Dignity, inclusiveness and the power to change: the aftermath of the Christchurch attack
20 Mar 2019|

For those involved in countering terrorism—communities, officials and researchers—the most crucial question is how to effectively counter the terrorist narrative.

Over the past few days, from possibly the most unlikely place in the world, we appear to have seen a masterclass.

In New Zealand’s response to the Christchurch attack—led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern—we have seen that rare combination of the right words and the right actions. Until Friday, Ardern had never had to deal with a terrorist attack or plot—indeed, until that day the country’s terrorism threat alert level was at ‘low’ (since raised to ‘high’).

There were no practised words and likely few if any standing talking points to deal with such an extreme situation. Yet standing humble before representatives of a devastated Muslim community in Christchurch on the day after the attack, Ardern said she ‘brought a message of love’ from other New Zealanders and expressed sorrow that their right to feel safe and secure in their home—her responsibility as prime minister—had been shattered.

Ardern’s strong and heartfelt message of community and shared pain led the day for the narrative around this attack. Her image and words spun around the world on social media, providing a rallying point for many.

New Zealand authorities’ quick and public action to limit the spread of the livestreamed video of the attack, and to limit publicity about the alleged attacker and anyone else who may have been involved, meant that they quickly took control of the narrative around the attack.

Australia’s political leaders and mainstream media have followed suit. Statements by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and opposition leader Bill Shorten have stressed camaraderie and unity. Morrison was the first leader to publicly call this a terrorist act, well aware from Australian experience of the importance of not treating right-wing extremist violence any differently from Islamist violence. On Monday he denounced ‘tribalism’ in politics and society. Shorten cut straight to the information war at the heart of terrorism, warning against giving ‘oxygen’ to extreme views.

And despite the demands of the 24/7 rolling news cycle, much of the commentary—including from some of the more outspoken media personalities—has stressed caution in speculating about what was going on, and started healthy discussions about the possible links between simplistic public debates about issues and the global manifestation of political extremism, including violence.

So why is this important?

Terrorism is about ideology and propaganda. In addition to harming people in an attack, terrorists of all types have another goal, which is to publicise and aggrandise their actions. This serves the dual purpose of marketing the ideology and recruiting supporters.

In recent years, the Islamic State terrorist group’s effective use of propaganda has become notorious. At its height, the group was producing multilingual online magazines and reams of videos, and was supported by its ‘virtual caliphate’ of online supporters spreading its information further. Through this battle with Islamist terrorists over information, authorities and the media have learned a lot about the power of the narrative—and about how terrorists use the media to promote their own agenda.

Authorities acted quickly to ensure that the Christchurch attacker didn’t get to dictate the message on the day. The alleged killer published photos of some of his weapons and a so-called manifesto statement to justify his actions, and live-streamed the attack on social media. One of the first things we heard from the New Zealand Police on the day of the attack was a request for all of us to not watch the video, for media not to show it, and for internet hosts to take it down. The public and the media got the message and, while it’s not completely removed from the internet, the video is inaccessible to most. The attacker failed in one of his main objectives—to propagandise his attack.

This left much of the public arena open for another narrative to lead the day—that of a successful and welcoming New Zealand, home to those who were attacked and hurting with them. The raw emotion of a clearly moved Ardern in meeting with the Muslim community is the message that has gone viral around the world, not the message of hate. Instead of fomenting division, it would appear that the attack has—at least in the immediate aftermath—served only to strengthen New Zealand’s society, and in turn, Australia’s.

Research on countering terrorist narratives and countering violent extremism has identified ongoing issues in trying to get meaningful and timely information out to the right audiences. Some recent evaluation, including collaborative studies of practice in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, has identified the difficulties of getting into the information loops of extremist and populist discussion, and the difficulties in trying to counteract the messaging of terrorist propagandists, which is devastatingly effective because of its simplicity. For open liberal democracies such as Australia and the United Kingdom, however, there’s the additional challenge of a public used to poking fun at earnest government efforts to talk about issues such as values—as seen with the much-derided ‘Living Safe Together’ campaign in Australia.

Rather than focusing primarily on the terrorist narrative and seeking to counter it, research led by Professor Michele Grossman and others at Deakin University and Dalhousie University in Canada has drawn on sociology to examine how to build resilience. This research indicates that individual, family and community resilience to threats can be built and reinforced by access to information and other resources, and that levels of resilience can be measured. Key factors in building resilience include trust and confidence in governments (linking capital) and in other people across society (bridging capital), and calling out violence.

The statements by Muslim community leaders in New Zealand—and Australia—suggest that these indicators are tracking strongly. And the reason for this can be linked directly to the way both government and community leaders, supported by the media, have treated this issue.

In the face of unimaginable tragedy, Ardern has intuitively demonstrated exactly what a threatened community needs to hear: that they are truly part of a bigger community, that their government actively supports and will protect them, and that violence has no place.

Extremists can take little benefit from her actions, or those of the broader New Zealand community, and the global debate that has ensued. So the propaganda value of the attack—ultimately desired equally by right-wing and Islamist extremists—is denied. And the counterterrorism movement is strengthened.

The response to the Christchurch attack will not on its own defeat the threat of violent extremism. But this strong demonstration of compassion and focus on community rather than the terrorist threat has increased resilience in an already strong society. It provides a powerful message of why terrorism will not succeed and a lasting example of how to face up to the threat of violent extremism that will continue to resonate across the world.