A member of the white supremacist group Action Zealandia has been arrested in relation to a terror threat made against Masjid Al-Noor in Christchurch, Marc Daalder reports

The 19-year-old man arrested yesterday in relation to a terror threat against Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch was a member of the white supremacist group Action Zealandia. The man, Sam Brittenden, was previously convicted of disorderly conduct after shouting “fuck the Muslims” on March 16.

Police raided a Christchurch home on Wednesday morning, arresting Brittenden and charging him with failing to assist with a search warrant. Police said they found a number of relevant items, including a vehicle, on the property. Chat logs with Brittenden provided to Newsroom by Paparoa, a group which tracks New Zealand’s far-right, showed Brittenden identifying as a member of Action Zealandia.

“[Christchurch] is the most based and white city in nz mate,” Brittenden wrote. “Ive [sic] got a group of fascists here too so its [sic] not all bad.”

Police declined to comment for this article. Stuff first reported Brittenden’s connection to Action Zealandia.

The threat, which Newsroom first reported on Monday, was posted to a far-right Telegram channel that glorifies the alleged Christchurch gunman on Sunday. It showed a man wearing a balaclava adorned with an image of a human skull taking a selfie from his vehicle. In the background of the picture was Al-Noor mosque, one of the two mosques attacked on March 15. Several worshipers are also visible in the photo.

The post in question was accompanied by text in English, a gun emoji, and then the same message in Ukrainian. Newsroom has chosen not to quote the message, which contains a death threat.

Threat not unexpected

Anjum Rahman, founder of the Inclusive Aotearoa Collective, said she had notified police and leaders in the Muslim community after being shown the threat on Monday morning.

“Police [are] aware of this matter and takes all threats to our community extremely seriously. Enquiries are ongoing into the incident,” a police spokesperson said at the time.

“We were expecting as we lead into the one year anniversary of the attack that there would be a rise in activity, so this is totally not unexpected,” Rahman said.

The message was sent to a channel on the encrypted messaging service Telegram, which now hosts a wide array of far-right groups, as Newsroom reported in October. This channel was created on March 18 and glorifies the accused Christchurch shooter, praising his alleged actions, reposting the footage of the attack and incorporating the man into a wide array of memes.

Since being posted on Sunday evening, the picture and message have been shared to other far-right Telegram channels and been viewed 3500 times. It has also been turned into a meme.

Rahman encouraged media outlets not to over-publicise the threat. “On the one hand, we do not want to do publicity for these guys or create any fear among the community, but on the other hand, we do want [the community] to be on their guard and aware and for wider New Zealand to be aware that they actually need to be active and vigilant in this space.”

She also encouraged Kiwis to rally together in solidarity against such hatred. “It would be really good for communities to pull together at this time and be really vocal. There needs to be a widespread response,” she said.

White supremacists still active in NZ

Newsroom first reported on the existence of Action Zealandia in August. The group formed in June or July and is widely seen as a successor to the far-right Dominion Movement. This is the first case of a known Action Zealandia member being charged with a crime.

On July 31, a person claiming to be an Action Zealandia member posted on the 4chan message board’s far-right political forum, seeking to recruit new members.

The recruiter responded to an American user warning them to keep Jews out of the group by reassuring the forum that AZ would never be bought with “Jewish money”.

A second user claiming to be a member of AZ said they expected the movement would grow rapidly. They also agreed that open anti-Semitism and racism was a bad look, saying that the group needed to maintain “good optics” for recruiting purposes.

University of Waikato Professor Al Gillespie says that this makes them more dangerous. “It’s kind of like a lot of stuff Donald Trump does. It’s clearly not illegal and it’s not direct, confrontational hatred, but it dances around something which can lead to it,” he said.

A third 4chan user and supposed AZ member was even more radical, telling a mixed-race user that they wouldn’t be able to join the group. Instead, this AZ member recommended they recruit the user’s white cousins.

Indeed, the movement states on its website that women, non-white people, and disabled people are not permitted to join. Its ideology, says Gillespie, mixes far-right nationalism with left-wing environmentalism.

It is unclear how many members the organisation may have. As many as a dozen different people are shown in photos – with faces blurred – on the slick website, which also bears some representation to that of the Dominion Movement. Dominion plastered stickers echoing classic fascist themes around Wellington and Feilding before shutting down after the Christchurch attack. However, the 4chan recruiter said the two groups were not related.

In a statement, an Action Zealandia spokesperson said that “the alleged actions of the accused individual are not within our code of conduct. Such actions are immature and unproductive as we don’t use violence to reach our goals.”

A platform for terrorism

Telegram allows users to send encrypted messages to one another, create public-facing channels, and has private chatrooms with hundreds or thousands of members. It was created by a pair of Russian tech entrepreneurs and was based in Dubai as recently as 2017.

More than 365 million people have signed up for Telegram, and as of March 2018 it had 200 million monthly active users. According to statistics compiled by a far-right user who is trying to centralise the various extremist groups on the platform, there were more than 158,000 subscribers to far-right Telegram channels as of December 9 – up 50,000 from mid-September.

The programme’s founders have repeatedly ignored or dismissed concerns that the platform is a breeding ground for terrorism. In 2015, the Islamic State (IS) used the app to communicate with potential recruits and coordinate the ground war in Iraq and Syria.

In 2016, French officials alleged that Telegram was used by two IS terrorists to coordinate a terror attack in Normandy.

Although Telegram said in November 2015 it would block public channels advocating terrorism, the far right has gotten around this through a technicality. Instead of directly urging people to engage in terrorism, users write that it “would be a shame if someone [engaged in a specific terrorist activity in a specific location]”.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment