Unpacking the New Zealand’s Christchurch massacre

A poster featuring a drawing of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hangs on a wall at the Botanical Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand, Thursday, March 21, 2019. Thousands of people were expected to come together for an emotional Friday prayer service led by the imam of one of the two New Zealand mosques where 50 worshippers were killed in a white supremacist attack on Friday March 15. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

Last Friday, in Christchurch, New Zealand, fifty people were killed and a further fifty were injured in two mass shootings, since confirmed to be perpetrated by a young, white male, right wing extremist. The consecutive attacks occurred at two mosques located at Deans Avenue and Linwood Avenue, separated by just a few kilometres. The massacre was carried out on a Friday, a religiously significant day for Muslims. The perpetrator marked his acts of inhumanity against innocent people immersed at a time of introspection and prayer, by live streaming his ‘mission.’

No one considered that this level of un-instigated violence could have occurred in New Zealand. Their Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern called the massacre ‘one of the darkest days in New Zealand’s history.’ It was devastating. According to the 2018 Global Peace Index (GIP), New Zealand was considered one of the most peaceful nations on earth. These unprecedented attacks in Christchurch may have now changed that perception.

Last February, Rebecca Kitteridge, the Director General of New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) stated the country’s risk of terrorist attacks as low. According to her, the threat level was low but the level is continuously reviewed and urged the nation needed to be vigilant in facing escalated terrorist threats. Her focus was on ISIS and its FTFs but gave little emphasis to the rise of right wing extremism both locally and internationally.

Her assessment was gravely wrong.  Christchurch came under siege less than a month after her assessment to the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which is a statutory select committee of the Parliament of New Zealand under the Intelligence and Security Act, 2017. It was evident that her concentration was on ISIS and other Islamic terrorist threats within New Zealand and other related external factors….which mostly involved Muslims.

In my opinion, she made a serious error in judgment on the global rise of right wing extremists as the head of New Zealand’s intelligence agency. The escalating terrorist acts committed by these groups in Europe and the United States of America (USA) are startling. Global security and intelligence agencies must pay significant attention as there are clear indicators that the threats of violence stemming from right wing extremism is parallel with other terrorist threats. Recently, the European Union Security Commissioner stated that not a single EU member State is free from right wing extremism. This is a highly worrying statement from such a high ranking EU official and is indicative of the seriousness of this threat and how this threat is going to shape the current and future global geopolitical landscape.

The FBI has classified right-wing extremists as terrorists who are consumed by extreme political leanings. They are anti-government, possessing racist ideologies and are often engrossed by hate crimes and violence. Further, these people are viciously nationalistic, anti-global, suspicious of centralised federal authority and participate in paramilitary training and survival skills. Brenton Harrison Tarrant’s behaviour before the attacks and his manifesto had exhibited all these characteristics in accordance with the FBI definition of right wing extremists.

In Europe, in 1988, neo-Nazi extremists carried out bombings against immigrant hostels in Cannes and Nice. In 2011, a right wing extremist, Anders Behring Breivik launched a terrorist attack by killing more than 70 people and injured more than 300 people in Oslo, Norway. In 2016, a member of British Parliament was murdered by a far right extremist. A year after that incident, a man indoctrinated by right wing ideologies used a vehicle and targeted a crowd leaving a mosque in North London where one person was killed and nine others were injured. The perpetrator was later identified as Darren Osborne. He was self-radicalised using online right wing teachings.

Some of the other right wing extremist groups in Europe are the Identitarian Movement Germany, Generation of Identity, the Pro-Vlast movement, the Soldiers of Odin, the Blood and Honour organisation, the National Action, the Scottish Down, the National Socialist Anti-Capitalist Action and the Action des Forces Operationnnelles.

In the USA, a right wing extremist, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City where 168 people were killed and injured more than 680 people. In 2018, two African American were killed by a white supremacist in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. There are many, many other incidents.

According to the US Government Accounting Office Report on Countering Violent Extremism, more than 70% of violent extremist deaths since 9/11 were caused by right wing extremist groups. In addition, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in their brief had indicated that in Europe between 2016 and 2017, there was a 43% rise in total attacks involving right wing extremists.

