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Moment that mattered: Fifty-one people are killed in mass shootings in Christchurch

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 17: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. 50 people are confirmed dead and 36 are injured still in hospital following shooting attacks on two mosques in Christchurch on Friday, 15 March. The attack is the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a worshipper at Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington two days after the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history

On the afternoon of 15th March, a far right extremist opened fire on worshippers at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. He then drove to the Linwood Islamic Centre and opened fire again. The attacks, in which 51 people were killed and dozens more wounded, were the country’s deadliest mass shootings, described by prime minister Jacinda Ardern as one of New Zealand’s “darkest days”. The victims, the youngest of whom was three years old, came from all over the world, many of the families having moved to New Zealand to escape violence and persecution.

The gunman, 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant, initially faced multiple murder charges. But on 21st May, having consulted with survivors and the families of victims, police added the charge of terrorism. For Berlin-based counterterrorism advisor Yan St-Pierre, the additional charge is a key detail. “The argument against bringing terror charges is that a murder charge already comes with one of the harshest penalties, so it almost feels redundant and it complicates a case,” says St-Pierre. “Yet charging the gunman with terrorism helps tackle the cultural bias associated with far-right terrorists as compared to Islamist terrorists.
I spoke to many people in Quebec about Alexandre Bissonnette [a white Canadian who killed six people and injured 19 others at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017] and the response tended to be ‘He had psychological issues – is it really terrorism?’ There’s a reluctance to acknowledge that far right extremism can be a product of our communities. But when far right violence is treated as terrorism it’s made clearer that society is part of the problem.”

“People know of Isis and Al-Qaeda, but the public is unaware of the equivalent groups on the far right”

St-Pierre says that charging a single perpetrator such as Tarrant with terrorism is complicated because in most Western countries counterterrorism laws are designed for people who are part of a network. Yet he believes that there is some kind of broader structure at work behind many attacks characterised as ‘lone-wolf’, such as Christchurch. “Even if attackers appeared to be operating alone, there’s nearly always a broader network at play,” he says, adding that charging somebody with an act of terror increases the chances of identifying and dismantling these networks. “People know of Isis and Al-Qaeda, but the public is unaware of the equivalent groups on the far right. But these groups exist and they will claim an attack like Christchurch is carried out in their name.”

In May it was revealed that Tarrant had given money to Martin Sellner, the leader of the ‘Identitarian movement’ in Austria. Followers of the movement, which has branches in many Western countries, promulgate ‘replacement theory’, the racist notion that immigration and multiculturalism is intended to make white people a minority “in their own countries”. Before the attack began, Tarrant had emailed a sprawling “manifesto” supposedly detailing his motives to media outlets – he titled it ‘The Great Replacement’.

Tarrant had connections with proponents of this racist doctrine around the world, and his Facebook followers were the first to know about his attack – he live-streamed it on his page. Although Facebook quickly removed the footage it was shared widely on other platforms. St-Pierre believes that the video will have a malign impact for many years. “The medium really was the message in this case and people watched it, commented on it and shared it. It was a horribly effective use of a modern communication method.”

St-Pierre says that technology has brought about what he calls “the democratisation of extremism”. “Extreme opinions used to be shared in closed circles but now there’s the capacity to spread propaganda widely and see it filter into the mainstream,” he says.

Two months after the attack, world leaders and representatives from big tech firms met in Paris to sign the ‘Christchurch call’, an agreement organised by Jacinda Ardern and French president Emmanuel Macron. Describing the initiative as a “roadmap to eliminate terrorism from the networks”, Ardern hopes that tech companies and signatory nations will work together to develop and utilise technology to keep extremist violence off the internet. In a further response to the attack, Facebook changed its livestream rules to exclude those who break its hate speech guidelines.

Tarrant’s decision to livestream his attack was widely interpreted as demonstrating the gunman’s craving for notoriety. In an address to parliament in Wellington on 19th March, Jacinda Ardern said that she refused to give him what he wanted and would never use his name. “If every attacker for every terrorist incident is not named it will have a positive impact,” says St-Pierre. “But if we don’t name a far-right attacker but then name someone affiliated to Isis it could be dangerous. People in Muslim countries are saying that names such as Mohammed have been associated to terrorism for years so why shouldn’t Brenton be the same? I think either you don’t say the name of any terrorist or you say the name of them all.”

Two days after her address to parliament, Ardern announced an overhaul of New Zealand’s gun laws. Assault rifles and military-style semi-automatics would be banned and a buyback scheme would be introduced. “Gun laws can have an impact,” says St-Pierre, “but if someone wants to commit a terrorist act they will find a weapon, maybe a car or a knife, so changing gun laws can feel like focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause.” St-Pierre believes that a more proactive approach is required. “We need to get ahead of the game and that starts with recognising incidents like Christchurch as acts of terror and tackling the networks and messages that enable them. Otherwise the terrorists will always be in front.”

The counterterrorism challenge is becoming tougher than ever, says St-Pierre. “Terror has become even more multifaceted,” he says. “Right now we are mostly dealing with religious terrorism, left and right-wing extremists and violent environmental activists. But there is an ever-greater pool of people willing to act violently upon their political ideas and grievances: that’s the biggest challenge we face.”

Police surround Al Noor mosque in Christchurch following the attack on 15th March

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