As New Zealand reels from the second terror attack in its recent history, a picture is emerging of an Islamic State-inspired extremist who was well known to the government, and whom extensive surveillance and control measures were not able to contain.
The man was shot dead by police after stabbing a number of shoppers at a supermarket in Auckland. After the attack, prime minster Jacinda Ardern said it was a “terror attack” by a “violent extremist” who was known by police.
His identity is currently covered by suppression orders, and much is still unknown about the case. But it is raising early questions about why he was allowed to roam relatively freely, and what implications the attack could have for New Zealand’s anti-terror legislation.
Friday’s attack did not come out of the blue for New Zealand authorities. The man had been subject to police attention or surveillance for a number of years, and at the time of the attack, was being tailed by police officers. Those officers shot him dead about 60 seconds after the attack had begun.
Ardern said on Friday that he had been under constant police surveillance for some time. He had previously been found guilty of possessing IS propaganda, and was sentenced to 12 months’ supervision for that in July this year. The crown had also previously attempted to bring charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. According to reporting by the New Zealand Herald, those charges were turned down by the judge, as the law does not criminalise planning a terror act if the person has not taken action.
“By law, we could not keep him in prison. So he was being monitored constantly, as a result of that,” Ardern said.
“By the time he entered the supermarket, he was being watched and followed. The police were with him at the time this happened – that level of surveillance was being provided because of the concerns that we had.”
The terror attack – only the second in New Zealand’s modern history – has put planned reforms to New Zealand’s counter-terror legislation back in the spotlight.
Judith Collins, leader of the centre-right opposition National party, said on Friday that “questions need to be asked and answered as to how this violent offender, motivated by hatred, was allowed free into the community”.
“This is an Islamic State-inspired terrorist who, for some unknown reason, was in the community,” she said.
Referring to proposed reforms to New Zealand’s counter-terror laws that would criminalise terror attack planning and preparation, Collins said, “National will support the government on pushing this bill through parliament in urgency. It’s the responsible thing to do”.
Those proposed reforms came after the 15 March 2019 Christchurch shootings, in which a white supremacist terrorist killed 51 worshippers at a mosque in the city. Among other changes, the proposals would criminalise planning a terrorist act, as well as actual activity to attempt to carry one out.
Dr Chris Wilson, programme director for Conflict and Terrorism studies at University of Auckland, said the crown attempted to prosecute the man under the Terrorism Suppression Act after he had attempted to travel overseas to join a terrorist organisation. “He had purchased a knife and had shown a lot of interest in Isis propaganga that spoke about conducting knife attacks in the West,” Wilson said.
“Unfortunately, the courts ruled he wasn’t able to be tried under that act because the preparation of a terrorist act is not part of that act,” he said. “That is a change the government is now seeking to make.”
Friday’s attack confirmed that it was absolutely necessary to fix the hole in New Zealand’s law, Wilson said.
“It’s probably not as ‘up-for-debate’ now. In most jurisdictions overseas, the preparation of a terrorist attack is considered to be part of the offence.”
Legal experts have cautioned against any kneejerk legislative changes to New Zealand’s laws. “When something like this happens, the immediate response is often ‘there ought to be a law against it,’” law professor Andrew Geddis said.
He said there was a risk that the high profile attack could “light a fuse,” rushing lawmakers to get changes on the books. “One of the dangers might be that this case short-circuits the usual legislative process, which is set up to be deliberative and, in some ways, slow,” he said.
“The risk is leaping on this guy’s case and saying, ‘Oh my God, he shows why we need to change the law!’ We really need to think through what the consequences of changing the law would be,” Geddis said. “The proposed offence – planning for terrorism – criminal law doesn’t usually apply until you go out and start to do something. This is going to criminalize thinking about doing something – and that’s quite an extension into where we usually put criminal liability.”
“If we legislate for this one case, what else are we going to catch?”
While the man had not ultimately been charged under New Zealand’s terrorism legislation, his activities had been captured by other criminal provisions, which resulted in charges laid for possessing IS propaganda and possessing a knife, Geddis said – charges which actually carried a heftier sentence.
The legislative process had limits, he added. It was hard to design robust laws that could capture every individual case without impinging on civil liberties.
“If you’ve got someone who was just really, really determined to carry out this sort of attack, there’s a limit to how far having offence provisions on the books is going to go to be able to stop them. Really, what you’re looking at are questions of surveillance and questions of control.”
Experts on online radicalisation and extremism say that the kind of inclusive, collective approach that followed the Christchurch attacks could still be New Zealand’s strongest counter to future radicalisation or attacks.
“A cohesive society offers the best protection against individuals like this,” Sanjana Hattotuwa, a New Zealand researcher who has been studying links between violence, extremism and social media in Sri Lanka and in New Zealand after the Christchurch attacks.
“We must really push back against the simplistic assumption that it’s just online drivers that result in offline violence,” he said. “Social, political, religious context matters a great deal.
“Belonging, inclusion, participation, recognition and legitimacy … are fundamental features of a cohesive society. That is absolutely fundamental to any kind of enduring, meaningful and grounded response to terrorism in Aotearoa.”