Currently, most Salafi-Jihadists and right wing extremists act as lone wolves. They do not overtly belong to any organised terrorist/extremist groups or organisations. The main reason for this is to evade detection from global intelligence agencies and security agencies, making them difficult to track and monitor. Their attacks are premeditated, well planned and often self-financed.

Right wing terrorists are equally as unpredictable and dangerous to the society they inhabit. In most cases, they are self-radicalised and act as a lone wolves. This poses a compounded threat and an additional burden to security and intelligence agencies because they have to mitigate parallel threats which are of correspondingly critical importance.

Terrorism does not always relate to religion, race or political ideologies. An act of terrorism can be committed by anyone at any time in any part of the world. The New Zealand atrocities were a disheartening example. Therefore, we cannot underestimate the intentions of terrorists and extremists whose motivation is to terrorise and unnerve the peace and security of any nation in the world. Terrorists and right wing extremists are always evolving.

In my view, the far right /right wing extremists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists/ fundamentalists and Salafi-Jihadists have to be labelled as terrorists as a whole. We should not categorise them according to race, religion or the ideologies they subscribe too. These perpetrators’ solely motivated to destabilise the world to achieve their perverse goals. They need to be stopped at all costs.

The New Zealand perpetrator is an Australian citizen, residing in Dunedin. Why he chose Christchurch’s mosques as his targets? When was he radicalised?Why was he NOT on the New Zealand and Australian security and intelligence agencies’ radar? Where and how did he obtain weapons? If legally obtained, why was the purchase justified? Did he act alone or with the support of others in New Zealand/Australia? Was he assisted by other foreign extremist groups?

According to his manifesto, the European rights are challenged by immigrants. Why did not launch his attacks in Western European cities? There is a report emerging that the perpetrator has extensively travelled around the world especially to the Balkans, Western Europe, Pakistan, Turkey, North Korea including Argentine and New Zealand. Why didn’t Australian or New Zealand immigration personnel question Brenton’s purpose for traveling to high risk countries like North Korea and Pakistan?

Future terrorist or extremist attacks will be conducted by lone wolves similar to the Christchurch attacks. The modus operandi of future perpetrators of such attacks will conceivably be more sophisticated. They will extensively use Facebook, Twitter and other social media as a key platform to raise funds, recruit terrorists/extremists and to spread their ideologies to the world at large. In addition, live streaming of such attacks may now be used as a primary tool to terrorise and spread their propaganda. 

The ‘Brenton Tarrant’ doctrine can be used by supporters and future perpetrators to motivate their ambitions.  They also can use the ‘dark web’ to engage in discussions about future attacks. The increase in immigrants and perceived loss of economic opportunities to these extremists could be used as justification to launch such devastating attacks in future. 

In my opinion, to solve any security issues, firstly, those who walk the corridors of the powers need to acknowledge the problems surrounding these issues.  They need to identify the root causes of these issues. Secondly, they also need to form a committee, including various stakeholders to engage in discourse to obtain their opinions on the related issues. Thirdly, they need to cultivate informants through the relevant agencies to infiltrate suspected terrorist/extremist groups to get pre-emptive information about their activities. Fourthly, updates in security legislation must be made to give additional powers to intelligence and security agencies under parliamentary supervision.

Next, the relevant agencies must be equipped with appropriate gear/arms. Their officers must also endure extensive and specialised training programmes to tackle issues arising from right wing extremism/terrorism. The importance of national security matters must be entrenched through training and field exercises. In addition, the relevant government agencies must also engage in better and timelier coordination relating to security information to better curb these developing threats.

Further, the understanding of political leaders from all sides including policy makers will be crucial in reducing the threat posed by right wing extremists/terrorists. Lastly, the collaboration between technology companies and intelligence and security agencies is vital in minimising the risk of such attacks. Following the Christchurch attacks, these companies successfully removed more than a million materials deemed sensitive and related to the attacks within 48 hours. In a nutshell, the attacks in New Zealand are a hard lesson in that the peace and security of a nation is not to be taken for granted, but a privilege which must be protected, upheld and nurtured.


Paneir Selvam is a Senior Lecutrer at the Institute of Crime and Criminology based at  HELP University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.