Christchurch shooting: security agencies were focused on Islamist terror, inquiry finds


New Zealand’s security agencies were “almost exclusively” focused on the threat from Islamist terrorism at the time of the 2019 Christchurch shooting, in which a gunman shot dead 51 Muslim worshippers, an inquiry into the country’s worst peacetime massacre has found.

The landmark Christchurch royal commission report, which was released to the public on Tuesday after 20 months of consultation, also revealed police failed to enforce proper checks on firearm licences.

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, apologised for the failings but noted: “The commission made no findings that these issues would have stopped the attack.”

“Going forward, we need to ensure an adequate focus of resources on the range of threats New Zealand faces and enhance our security and intelligence, and social cohesion work,” she said. “You and others have made New Zealand your home. You, and every New Zealander, deserve a system that does its best to keep you safe.”

Ardern said she would accept all of the 44 recommendations contained in the 792-page document.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said she would accept all the Christchurch royal commission’s recommendations. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Initial measures include the establishment of a Ministry of Ethnic Communities, improvements to help police identify and manage hate crime and be more responsive to victims, improvements to hate-speech laws and research into extremism, and the creation of an early intervention programme for people showing early signs of radicalisation

More time would be needed to develop a response to some of the recommendations, she said.

On 15 March 2019, an Australian gunman shot dead 51 worshippers during Friday prayers at two mosques in the city of Christchurch. The attacks were the largest mass shooting in New Zealand’s history and the first act of terrorism in decades, prompting an outpouring of grief in the normally peaceful nation, and calls from many in the Muslim community to confront what they said had been a rising tide of white supremacist threats.

Prior to the attack the gunman posted multiple troubling references online, was able to legally obtain a gun licence, and carried out reconnaissance missions to both mosques.

In the wake of the attack, Ardern commissioned the inquiry into why and how the massacre took place, and whether there was anything government and police officials could have done to prevent it.

Andrew Little, the minister in charge of the country’s spy agencies, has been given the job of coordinating implementation of the wide-ranging recommendations.

Ardern noted that despite reports back to the 1990s identifying the firearms control system as lax, significant changes were not made until after the attack.

The police commissioner, Andrew Coster, said on Tuesday legislative changes this month will clarify the criteria for determining whether someone was fit to own a firearm, including specifying criminal convictions that disqualify them.

New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) chief, Rebecca Kitteridge, acknowledged there was insufficient focus on right-wing extremists until 2018 but said it was a misconception that the Muslim community was specifically targeted.

It was a small agency and only a small number of individuals were monitored, she said. Kitteridge said a speech in 2016 in which she framed terrorism as a Muslim issue was made in a certain context and she did not hold that view.

The NZSIS needed to explain its role better to the public and Kitteridge said she was working on building a better relationship with the Muslim community.

Ardern said no individual was found in the report to be at fault and no one would lose their job. Despite the inappropriate focus on Muslim extremism, the report did not conclude the security agencies were Islamophobic.

Muslim groups have repeatedly said their warnings to the authorities about threats from white supremacists before the attack had been ignored.

The Islamic community told the inquiry that it knew it was “vulnerable” to a terror attack, and that security forces had wrongly focused on terrorism committed by Muslim extremists.

The Federation of the Islamic Associations of New Zealand said in a submission made public last week: “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.”

On Monday, the Islamic Women’s Council New Zealand (IWCNZ) called on the government to make a national apology for the attack.

Investigations have found that the terrorist had extensively planned the attacks over a long period of time. An official account given in court revealed the gunman had amassed a cache of semiautomatic weapons and studied plans of the mosques he intended to attack.

In August the killer, who live-streamed the massacre on Facebook and published an extremist manifesto online detailing his anti-Islamic views, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The inquiry took place behind closed doors and interviewed everyone from top security officials to survivors, current and former prime ministers and Tarrant.

During the course of the inquiry, more than 400 meetings were held, 340 non-disclosure orders were made, 73,500 pages of evidence and submissions were analysed and 217 public sector agencies were asked to provide information.

More than 1,100 people wrote formal submissions.

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