transcript because of concerns it would provide a platform for his views.
It found the former gym instructor from the rural New South Wales town of Grafton displayed racist views from a young age and moved to New Zealand in August 2017 intending to carry out an attack.
It said he joined a rifle club to gain firearms expertise, gathered an arsenal of weapons and took steroids to bulk up his physique.
It also revealed that he accidentally shot himself while cleaning a rifle at home in 2018, injuring his eye and leg, but medics who treated him did not report the injury to police.
In another missed opportunity, police approved Tarrant’s firearms licence even though he lacked proper character references.
The commission recommended the creation of a new intelligence agency to focus on counter-terrorism and violent extremism, as well as calling for stronger laws on hate speech.
Tarrant had claimed that he was not a frequent user of far-right messaging platforms but made more substantial use of YouTube. Ardern said she would be contacting the Google-owned company.
The Muslim community said the findings vindicated their complaints that intelligence services had been too fixated on potential Islamist threats to deal with the reality of violent far-right extremis.
“The report shows institutional prejudice and unconscious bias exist in government agencies,” Muslim Association of Canterbury spokesman Abdigani Ali told reporters.
“That needs to change. We know that this prejudice has led to a lack of trust between our community and government agencies.”
Ardern acknowledged the Muslim community’s concerns and vowed to make the intelligence community more inclusive.
“I’m not going to shy away from the need for us to talk about whether or not our intelligence and security system is currently doing what it requires to keep us safe,” she said.
“But we also must be careful that in doing that, we do not alienate, we do not stigmatise, we do not stereotype — that is the challenge that lies in front of all of us.”