Police officers search the area near the Masjid Al Noor mosque after the terror attack in Christchurch. CREDIT:AP

Police officers search the area near the Masjid Al Noor mosque after the terror attack in Christchurch. CREDIT:AP

After the tragedy, attention turns to how it happened

20 March 2019


Four phases follow events like the tragedy in Christchurch – shock and disbelief, grieving, a search for answers, and new countermeasures.

The shocked New Zealand reaction to the Christchurch terrorist massacre was similar to Australia’s following the terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002, when Indonesian terrorists killed 88 Australians in twin nightclub bombings. (In all, there were 202 fatalities, including two New Zealanders.)

Since 1950 in New Zealand there have been seven multiple-death incidents resulting in a total of 50 deaths, with only one getting into double figures – what is called the “Aramoana massacre”, which resulted in 14 deaths.

This was a mass shooting that occurred on November 13, 1990 at Aramoana, northeast of Dunedin. Resident David Gray, after a verbal dispute with his next-door neighbour, shot and killed 13 people, including local police Sergeant Stewart Guthrie. The next day, the Police Anti-Terrorist Squad located Gray, and shot and disabled him as he came out of a house firing from the hip. He died on the way to hospital.

None of these fatal incidents seems to have been politically motivated. Most politically motivated acts of violence in New Zealand have been bombings as a form of protest. These included the Huntly rail bridge bombing (1951), the Wanganui Computer Centre bombing (1982), and the Wellington Trades Hall bombing (1984).

New Zealand will be particularly shocked by the Christchurch massacre as it prided itself on being a well-integrated community welcoming migrants from around the world, including Muslims unwelcome elsewhere.

However, there are many right-wing activists in New Zealand who do not welcome migrants from other cultures. Prominent among them is the nationalist far-right NZ Sovereignty movement.

New Zealand security authorities seem to have been mainly focused on Islamist extremists and not to have taken the extreme-right seriously enough.

The agency that will come under most scrutiny after the Christchurch massacre is the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, or NZSIS.

NZSIS is a civilian intelligence and security organisation. Its role is to investigate threats to security and to work with other agencies within government so the intelligence it collects is actioned, and threats that have been identified are disrupted.

NZSIS’ headquarters is in Wellington, with regional offices in Auckland and Christchurch, and some staff based overseas. It has close to 300 full-time equivalent staff. The Director-General since 2014 has been Rebecca Kitteridge. She was reappointed for another three years from May 2019. Andrew Little is the Minister Responsible for NZSIS.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is quite active in global and regional counterterrorism forums. It notes “While the risk of a terror attack here is thought to be low, we need to be vigilant, and play a part in countering terrorism abroad.”

Located within the NZSIS is an interdepartmental group, the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG), whose role is to warn of terrorist and criminal threats. The CTAG is hosted by NZSIS and includes representatives of the Government Communications Security Bureau, New Zealand Defence Force, Police, and Civil Aviation Authority.

In February 2019, the DG NZSIS noted in a briefing to Government’s Intelligence and Security Committee that at any one time about 30 people are of particular interest to the NZSIS. No mention was made of any right-wing concerns. There is also no mention of right-wing extremism in the NZSIS 2018 annual report.

New Zealand lists 21 groups as terrorist entities. The list contains groups drawn from a UN list that pose no threat to New Zealand or its interests. It also includes the Taliban, which is usually regarded as an insurgent group and not a terrorist group. No right-wing groups are included.

It is much harder for the public to access counterterrorism advice in New Zealand than it is in Australia. For example, it is difficult to determine what New Zealand’s terrorism threat levels are without doing a lot of digging. I eventually found them buried in a Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet website. There are six threat levels: Negligible, Very Low, Low, Medium, High and Extreme.

At the end of 2014, because of concerns about Islamist terrorism, New Zealand’s terror threat level increased from Very Low (unlikely) to Low (possible but not expected). In the wake of the Christchurch massacre it has been raised to High (assessed as likely). The High ranking is because of not knowing who else might be involved and to guard against copycat attacks.

The other area that will attract scrutiny in the “search for answers” phase is New Zealand’s lax gun law situation. Only pistols and military style semi-automatic firearms need to be registered with Police and there is no national register.

There are about 230,000 licensed firearms owners and an estimated 1.5 million firearms in New Zealand. Gun licences are issued at the discretion of police provided they consider the applicant to be of good standing without criminal, psychiatric or drug issues, and have suitable storage facilities.

Last year 52,000 weapons were imported legally but police believe a lot more came in illegally.

The 1997 Thorp Inquiry estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 firearms were owned by people with criminal intent, along with possibly another 100,000 “grey guns” held by unlicensed individuals, but not intended for criminal purposes.

New Zealand Police have pushed for years for tighter gun controls, against political resistance. In March 2009, a police bid to reclassify certain types of civilian semi-automatic firearms - of the kind used in the Christchurch attacks - was overturned by the New Zealand High Court as a result of a legal challenge mounted by the New Zealand National Shooters Association.

Clearly, high priorities going forward should be a review of New Zealand’s security threat assessment system, a tightening up of gun laws, and a buyback scheme to reduce the number of firearms.

Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the Centre for Military and Security Law at ANU and a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU.

This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald

Image: Police officers search the area near the Masjid Al Noor mosque after the terror attack in Christchurch. CREDIT:AP

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