A Muslim group forensically and thoughtfully examines how an Australian right-wing terrorist slipped through the security net. David Williams reports

They were the best and the brightest.

University students, graduates, post-grad researchers – about two dozen in all – hand-picked to examine how an Australian terrorist was able to slip through the country’s security net and shoot dead 51 Muslim worshippers at two Christchurch mosques.

Assembled by the Federation of the Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), the young team was tasked with producing a submission to the Royal Commission of inquiry into the attack on Christchurch mosques. (They produced two reports as it turns out, one a more dense, academic work, and the other more readable.)

It seemed appropriate: future leaders delving into the problems of the past and then drawing a picture of the world they want to live in.

They were Muslims, yes – one of them was shot in the attack – and guided by Islamic principles of fairness and inclusivity. But there was a strong feeling their findings should be for all New Zealanders, including Māori and ethnic minorities who didn’t necessarily share their religion.

It wouldn’t be a push for special treatment, just equal treatment. To make a positive difference.

A research and analysis session for the Federation of the Islamic Associations of New Zealand’s submission to the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attack. Photo: FIANZ

Much care was taken. Findings would be robust and, by their very nature, confronting, but the right tone needed be found. Hard issues would be tackled head-on, with fairness. Agencies would be challenged for gaps and failures but thanked for their immediate response to the attack.

And woven throughout would be love and appreciation – a reciprocation of the aroha and manaakitanga (kindness) offered by Aotearoa New Zealand after March 15 last year.

Putting together FIANZ’s submission stretched over seven months. It was painstaking work, reviewing more than 1000 documents, including mainstream media reports, peer-reviewed articles, publications from non-government and government organisations, including unclassified documents from key agencies – intelligence services, Defence Force, Foreign Affairs and Police. Responses from Official Information Act requests were assessed, as were papers from offshore spy agencies – this country’s intelligence partners.

The FIANZ group shared information on a Google Drive, talked on WhatsApp, and met monthly. The draft report was hammered out over two days in Auckland.

Then, in December last year, the researchers’ ideas were tested at hui up and down the country, in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Palmerston North, Hamilton and Auckland – where FIANZ’s seven regional associations are located. (After the Christchurch hui, the team member injured in the attack was taken to hospital because of complications. He recovered and was able to continue to the North Island meetings.)

At the hui, many concerns were raised, such as institutionalised bias and discrimination by intelligence agencies, and Police not taking hate crimes seriously. Follow-up sessions with focus groups touched on the “securitisation” of Islam – the framing of Muslims and Islam as a security concern.

Security Intelligence Service director-general Rebecca Kitteridge, left, meets with FIANZ officials – from second left, Abdur Razzaq, Rehanna Ali, and Sultan Eusoff – about its Royal Commission submission. Photo: FIANZ

The draft report was shared with Security Intelligence Service head Rebecca Kitteridge, and Mike Bush and Andrew Coster, the outgoing and incoming Police commissioners.

It’s impossible for a diverse community with a huge range of opinions to speak with one voice. But key themes and points of consensus emerged and there was broad agreement about the group’s account of the events leading up to March 15, and the findings. An important aspect was unanswered questions – more than 150 – submitted in the hope that commissioners, with their greater access to information and powers, would find the answers. (One important question is whether authorities have adequately investigated if the shooter acted alone.)

Not that the Muslim group were waiting for those answers. Out of the submission team, a spinoff group is developing technological solutions to online extremism. Another initiative is a victim-led project to tell their stories directly.

Stretching over it all is hope – hope that many of the report’s recommendations would be adopted by the Royal Commission, whose delayed 792-page report is now with the Government and will be made public soon.

The most important thing, of course, is trying to ensure such a terrible crime never happens again.

The FIANZ submission suggests monocultural agencies with monocultural thinking created a fog of Muslim threats because, basically, that’s all they knew.

Distilling so much information and presenting it in one place makes for powerful reading.

FIANZ submission convenor Abdur Razzaq, of Wellington, says he recalls one of the commissioners – there were two, Sir William Young and Jacqui Caine – saying theirs was a seminal submission.

In summary, the submission suggests monocultural agencies with monocultural thinking created a fog of Muslim threats because, basically, that’s all they knew. The fact the Christchurch terrorist wasn’t being monitored was, effectively, because they weren’t looking in the right place. Well, not until it was too late, at least.

However, if they had listened to complaints from the Muslim community itself, they would have found right-wing extremist threats in plain sight.

(The commissioners interviewed the terrorist at Auckland Prison, during which he explained how he concealed his planning and preparation for the attack, and the “mistakes” he made in carrying it out. The transcript and recording of the interview will be permanently suppressed.)

