New Zealand terror attack: Lone shooter? Intelligence failure? Turkey connection?

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Analysis by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs, Wellington and Canberra

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s strenuous reaction to the shootings of Muslims at Friday prayers on March 15, 2019, in two mosques in Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, was seen as a logical political response to an extreme act of terrorist violence. Fifty people were reported killed, and another 50 injured by the attacks.

New Zealand’s prime minister has other official roles including Minister for National Security and Intelligence. / Evan Barnes / Getty Images

However, the style and nature of the response may in part have been deliberately misleading to cover serious deficiencies in the prime minister’s (Labour Party) policies as Minister for National Security and Intelligence, and to serve her own political agenda.

Moreover, more than a week after the event, there remained serious unanswered questions about the attacks, the attacker(s), the lack of preparedness of the intelligence and domestic security communities (despite regular, unheeded warnings from their Australian counterparts), the police response times, and much more.

These include questions as to validity of the official claim that the alleged attacker, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, acted alone; whether the timeline of the attack made a single-person attack feasible; that some of the murdered victims remained unburied because they could not be identified (possibly because some may have been in New Zealand illegally); and so on.

These questions in no way mitigate the serious of the charges against Tarrant, but, rather, reflect on how the Ardern Government has been handling security issues.

In addition, the attacks generated a strategically significant response from Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan — given the alleged Christchurch attacker’s visits to Turkey and allegations of his, the alleged attacker’s, support for anti-Turkish Balkan issues — who was campaigning for local elections in Turkey’s 81 provinces on March 31, 2019.

President Erdoğan’s threat to send Australians and New Zealanders home from Turkey in caskets, like their grandfathers (the Australians and New Zealanders engaged in the attacks on Gallipoli in 1915 as part of World War I), polarized Australian-Turkish relations. That issue of President Erdoğan needs to be assessed separately.

The generally-accepted (as of March 24, 2019) assessment of the events of March 15, 2019, was that two Muslim sites were attacked, and a third targeted to be attacked, by a single, anti-Muslim/anti-immigrant attacker.

Prime Minister Ardern, like a number of her predecessors as Prime Minister, took the additional personal charge of the portfolio of National Security and Intelligence when she assumed office on Oct. 26, 2017, even though she also has other another minister directly responsible for the NZ Secret Intelligence Service (NZSIS) and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) (Justice Minister Andrew Little).

Key initial responses from key agencies were devoted to blame avoidance. A spokesman for the GCSB, for example, said on March 18, 2019:

GCSB is normally in a position where it can neither confirm nor deny any operational details, but given the nature of the situation I can confirm GCSB had not collected or received from partners any relevant intelligence ahead of the terrorist attacks.

New Zealand’s intelligence and security agencies do not currently have the legal authority, technical means or resources to actively monitor all online activity that occurs in New Zealand. In addition, all intelligence and security agencies are grappling with the challenges of encryption and closed online communities.

GCSB has stood up a 24 hour operation response team which is working with domestic agencies and foreign partners to support Police and NZSIS.

One very senior Australian intelligence official, very familiar with the New Zealand security situation, privately noted:

The possibility of an attack of this nature [the Christchurch attacks] had to be seen as a possibility. But the NZSIS wanted to keep their noses clean by not looking into the workings of the extreme right. They tended to see them as “all talk no action”. [They were seen as] people who were not “foreign” and represented thinking close to some of the smaller NZ political groups – and therefore politically sensitive.

There is still a lot of sensitivity after the failure of police to successfully prosecute a Maori paramilitary group for terrorism after a raid on its training camp in 2017: the “Urewera 16”.
It caused such a political stink, particularly in the Maori community, that folk ran in all directions. The Attorney General admitted the Government’s terrorism legislation was unworkable.
See: Terrorism Act ‘unworkable’.

But nothing has really been done to improve the terrorism legislation. I assume the killer [in the Christchurch attacks] will be charged as an old-fashioned murderer not a “terrorist”.

