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As the Australian-born terrorist who killed 51 worshippers at two Christchurch mosques was sentenced to life without parole this week, questions are being raised about the Australian government’s ability and willingness to monitor far-right extremism. By Osman Faruqi.

Lessons of the NZ mosque attacks

Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah at the High Court in Christchurch on Wednesday.
Credit: AAP Image / John Kirk-Anderson

As he described bringing an end to one of the worst massacres in modern history, Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah locked eyes with Brenton Tarrant in Christchurch’s High Court on Wednesday. “You know this face,” Aziz said. “The one who chased you out.”

Aziz was praying in the Linwood mosque on March 15, 2019, when Tarrant entered with a gun, having just travelled from the nearby Al Noor Mosque, where he had just shot and killed 44 worshippers.

It was at the Linwood mosque that Aziz, who like Tarrant is an Australian national, fought back.

“This coward, gutless person, come from the back, put his gun in the window and shot one of the brothers in the head, next to my son, and he fall down to the ground,” Aziz told the court, delivering his victim impact statement on the third day of Tarrant’s sentencing.

When Tarrant ran out of bullets, and returned to his car to pick up another weapon, Aziz saw his moment to act. Amid the chaos, he picked up an eftpos machine he found inside the mosque, walked out into the car park and threw the device at Tarrant’s car.

“My two sons were looking from the side of the mosque. That coward kept shooting at me,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Daddy, please come inside.’ I told them, ‘You go inside, I will be all right.’

“I called that coward: ‘You are looking for me, I am here!’ I didn’t want him to go inside the mosque because we had 80 to 100 people praying at that time.”

Aziz grabbed an empty gun that Tarrant had dropped and smashed it through the window of the shooter’s car. “I saw fear in his eyes for his own life,” Aziz told the court. “He looked at me, gave me the finger and told me, ‘I will fucking get all of you.’ ”

Tarrant then drove to a third mosque he intended to attack, and Aziz gave chase on foot, before the shooter was rammed by two police cars and finally arrested.

In total, 51 people were killed during the shooting spree and 40 others injured.

When Aziz finished delivering his testimony, the judge presiding stopped him: “Before you go, I’ve seen the video and want to acknowledge your courage,” Justice Cameron Mander said. The public gallery – filled with survivors of the shooting and their families – burst into applause.

Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah was one of more than 60 people to speak this week, during a four-day hearing that culminated on Thursday with the Christchurch shooter becoming the first person in New Zealand’s history to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Some members of the Christchurch community who spoke, such as Janna Ezat, whose 35-year-old son, Hussein Al-Umari, was killed at the Al Noor Mosque, told the court they forgave the terrorist.

“I decided to forgive you, Mr Tarrant, because I don’t have hate. I don’t have revenge,” Ezat said. “In our Muslim faith we say ... we are able to forgive.”

For others, the hearing was an opportunity to channel their grief and rage. “My 71-year-old dad would have broken you in half if you had challenged him to a fight,” said Ahad Nabi, whose father, Haji-Daoud Nabi, was murdered at the Al Noor Mosque.

The court also heard new details this week of the meticulous planning that led to Tarrant’s attack, granting the public an insight into the killer’s state of mind.

The Crown prosecutor, Barnaby Hawes, told the court Tarrant had said to police he wanted to create fear among Muslims.

“He intended to instil fear into those he described as ‘invaders’, including the Muslim population or more generally non-European immigrants,” the prosecutor said.

Tarrant also expressed regret for not taking more lives and was dismayed he wasn’t able to carry out his original plan of burning down both mosques and attacking a third.

According to Hawes, Tarrant spent years amassing a cache of weapons and had built up a stash of 7000 rounds of ammunition after he moved to New Zealand in 2017. The court heard he practised with the weapons at several rifle clubs and searched the internet for blueprints of the mosques and prayer times to decide when he could inflict the most devastation.

Two months before the attacks, Tarrant flew a drone over the Al Noor Mosque, capturing an aerial view of the building and taking note of the entry and exit.

Tarrant’s involvement in organisations with Islamophobic, anti-immigrant and white nationalist ideology, as well as his years-long effort to build an arsenal and plan his attacks, have raised questions about how proactive security agencies are being on the issue of far-right extremism.

By the time Tarrant moved to New Zealand, his links to the far right were well established. He had donated thousands of dollars to far-right organisations in Europe and was in email communication with a neo-Nazi leader in Austria. He used social media to praise far-right figures in Australia, was active in the online forums of two far-right groups and was on the radar of a leader of one of Australia’s most prominent white nationalist groups.

 

According to Professor Clive Williams, a one-time Australian military intelligence officer and former director of security intelligence in the Department of Defence, the Christchurch attack was a “disastrous intelligence failure”.

“There was failure to recognise the potential danger from extreme right-wing actors, like Brenton Tarrant, despite the example of right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011,” Williams said.

He pointed to the fact that in 2018 Britain and the United States had arrested more right-wing extremists than Islamist extremists for planning terror attacks.

