The Christchurch terrorist attack—one year on
18 Mar 2020|

The cancellation of the memorial service marking the first anniversary of the Christchurch terrorist attacks because of the risk posed by the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, demonstrates how immediate threats can overtake the most painful events.

Activities across New Zealand and Australia—where the service in Canberra’s Nara Peace Park was limited to officials only—were expected to attract large crowds.

The tragedy is stark. Fifty-one people were killed and 49 injured when an Australian right-wing extremist attacked the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre with firearms that included semi-automatic weapons.

The memories remain intense in New Zealand, but questions are being asked about what’s been done prevent such a terrible event from occurring again.

Justice is proceeding, but the legal process has been delayed by the challenges of gathering evidence of the attacker’s actions before the killings, including tracking his online life. He is due to face court in June.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the actions required were clear. Removing easy access to assault rifles was quickly legislated, with support across parliament, and a gun buy-back scheme was introduced.

But more complex reforms of New Zealand’s regime for firearms ownership and use remain a work in progress. While this is frustrating to some, the lesson from Australia’s experience with the Port Arthur massacre is that working through the issues in a measured way—including how to accommodate legitimate sporting, rural and hunting needs—takes time.

Authorities also sought to limit the propaganda value of the attack, which was live-streamed around the world. The public and media were asked not to view or share the horrific footage—and they largely complied. New Zealand worked with other countries and technology companies to take the issue of terrorists’ use of the internet to another level.

In Paris in May 2019, New Zealand and France, both affected by terrorism, led the Christchurch Call to tackle this issue that crosses borders and corporations. The initiative is now backed by 31 countries along with eight of the largest technology corporations. Mainly Western countries and US and French companies have heeded the call to action, which means that extremists will likely continue to use other means in countries less concerned about human rights.

The longer term focus in New Zealand is the royal commission of inquiry into the Christchurch attack, led by supreme court judge William Young and iwi (Maori tribal) leader and former diplomat Jacqui Caine. The commissioners are examining the actions of New Zealand agencies in the lead-up to the attacks and considering whether anything could have been done to prevent them.

The inquiry’s original eight-month timeframe was extended to 12 months after more than 1,000 submissions were received by the September 2019 deadline. It’s now due to report on 30 April 2020. While the commission works in private, it regularly updates a Muslim community reference group, ensuring the primary victims remain at the forefront and are told as much as possible.

The inquiry may not provide all of the hoped-for answers. So far, we know the attacker showed few clear indications that he intended to act on his extremist views. While talk of violence is common on online extremist sites, there’s little to differentiate the Christchurch attacker’s views from those of others who have not gone on to commit murder. Lone terrorist actors are successful because they give limited outward signs of what they’re planning to do.

The commission’s examination of state agencies will, however, give New Zealand a comprehensive understanding of how those charged with countering terrorism operate and where the gaps are. New Zealand and Australia need to draw on this thorough and considered investigation to plot the long-term direction of their counterterrorism capabilities.

The good news is that, when it comes to dealing with terrorism, our two countries have long worked together as a team. The peak body for both countries is the Australia–New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee, which brings the two jurisdictions together to examine the threat, develop policies and plans, determine appropriate capabilities and exercise together in response.

The Christchurch attack was perpetrated by one man whose path to violence may never be fully understood, and there’s no guarantee a plan will emerge to prevent a repeat. But the lessons we learn will help us deal with future threats—and they are real.

On 24 February, in Australia’s first public annual threat assessment, ASIO’s Director-General Mike Burgess put right-wing extremism at the top of his concerns. The numbers are small but growing, he said, and, as Christchurch showed, have the potential to be lethal.

This year alone, Australian authorities have prevented two far-right extremists from engaging in terrorism. They stopped one who was seeking to travel overseas to be a foreign fighter, using a mechanism better known for preventing Islamic State supporters from going overseas. Then a man was arrested on the south coast of New South Wales for attempting to procure firearms and develop improvised explosive devices to carry out an attack. In December, a man was found guilty of similar activities in an attempt to attack left-wing targets in Melbourne. He will be sentenced later this month.

While such investigations that foil terrorist acts tend to attract less attention than a successful atrocity, the resources and effort that go into them provide the best chance of preventing another massacre.

A year on, New Zealand is progressing well with immediate and short-term measures and demonstrating calm consideration in planning to take the community forward.

One thing is certain. Instead of inflicting permanent damage on New Zealand’s Muslim community or the community at large, this terrible event demonstrated the extraordinary resilience and cohesion of New Zealand’s people. The power of this cannot be overstated. Terrorists of all types use propaganda as their main weapon, but their words and actions can only take root in fertile soil.

What Christchurch showed the world is that New Zealanders refused to fall for the attacker’s simplistic narrative—and they are the stronger for it.