Christchurch inquiry says New Zealand couldn’t have prevented mosque attacks

By Charlotte Graham-McLay

He was a socially anxious loner who was radicalized partly by extremist content on YouTube. But even as he traveled abroad extensively to places linked to far-right violence; amassed weapons, ammunition, tactical gear and unprescribed steroids; and was treated in a hospital after a firearms accident in his living room, he never came to the attention of the New Zealand authorities.

The result was catastrophic.

With the inheritance left by his father — his only income — running out, Brenton Tarrant, an Australian white supremacist, carried out the terrorist attack he had planned for two years, murdering 51 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch in March 2019.

Ever since, the country has grappled with the question of whether the massacre, New Zealand’s worst peacetime attack, could have been prevented. On Tuesday came an official answer: There was “no plausible way” the terrorist’s plans could have been detected by New Zealand’s government agencies “except by chance,” according to a major independent inquiry into the attack.

Still, the Royal Commission — the highest-level inquiry that can be conducted in New Zealand — found that lax gun regulations had allowed Tarrant to obtain a firearms license when he should not have qualified, and that the country’s “fragile” intelligence agencies had a limited understanding of right-wing threats and had not assigned sufficient resources to examine dangers other than Islamist terrorism.

A system mired in bureaucracy and unclear leadership was ineffective. But the two independent commissioners who conducted the inquiry stopped short of saying that the disproportionate focus on Muslims as a potential source of violence had allowed Tarrant’s attack to happen.

Instead, they said, a counterterrorism strategy more engaged with the public — something successive New Zealand governments had failed to implement — could have provoked public reports of concern about Tarrant’s behavior before the attacks.

New Zealand has firm limits on its intelligence agencies, the report said, so the government had been reluctant to enact public campaigns about terrorism. The inquiry devoted many of its recommendations to ideas for bolstered defenses and increased monitoring — a matter likely to prove controversial in liberal New Zealand.

Other recommendations — the inquiry made 44 — advocated changes to gun licensing; greater support for the bereaved families and survivors of the attack, many of whom told the inquiry they had struggled to obtain the help they needed; bolstered hate speech laws; and policies for improved social cohesion.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in comments to reporters at Parliament in Wellington ahead of the report’s release on Tuesday, said her government had provisionally agreed to carry out every recommendation. She planned, too, to speak “directly to the leadership of YouTube” about the report’s revelations that Tarrant had been radicalized more on the platform than he had been influenced by darker corners of the internet.

“The commission made no findings that these issues would have stopped the attack,” Ardern said in remarks that were echoed by other agency chiefs who spoke to reporters.

Still, Ardern apologized “on behalf of the government” for failings among the intelligence agencies and the lax firearms licensing system. Within a month of the attacks, Ardern passed laws in Parliament outlawing all the weapons that Tarrant had used.

The massacre 21 months ago prompted a national outpouring of grief and love, thrusting New Zealand, and Ardern, who has been praised for her compassion, onto the world stage. It also provoked a reckoning with the effects of far-right radicalization online: Tarrant broadcast video of his attack live on Facebook and published a racist manifesto steeped in trolling and far-right memes.

In March of this year, the terrorist abruptly pleaded guilty to all charges he faced over the attacks at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques, averting a planned trial. In August, he was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole, the first time such a sentence had been handed down in New Zealand.

His admission of guilt generated relief among those bereaved over the attack and its survivors.

But given the mass of evidence that the police had accumulated that was never aired in court, their consolation soon gave way to questions: about how Tarrant could have traveled so widely and planned his attack at such length without detection, given the scrutiny they say their mosques had received by the intelligence agencies.

The Royal Commission — which took place behind closed doors as it interviewed politicians, public servants, Muslim residents and others — was viewed by some as their last chance for answers. But they were anxious about whether the report would contain the information they sought.

“In New Zealand, inquiries are to tell the government what happened so the government can fix it, even when it’s the government that’s being inquired into,” said Andrew Geddis, a law professor at Otago University, Dunedin. Unlike the 9/11 commission into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, Geddis added, the investigation was not written for the New Zealand public — or even for victims of the attack.

“Those affected are interested far more in how and why their loved ones died and what has created people who do this, but the inquiry wasn’t set up to answer those sort of questions,” Geddis said.

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