A complicating factor in Tarrant’s violence though, from an intelligence perspective, is that while his far-right activities were undertaken in Australia and Europe, he chose to carry out his attacks in New Zealand.

Dr John Battersby, of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University, told The Saturday Paper that Tarrant “came to New Zealand to remain out of sight of Australian intelligence and law enforcement, which I suspect he feared more than ours. He was not attracted here by any overt right-wing extremist group.”

Battersby says these kinds of “lone actors, who keep tight and discreet logistical footprints, and do not leak their intentions, who do not otherwise commit any crime or do anything that would give cause for the police to suspect them, are almost impossible to detect”.

“I have simply seen no evidence at all that he ever did anything that prompted any security sector concern – the people who lived right next to him in Dunedin never suspected a thing.”

But Williams thinks there are lessons to be learnt from Christchurch.

“Security agencies have reviewed the Tarrant case and learnt some hard lessons from what they failed to do,” he said. “Whether they are now devoting sufficient resources to the extreme right is hard to say without inside knowledge. It is clear though that they were already stretched covering Chinese espionage and Islamist threats.”

A document prepared by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, first reported by The Saturday Paper, warned a far-right terrorist attack is “plausible” in Australia over the next 12-18 months.

“The Christchurch attacks will have an enduring impact on the extreme right-wing community … and will contribute to the radicalisation and inspiration of future attackers for at least the next 10 years,” the document said.

The warnings, coupled with public comments by ASIO’s director-general, Mike Burgess, suggest the organisation is placing a greater emphasis on far-right terror in the aftermath of Christchurch.

An ASIO spokesperson told The Saturday Paper that “while the threat of violence inspired by Islamic extremism remains ASIO’s greatest concern, extreme right-wing groups and individuals represent a serious, increasing and evolving threat to security.

“Unfortunately, increasing numbers of young Australians – some barely in their teens – are being radicalised. This applies to extreme right-wing, as well as Islamic, extremist circles.”

It is clear Tarrant’s sentencing has stirred up white supremacists in Australia.

One Australian far-right activist posted on Facebook this week calling for the Christchurch shooter to be set free.

Another prominent white nationalist, a member of the Lads Society who The Saturday Paper has chosen not to name but who has previously admitted to conversing with Tarrant, posted on social media this week saying: “Remember always that we are at war. That a racial struggle is being carried out and that our enemies want to destroy our race.”

According to Debra Smith, a researcher on the far right who is based at Victoria University, these posts on mainstream social media sites are only the tip of the iceberg. Since the Christchurch shootings, while the far-right movement hasn’t faltered, some groups have moved to organising in smaller, clandestine cells on social networks including Gab and Telegram, where they preach an even more extreme ideology.

“They clearly have responded to the attention that would have come on them from authorities by becoming much more security conscious,” Smith said.

Some extremists have turned Tarrant into “a sort of vile type of poster boy for the movement and something to aspire to”, according to Smith. These individuals refer to him as a “saint” and some have painted his image onto assault rifle magazine cartridges.

One avenue the Australian government has available to disrupt extremists is the register of terrorist organisations, maintained by the Department of Home Affairs and ultimately at the discretion of its minister, Peter Dutton.

Listing a group means it is illegal to be a member, or in some cases even associate with members. No far-right groups are currently listed. Of the 27 organisations on the register, 26 are Islamic terrorist networks. In this, Australia’s approach noticeably diverges from Britain’s Home Office, which has listed a number of far-right groups as proscribed terrorist organisations.

Jessie Smith, a doctoral candidate in law at the University of Cambridge who researches counterterrorism laws, says there are a number of reasons why far-right groups might not be listed, including a “lack of political will and a deficiency of independent oversight”.

“While parliament’s joint committee on intelligence and security can review organisations placed on the list by Home Affairs, they have no oversight over groups the minister declines to list,” she told The Saturday Paper.

While Smith is cautious about the government overextending its use of executive powers unless independent oversight is ramped up, she said, “Banning an organisation is a public statement that the government does not support violent ideology. It also notionally acts as a deterrent.”

For those monitoring the far right, the concern is now whether Tarrant’s sentencing this week closes the chapter on this story. As Debra Smith put it: “Quite possibly, this is the calm before the storm.”

Handing down the sentence on Thursday, Justice Mander told Tarrant, “Your crimes are so wicked that even if you are detained until you die, it would not exhaust the requirements of punishment and denunciation.”

But it was the words of Aden Diriye, a Somali refugee whose three-year-old son, Mucaad Aden Ibrahim, was shot twice in the Al Noor Mosque, that lingered.

As a statement was read on his behalf, Diriye pointed at Tarrant.

“You have killed my son and to me it is as though you have killed the whole of New Zealand,” it read. “Know that true justice is waiting for you in the next life.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2020 as "Right turns".

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Osman Faruqi is a journalist and the editor of 7am, Schwartz Media’s daily news podcast.