Investigating the shootings should begin to reveal the raw side of a community with significant numbers steeped in rural isolation. There are strong threads of Maori separatism and anger fueled in many small, disadvantaged rural communities. Equally there are significant anti-Maori groups, again finding their roots in poorer areas, and there have been fire bombings of Maori meeting houses and illegal armed training camps. It is an environment the Christchurch shooter could easily find comfortable. How much contact he had with these groups is yet to be seen.

The right-wing problem in New Zealand has historical roots. I understand that “white pride” marches are not unknown in Christchurch. There was at least one far-right political candidate in Christchurch who was convicted of firebombing a Maori meeting house. He had stood for mayor three times. As recently as 2013, he continued to receive a small but significant number of votes.

I can see why the individual charged with the murders could find a comfortable environment there. Now that the pressure is on it will be interesting to see what NZSIS comes up with. They are already admitting they were only just getting a program going to monitor the extreme right.

The NZ Government, immediately after the incident, announced sweeping changes to gun laws, to become effective by mid-April 2019. NZ would now ban all military-style semiautomatic and assault rifles, and would create a buy-back scheme to confiscate banned weapons. New Zealand still has some 1.2-million civilian-owned firearms (mainly long weapons) for a population of 4.78-million; a relatively high proportion of the population, but largely attributable to the fact that there is a strong culture of hunting in the country.

But one of the real issues remained, within New Zealand, the two major population disruptors: 1) ongoing unrest by some Polynesian Māori groups agitating for more rights and autonomy against the white European settlers under the British; and 2) substantial, ongoing immigration from largely Asian populations, including significant Muslim immigrants, but particularly from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Even so, the Chinese population of NZ still accounted for around five percent of the total by 2019, a small percentage of who (particularly in the South Island) stem from immigrants from Guangdong, China, in the 1860s.

The third population indicator of social thinking is the country’s urbanization rate. The population of New Zealand, like that of Australia, is highly urbanized: roughly 86.5 percent in each nation. This impacts political thinking, given that urban populations tend to support less “nationalist” policies (with “nationalism” portrayed in current politics as right wing). Thus, the net outcome of the Christchurch attacks seems likely to be politically beneficial to Prime Minister Ardern, and any “failures of intelligence” or weaknesses in security planning may well be played down in favor of “politically correct” gestures.

The outcome, as a result, may be that New Zealand intelligence and defense structures, despite their clear professional competence in many areas, play a diminishing role within the UKUSA Accords (Five Eyes) treaty arrangements, and in the ANZUS military alliance with Australia and the U.S. The reality, in many respects, has also been that Australia and New Zealand, once the closest of allies, have been moving further apart in important ways in recent years.

Even in language, the English-language accents which dominate in Australia and New Zealand, which once were similar, have been diverging significantly over recent decades. And yet, because of history and geopolitics, the Canberra Pact of Jan. 21, 1944 (facilitating close government cooperation between Australia and New Zealand); the Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement of 1983; the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement of 1973 (and subsequent modifications) allowing Australians and New Zealanders the rights to reside indefinitely in each other’s country, and other arrangements have facilitated what is, in effect, a common market between the two societies.

There was one the widespread belief that, because the two British-originating modern societies of Australia and New Zealand were so aligned in culture and values that they could form an “Anzac confederation”. That is now seen as far less likely.

The fact that the New Zealand Government, in its response to the Christchurch attacks, seemed happy to conflate the terms “right wing” and “white supremacist” with identification with U.S. President Donald Trump seem less than likely to contribute to a strengthening of strategic bonds with the U.S., while the fact that the man charged with the attacks was born in Australia also did little for Australia-NZ relations. Certainly, the fact that NZ Foreign Minister Winston Peters was dispatched to Turkey to apparently placate the Turkish President reinforced President Erdoğan’s view that he spoke for the global Muslim community, a view which has its own consequences.

Overall, the incident had not generated any obvious immediate steps by the government to deal in substantive terms with the national security and social issues raised by the attack.

Prime Minister Ardern’s response seemed solely designed to achieve a localized, populist goal of identification with the immigrant and pro-immigration sectors of NZ society, rather than with the majority populations (European origin and Māori). The longer-term impact of that approach, along with the neglect of NZ’s strategic partners, has yet to be seen.