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Summary

Key Details

Date of Incident: 15 March 2019
Location: Christchurch, New Zealand
Type: Mass Shooting
Severity: HIGH

Overview

  • The first mass shooting in New Zealand since 1997
  • Two consecutive mass shootings carried out by a single assailant on two mosques
  • Suspect published right-wing extremist manifesto before the attack
  • Attack was livestreamed on Facebook and other social media platforms

Incident Details

Christchurch (New Zealand) Shooting Location - 15 March 2019

At around 13:40 NZDT on 15 March 2019, a gunman later identified as 28-year-old Brenton Harrison Tarrant, entered Al Noor Mosque in the suburb of Riccarton, Christchurch. Armed with a number of semi-automatic weapons, he began shooting worshippers indiscriminately. It is reported that he initially targeted the men’s prayer room before targeting the women’s room. Despite attempts by some individuals to disarm the attacker, he continued to fire at victims multiple times. Tarrant was able to retrieve another weapon from his vehicle that was parked in a nearby alleyway before continuing his attack, shooting those already wounded and firing at people outside of the mosque. It is ascertained that 42 people died at the Al Noor Mosque. This attack is reported to have lasted around six minutes before the suspect left the scene and drove 5 km to another mosque, located in the suburb of Linwood. Tarrant arrived at the Linwood Islamic Institute at around 13:55 and carried out a further attack, initially shooting at worshippers inside through a window before entering. Official reports state that eight people died in this attack, one of whom later succumbed to their injuries in hospital. A worshipper, identified as Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah, reportedly ran at the gunman with a credit-card reader in an attempt to distract him. When Tarrant retreated, Wahabzadah threw a discarded shotgun at the assailant’s vehicle and shattered the window. After fleeing, the suspect was subsequently arrested nearby on Brougham Street in Sydenham, 21 minutes after the first emergency call reporting the shooting. It has been confirmed that 50 people died in the attacks, with a further 42 injured. The youngest victim was three-year-old Mucad Ibrahim.

The first 17 minutes of the deadly attack were livestreamed on Facebook via a head-mounted camera worn by the gunman. The attacker can be heard playing military style music before the first assault, including “Serbia Strong”, a nationalist song celebrating Radovan Karadžić, the former Bosnian-Serb leader who was found guilty of genocide against Bosnian Muslims in 2016. Also revealed by the footage is the embellishment of the weapons Tarrant used with neo-Nazi slogans and the names of notorious far-right extremists, such as Alexandre Bissonnette and Anders Breivik. The footage of the attack was successfully reuploaded on Facebook 300,000 times in the first 24 hours after the shooting. It was also posted on dark web site 8chan, popular with alt-right sympathisers. A ‘manifesto’ written by the Tarrant was circulated before the attack, which included motivations behind the brutal murders, along with far-right extremist material. Australian-born Tarrant was charged with 50 counts of murder and 39 counts of attempted murder following the attacks. In total, three men and one woman were arrested in relation to the shootings. However authorities later stated that they believe Tarrant acted alone. Police also found two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) attached to the suspect’s vehicle, both of which were successfully neutralised. The gunman allegedly had five firearms consisting of two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm.

Analyst Comment

Reports have suggested that Brenton Tarrant had planned an attack of this kind up to two years prior to executing it, with the locations being selected three months prior. Recent investigations into the suspect have revealed previous trips taken to countries such as Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Croatia, and Hungary. Tarrant had used some of these visits to study battles between Christians and the Ottoman Empire. This information corroborates suggestions that he had names in English and Cyrillic of military figures, including Europeans who fought the Ottomans in the 15th and 16th centuries, written on his weapons. The attacker has claimed that he is not a direct member of any organisation or group. However he has donated to many nationalist groups. Tarrant had previously donated 1,500 euro (2,383 USD) to a far-right Identitarian Movement, known as Generation Identity (GI), in Austria in 2018. As Tarrant was not an active member of a terror organisation, he will not face terror charges. Despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern describing the defendant as a ‘right-wing terrorist,’ New Zealand law stipulates that an individual must be a member of such a group in order to be tried for charges of terrorism.

