New Zealand’s Darkest Days
The country has seen horrifying terrorist attacks in recent years
While extremist ideology could be seen as rare, New Zealand has moved from “low” to “medium” danger since 2019, meaning that a terrorist attack is seen as feasible. Now it is rushing to pass anti-terror legislation by the end of this month. The Counter Terror Legislation Bill would criminalize planning and preparation that might lead to a terror action, closing a long loophole that allowed plotters to stay free.
The country has seen in recent years some violent acts, but why is there such a rush now? Last Friday, once again, New Zealand’s peaceful reputation was proven beatable by extremism.
32-year-old Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen, a Tamil Muslim and Sri Lankan refugee, attacked 7 shoppers in a Countdown supermarket at LynnMall in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. Three of the victims are still in critical condition, while the others are in serious and moderate condition. Allegedly, he shouted Allahu Akbar (God is great).
According to the news reports, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said a police surveillance team had followed the man to the supermarket but had no reason to think he was planning anything. He was just going to do his shopping “as he had done before”, but then he obtained a knife from within the store.
After the commotion began, two police from the special tactics group rushed over. Coster further added that the man charged at the officers with the knife and so they shot and killed him within 60 seconds of him unleashing the knife.
Under the radar for 5 years
It is reported that he was inspired by the Islamic State group and was being under security forces monitoring since 2016. Back then, he had shared videos and pictures of graphic war-related violence and comments advocating violent extremism, as Catrin Owen from Stuff picks up.
In 2017, he was arrested at Auckland Airport after he told a person at an Auckland Mosque, he wanted to go to Syria “to fight for ISIS.” Then police searched his home and found a hunting knife and “fundamentalist material”. Moving into 2018, his Google searches and computer bookmarks showed: Islamic State dress, New Zealand prison clothes and food, improvised explosive devices, heroes of Isis, and an ISIS-issued booklet on how to avoid being detected by Western security.
Could have an anti-terror law avoided the killing spree? New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it would not be fair to assume that the law could have made a difference in this case. “This was a highly motivated individual who used a supermarket visit as a shield for an attack. That is an incredibly tough set of circumstances,” she explained. The perpetrator had been in prison, but authorities had to release him as there was no legal reason to keep him in custody.
Nevertheless, as terrorism expert Dr. Greg Barton analyses, “He was arrested and charged with preparations for an act of terror, but unlike Australia, New Zealand doesn’t have legislation that means that preparation for an act of terror is a crime in itself.” The problem was definitely noticed and that is why he was under the radar for 5 years, but the court system was not able to do more to prevent his attack.
On March 15, 2019, the world was left speechless when a white supremacist, Brenton Tarrant shoot worshippers at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques killing 51 people and injuring dozens more. This new terror act in Auckland has stirred the memory and worst fears lived back in 2019.
Since the Christchurch killings, things have changed in New Zealand. For example, according to Professor of Law from the University of Waikato, Alexander Gillespie, there have been changes to gun laws that have banned the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons. Additionally, New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) and police are collaborating on a new strategy to increase the protection of crowded places.
However, tranquillity is not amongst the population of New Zealand and much less in the Muslim community. As Gillespie states, recent public incidents suggest a higher-than-desirable level of terrorist risk. In recent months, a white nationalist serving in the military has been charged with espionage; a well-armed teenager has posted inflammatory and extreme views and seems to have planned to attack his school, and there has been another arrest in Christchurch following a threat to strike the same mosques targeted in 2019. And these are just some of the known incidents.
According to a report from NZ Human Rights Commission, from 2004 to 2012 alone, there were about 100 race-related incidents, ranging from murder and kidnapping to serious assault, threatening, abuse, deliberate damage to property, and desecration of sacred sites.
Specifically, Muslims have reported threats and violence for years. In 2020, initial research conducted in five states and two territories of Australia has found that the threat of similar hate crimes as the ones that happened in Christchurch remains high.
From 75 mosques surveyed, over half (58.2%) have experienced targeted violence between 2014 and 2019. The types of violence suffered by mosque attendees and buildings included arson, physical assault, graffiti, vandalism, verbal abuse, online abuse, and hate mail, including death threats. Attendees were targeted similarly by Islamophobic violence.
After the Christchurch mosque massacres, there was a significant rise in tip-offs about people expressing extremist views, according to NZSIS. It received 455 pieces of lead information about people who expressed racist, Nazi, or white supremacist views, and “between 30 and 50 individuals have been under active investigation in relation to violent extremism.”
One of them could have been Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen. Prime Minister Ardern has been asked about a possible relationship between his attacks and the ones in Christchurch. She has not been able to confirm if it is a revenge act for the 2019 mosque shootings. What is for sure is that the terror action “was carried out by an individual. Not a faith, not a culture, not an ethnicity. But an individual person who is gripped by an ideology that is not supported here by anyone or any community.”
Recent violent activities and tip-offs suggest that security agencies need to be exceptionally vigilant and that although there are initiatives such as the Give Nothing to Racism campaign, racism and intolerance could have spiked. The new anti-terror legislation is expected to allow to arrest of those who show terrorist planning, and, hopefully, alleviate the situation.