The entire intelligence system – comprising multiple agencies, with budgets stretching into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and overseen by the powerful Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – were, wrongly, consumed by the threat of Muslim terrorism, urged on by political talk of “jihadi brides”.

That’s not to say there was no threat from Islamist extremist terrorists. But a single-minded focus on one particular threat was seen as a dereliction of duty, especially when, globally, the rise of right-wing extremism was there for all to see.

Having 30 to 40 Muslims “under watch” in this country for almost 10 years garnered little – two convictions relating to possessing and/or distributing videos from the terrorist group Isis.

The final indignity from the SIS was Kitteridge’s statement, just days after the Christchurch massacre, it was focused on “possible revenge or copycat attacks”.

Razzaq, of FIANZ, says: “We were suffering. We were in pain, like the rest of the nation. And to say that is just heartless. That shows how deep and ingrained [the bias] was.”

After March 15 last year, however, when authorities started looking, the convictions started coming. There was white supremacist Philip Neville Arps, David Noble, and at least eight others.

Last week, the Defence Force laid 17 charges, including espionage, against a far-right soldier. Another soldier, James Fairburn, a member of the white supremacist Action Zealandia group, is no longer in the Army Reserves.

Not all alleged failures leading up to the Christchurch shootings were systemic.

Much attention in the FIANZ submission is paid to police checks of the terrorist’s gun licence application. Last Thursday’s Royal Commission minute says the two people who acted as referees were a “gaming friend and [the] gaming friend’s parent” – clearly not people the terrorist knew well, which is a breach of police rules.

Since the Royal Commission’s final report was presented to the Government there’s been a rush of anxiety over whether officials will be held accountable for pre-attack botch-ups. In last week’s minute, commissioners said 30-year non-publication orders would apply to evidence from current and former ministers, and public sector agency chief executives.

The Islamic Women’s Council is now pinning its accountability hopes on a coroner’s inquest.

An independent report suggests the Government establish a $35 million compensation package for the families of the 51 Shaheed (martyrs), the injured and witnesses.

Razzaq, the FIANZ submission convenor and former president of the Muslim Association of Canterbury, says it’s paramount the immediate and long-term needs of the victims are assessed and met. While a variety of government services are available they’re disjointed, he says. “People have to repeat themselves many times to different agencies. A one-point approach would be very much appreciated and necessary.”

Many families and individuals are still suffering. “We are expecting the Royal Commission to offer some significant information, advice, on the challenges facing this community – the victims.”

Unusual travel itinerary

The FIANZ submission highlights on-the-ground failures that it believes kept the terrorist below the radar of authorities.

(Some of the submission’s assertions are backed by the Crown summary of facts and Justice Cameron Mander’s sentencing remarks at the terrorist’s sentencing hearing in August.)

In 2016, a year before arriving in New Zealand, the terrorist travelled through Europe, taking in sites of historic battles between Muslims and Christians in places like Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro. In early 2017, he visited western European countries. While in France, which has the largest Muslim population in the Western World, he became angry at a non-white “invasion”.

Even after moving to Dunedin in August 2017, he continued travelling to exotic places, like Pakistan, North Korea and Bulgaria, taking in major battlegrounds.

“This highly unusual travel history could and should have generated a lead from Immigrations or Customs,” the FIANZ submission says.

(Justice Mander said it was while the gunman was in Europe he developed deep-seated radical views, such as far-right white supremacists’ ideas of “cultural displacement” through migration. “You began formulating ideas of taking violent action against people – people you described as “the invaders”, and in particular those of the Muslim faith.”)

Immigration NZ general manager Jacqui Ellis says in an emailed statement: “The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques will be tabled in Parliament on 8 December 2020. It is not appropriate for us to comment before then.”

Customs didn’t provide comment from a named person but its statement was exactly the same.

One of FIANZ’s recommendations is to review the training providers for various agencies, including Corrections and Customs, and retrain existing staff “on the various faiths of New Zealand”.

Firearms licensing fumble

The Crown summary of facts from August’s sentencing hearing said the terrorist “applied for and was granted” a firearms licence in September 2017, a month after he arrived in the country.

Judge Mander said: “You had no family or other apparent connections with New Zealand and have never sought employment here.”

FIANZ says police shouldn’t have endorsed the terrorist as a “fit and proper” person when considering his gun licence application. Having a licence allowed him to legally buy weapons and ammunition. Not only did police breach its own policies in vetting the terrorist, the submission says, its routine checks didn’t allow a wider sweep of the gunman’s background, which might have raised concerns.

(The terrorist lived a spartan existence. His belongings, dumped into a caged trailer after the attack, consisted of: “a mattress and a black bookshelf, a colander and a dish rack, a few battered suitcases and a broken electric fan. A bottle of Steinlager and a family pack of Bluebird potato chips. A toaster and a worn vinyl computer chair.”)