In the 73-page ‘manifesto’ reportedly penned by the assailant, he professes to be an “eco-fascist.” The ‘manifesto’ included a link to the Facebook livestream of the terror attack. Tarrant communicated with other like-minded far-right individuals on a specific forum on 8chan and even proclaimed prior to the attack that he was he was going to carry out an assault against “the invaders.” Despite his presence on right-wing forums and connections with far-right groups, Tarrant was not on any watchlists in New Zealand or Australia and had a previous criminal record. Copies of the ‘manifesto’ were also emailed to parliamentary officials minutes before the attacks were carried out, including the office of New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Within the document, several anti-immigrant sentiments are expressed and call for non-European immigrants in Europe who are perceived as “invading [his] land” to be removed. The motivation behind the attacks is described as being an attempt to accelerate anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant beliefs to fight “invaders” and incite an eventual “race war.”

In the document, Tarrant praises the racially motivated Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof and Norwegian far-right terrorist, Anders Breivik. Tarrant also references the ‘Reborn Knights Templar.’ He claims that the group gave him blessing in support of carrying out the attack. Breivik had previously claimed that this was “a leaderless network, made to be self-driven cells […] for militants […] a version of Al Qaeda.” However, American news publication Foreign Policy claim the ‘Reborn Knights Templar’ was “Breivik’s fictional terrorist organisation.” There is a confused narrative surrounding the existence of such an organisation. However Tarrant claims groups such as this include “people from every walk of life, in every place of employment.” Analysts have argued that it is important to view this attack not as a ‘lone wolf’ narrative, but as part of the wider global right-wing movement.

Exemplified by Tarrant’s interactions with foreign fascist groups and communication with other like-minded individuals on sites such as 8chan, a global subculture of right-wing extremism exists, and it is growing. Consequently, extremist discourse has permeated political discourse and manifested in violent attacks. This trend can also be identified in the previously reported Sao Paulo school shooting which occurred just two days prior to this attack. The assailants, who killed five students and two members of staff, were active members of a far-right internet forum. It is believed that other members of the site assisted the killers in their plans for carrying out the brutal attack. The link between the attack and the individuals’ far-right ideologies has been conspicuous in its absence from media reporting. However, due to the magnitude of the Christchurch attack, the Sao Paulo shooting has not received the same media scrutiny and in-depth reporting.

In his ‘manifesto’ Tarrant praises Donald Trump and regards him as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” Much of the rhetoric of right-wing extremists and use of dark web forums aligns closely with approaches used by groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. As such, extant counter-terrorism methods may provide utility against the kind of right-wing terrorism exhibited here, an approach that has hitherto displayed a narrowing of focus onto Islamic fundamentalism. Although the conversation surrounding gun laws in New Zealand has occupied much of politicians and media’s focus following this attack, the legal framework in the country is still impaired in regard to addressing terror attacks. New Zealand’s anti-terror legislation is somewhat restricted to the framework of terror organisations, hence why Tarrant is facing charges of murder and attempted murder rather than the more apposite charges of terrorism.

Attacks such as this are rare in New Zealand, with the most recent mass shootings occurring in 1990 and 1997. This is the deadliest firearm attack in New Zealand’s recent history. New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern announced an immediate ban on military-style semi-automatic rifles just days after the shooting. The finalisation of such legislation typically takes months, however Ardern has assured the public that it will be complete by 11 April. Further legislation is expected to be implemented in the country, such as introducing a gun register, tighter vetting of gun owners, and stricter storage rules.

The Prime Minister has been widely praised, with many calling for US President Trump to follow a similar precedent. Tarrant held a Category ‘A’ gun license, which allowed him to legally obtain weapons. Ardern has reportedly also tasked New Zealand security agencies to examine both the rise of right-wing extremism as well as gun laws. However, there has been a small amount of backlash from the Muslim community and others. They have criticised New Zealand’s absence of a comprehensive record of hate crimes and a lack of previous acknowledgement of the rise of the extreme right. The debate surrounding gun laws and the rise of the far-right in New Zealand, and elsewhere, is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, as well as discussions about how such a brutal attack was able to be carried out. Determined attackers are likely to eschew legal channels and acquire weaponry through illicit channels regardless of legislation. Therefore, the role of the crime-terror nexus must be acknowledged to penetrate further and intercept the illicit networks that exist; often closely linked with ideologically motivated far-right groups. Anti-terror methods must be applied to adequately clamp down on the potential of similar deadly future attacks. The high-profile nature of this attack will only make future incidents more likely.

Brenton Tarrant is currently being held in solitary confinement in Auckland Prison in Paremoremo. He appeared in Christchurch’s High Court by video link on 5 April where Justice Cameron Mander remanded him in custody until 14 June. Tarrant will undergo a mental health assessment to determine whether he is fit for trial. The judge has stressed that this is normal procedure at this stage of the judicial process.

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