On March 22 last year, a week after the attacks, police said in an anonymised statement: “We have found that the correct [licensing] process was followed”. Police didn’t provide comment from a named spokesperson for Newsroom’s story. Its emailed statement can be found at the end of this story.

FIANZ argues the police timeline in that 2019 statement omits crucial details.

The referees for the application were a father and son who “knew the applicant primarily through an online chatroom” – the “gaming friend and gaming friend’s parent” mentioned earlier.

Yet the gun licence application form demands one of the referees is a relation, or someone who normally resides with the person, and the other is an unrelated person over 20 years old who “knows you well”.

When he applied, the terrorist had been living in his flat barely three weeks, knew next to no one, had no job and no known source of income, didn’t belong to a gun club, and had no history of recreational hunting or gun collecting.

The vetting officer should have discovered this, FIANZ says, and either applied the most stringent vetting requirements or not endorsed the Australian as fit and proper. A background check that went beyond a person’s criminal record might have exposed his extremist online presence or unusual travel habits.

A purchase of more than 2000 rounds of ammunition in December 2017 – the same month he joined the Bruce Rifle Club – was signed by a police arms officer. Razzaq, of FIANZ, says: “If this was a Muslim-sounding name don’t you think there would have been inquiries?”

(A former army soldier was so concerned by what he saw at Bruce Rifle Club in 2017 he contacted police, who reportedly dismissed club members as a “bunch of funny folk”.)

“This is a Royal Commission where we feel can be a reset button towards greater inclusiveness in New Zealand society, greater diversity.” – Abdur Razzaq

Stuff reported last year that firearm licence applicants are now being checked for signs of right-wing extremism, such as “shaved heads, Nazi symbolism and camouflage clothes”.

“This directive could and should have been in place, and could and should have been standard practice, prior to 15 March,” FIANZ’s submission says.

Next month, new rules about what makes a “fit and proper” person come into effect.

Another concern raised in the FIANZ submission is police cutting funding for the administration of gun licensing.

In its 2017/18 annual report, police outlined how there were “fewer resources” available for firearms licensing “due to increased demand in other police priority areas”. Therefore, firearms administration went through “modernisation”.

Police have also been criticised for its lack of response to racist, right-wing threats.

In 2018, a Canterbury gunsmith told a police superintendent Mike McIlraith about an increase in “neo-Nazis” attending gun events and legally gaining firearms licences. The warning wasn’t followed up and McIlraith didn’t recall the conversation.

Razzaq, of FIANZ, says a member of its research group was accosted by a right-winger in Auckland soon after the Christchurch attack. She made a police complaint but has “heard nothing about it”. Another researcher had a similar clash in a Hamilton restaurant and his police complaint was not followed up, either.

The FIANZ submission calls for hate crime statistics to be collected, and for a specific offence to be added to the Crimes Act. It’s also suggested police create a dedicated hate crime unit. Our hate speech laws seem ripe for an overhaul, considering the last successful prosecution was in the 1970s.

There are also recommendations about setting goals and targets to diversify the public service, and calls for Royal Commission into institutional racism and structural discrimination in the public sector.

“This is a Royal Commission where we feel can be a reset button towards greater inclusiveness in New Zealand society, greater diversity,” Razzaq says.

Can’t find if you don’t look

Fundamentally, why wasn’t the terrorist being monitored? The FIANZ submission points right to the top.

The national security system, which governs threats and hazards, including terrorism, comprises the Cabinet national security committee, led by the Prime Minister, agency chief executives, led by the head of Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), and senior officials.  

DPMC is responsible for managing and directing the New Zealand intelligence community (NZIC), including the Security and Intelligence Service (SIS), specialising in human intelligence, and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), which uses signals intelligence from overseas.

FIANZ suggests right-wing extremism pretty much passed by our national security apparatus, despite a global resurgence since the 2011 Norway terrorist attacks. Instead, the focus was on Islamist extremist terrorism.

Between 2011 and 2017, the Global Terrorism Database identified 350 right-wing extremist terrorist attacks in Europe, North America, and Australia. (In Europe, a flood of migrants and refugees from war-torn areas of the Middle East and Africa was met with a surge of far-right and xenophobic attacks.)

Yet, in New Zealand there was no systematic intelligence gathering and analysis to assess the threat. The FIANZ submission says either right-wing extremism was not a national priority or an intelligence requirement. It wasn’t a focus for the intelligence community “until nine months before the attack”.

(The Christchurch terrorist left digital fingerprints, including online searches of extremist content to research and write his now-banned manifesto, and presumably how to modify weapons. In 2018 he made a donation to well-known Austrian far-right extremist Martin Sellner.)

Islamist terrorism was certainly on the SIS radar. Who can forget Prime Minister John Key’s 2015 exchange with SIS director-general Kitteridge over “jihadi brides”?

Kitteridge continued to frame terrorism as a Muslim issue in a 2016 speech at Victoria University of Wellington. “The unfortunate reality is that a terrorist event in New Zealand would probably have a very negative impact on New Zealand Muslims, because of the likely public backlash.” (In the same speech, she said: “Terrorism is not a ‘Muslim’ issue.”)

FIANZ says it’s thanks to the framing of “potential Muslim terrorists” that the intelligence community’s budget increased from $67 million in 2013 to $139 million four years later. Its investigation and surveillance powers – a case of “mission creep”, the submission says – were also increased.

This “deeply entrenched way of seeing the world stopped New Zealand from making sense of the situation at the time and the evolving threatscape”, FIANZ says.

It’s not like they weren’t told.

In 2014, during a Parliamentary debate under urgency on anti-terror legislation, Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman David Shearer repeated what the Muslim community told the select committee – that they weren’t being listened to. The Islamic Women’s Council told top officials of its concerns with the alt right, and demanded action. Their concerns weren’t taken seriously.

Without government support, and facing increasingly hostile incidents, the Muslim community braced itself.

“We were reading the world news,” FIANZ said in its submission. “We knew what was happening in other Western countries. We could see the trend. We asked for help. We knew we were vulnerable to such an attack. We did not know who, when, what, where, or how. But we knew.

“Our security narrative was true. The NZIC’s official security narrative was inaccurate, and misinformed New Zealand.”

Setting better national intelligence priorities was, FIANZ says, likely hampered by “inadequate NZIC engagement with the Muslim, community, a lack of diversity in the NZIC, and institutionalised racism and anti-Muslim bias”.

A full inquiry into the structure and role of the SIS and GCSB should be considered, FIANZ says, while the setting national intelligence priorities should be open and democratised.

DPMC communications director Catherine Delore says in an emailed statement: “The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques will be tabled in Parliament on 8 December. Any comment is not appropriate before then.”

The NZIC communications team said the Intelligence and Security Act 2017 prevents publication of the names of individual staff. (But clearly not Kitteridge.) An emailed statement from a spokesperson said: “As you’ll be aware the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s report is due to be released publicly on 8th December and we are unable to respond to specific submissions until after the report’s release.”

The power of listening

The FIANZ submission highlights research showing media reports have helped promote Islamophobia.

A 2014 story in the Christchurch Press newspaper proclaimed two men killed in Yemen were radicalised at Masjid An-Nur – one of the mosques attacked by the terrorist. The story was “particularly damaging”, FIANZ said.

Days later the paper wrote in an editorial there was “no real evidence that anyone in Christchurch is engaged in anything other than peaceful and religious activities at the mosque”.

The terrorist read the initial article, however, and before the massacre wrote that the mosque “had a history of extremism”.

In April last year, Press editor Kamala Hayman told Newsroom she regretted the paper didn’t follow up the story with the Muslim community. “I think that was a failing.”

Last Friday’s editorial in Christchurch’s daily paper shows the change of focus and tone. It called for vigilance against the terror threat – “and a greater public understanding of where white supremacist ideology comes from and how it spreads”.

It went on: “We need to know that our intelligence services are doing all they can, and we also need to know that the communities who are targeted feel they have been listened to.”

Razzaq, the FIANZ submission convenor, says there were early reservations about the Royal Commission but it was empathetic, thorough, and consultative. “And they listened,” he says.

“They gave us the opportunity to ask questions, they gave us plenty of time for feedback. We thought this was a gold standard Royal Commission. They were part of the healing process.”

FIANZ’s submission may have flushed out flaws at various levels of the country’s security apparatus, but Razzaq says it didn’t set out to blame or accuse. The submission was designed to ensure the Royal Commission’s work has a lasting impact for the whole country.

“We’re really here to learn what went wrong. We’re really here so that there can be closure for some, in terms of why it happened, and there could be also lessons to be learned of what we can improve in the future.”

The Government’s response to the Royal Commission report is pivotal, Razzaq says. But civil society, including the education and media sectors, also has a responsibility to learn from the Christchurch attack. Inclusion and diversity can’t happen by rules and regulations alone.

The Holy Qur’an says Allah created different people so they could learn from each other. Sūrah 49 verse 13 says: “We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.”

Or put another way, they are us.

Police statement

A police spokesperson said via email: “It would be inappropriate for police to comment on any specific detail as reported to the Royal Commission, until the report is made public.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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