by Sandra Ivanov. She is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She was formerly a policy advisor in the New Zealand public service and now primarily works in the development sector. You can connect with and follow her updates on Twitter.
The city of Christchurch in New Zealand has been devastated by tragedies of the natural kind, most notably in February 2011 when an earthquake resulted in 185 deaths and leaving thousands of people injured and without homes. Now, on March 15, 2019, an unprecedented event in New Zealand’s history has affected the people of Christchurch. 50 people were killed in two mosques during the afternoon Friday prayer by a self-proclaimed “eco-fascist” citing “revenge on the [..] foreign invaders in European lands” as motivation for his actions (see also Sarah Manavis, “Eco-Fascism: The Ideology Marrying Environmentalism and White Supremacy Thriving Online“, New Statesman, September 21, 2018). For the first time in New Zealand’s history, the national security threat level was switched from low to high. This is a current and unfolding story, however, what can be pieced together is the continued impacts of the Global War on Terror, its perpetuated narrative in world politics, and how domestic responses are formed based on this narrative.
The event: “One of New Zealand’s darkest days”
50 people were killed and 48 injured after two terrorist attacks took place at Linwood Masjid Mosque and Masjid Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. The perpetrator, an Australian man named Brenton Tarrant, walked into the central mosque – Masjid Al Noor – carrying a semi-automatic gun, killing 42 people at the scene. Tarrant live-streamed the event on social media and disseminated a “manifesto” outlining his motives. Another attack was carried out at Linwood Masjid, leaving seven dead at the scene. One persons later died in hospital.
New Zealand Police apprehended Tarrant 36 minutes after the first emergency call was made, as well as taking two more suspects into custody. However, at this stage the Police consider Tarrant to be a lone gunman responsible for the attack. The central mosque had at least 300 people inside at the time. There were also two improvised explosive devices attached to a vehicle that were made safe by the New Zealand Defence Force, and weapons were found near both mosques. Police blocked key roads, and all schools in Christchurch were put under lockdown for several hours, as well as workplaces in the surrounding areas. On the morning of March 16, Tarrant appeared in court and was charged with one count of murder, with the New Zealand Police stating that more charges were likely to come. His next appearance will be on April 5 in the High Court.
The perpetrator’s manifesto, and the effects of the Global War on Terror
In Tarrant’s 74-page manifesto, answering his own question to why he targeted Muslims, it was because “they are the most despised group of invaders in the West, attacking them receives the greatest level of support“. This statement alone reveals decades of entrenched rhetoric and perpetuated imagery instituted by the Global War on Terror – a continued broad brush application of “radical Islam” as the enemy. Ever since the attack on 9/11, international counterterrorism policies have promoted a narrow view of perpetrators that conduct acts of terrorism, pitted in a battle of “us versus them”, with Western countries attempting to salvage their “values” through increased security measures.
While the government claims that its counter-terrorism strategies target all forms of extremism, and do not target specific individuals or groups, it is clear that the Prevent strategy centres on Muslims in the way that it frames the threat of extremism and terrorism. Added to this, the allocation of Prevent funding, which was based on the number of Muslims in a local authority. This explicit targeting demonstrates that Islamophobia is central in shaping how the government (and wider society) define and construct extremism and terrorism as solely Islamic problems. — Fahid Qurashi, “Prevent Gives People Permission to Hate Muslims – It Has No Place in Schools“, The Guardian, April 4, 2016.
In the wake of the attacks in Paris in 2015, French President François Hollande took a hard-line approach, and through the rhetoric of his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, proclaimed these acts as a battle of identity and culture. The approach to “deradicalisation” in this case has been referred to by a sociologist as “understanding individuals who turn against their own society, coming from the Anglo-Saxon world”, and where in France this has transformed into “authorities treat[ing] the ideology itself as a form of violence”.
This has also been demonstrated by France instituting state of emergency powers in 2015, extending these measures six times until they were officially lifted in 2017. However in a report revealed by Amnesty International, these powers have now become embedded into ordinary French legislation, and that these counterterrorism measures are often discriminatory and restrict fundamental human rights. Tarrant, in his manifesto, wrote how his journey through France was a turning point in him deciding to plan his own attack.
It also cannot be missed that most news broadcasters provided round the clock coverage of the attack in Paris, whilst neglecting to show the terrorist attacks by ISIS in Lebanon and Iraq which occurred the day before. The global outcry and sympathy for Paris was never received for the victims in Lebanon or Iraq. The Global War on Terror continues to live within the selective nature of the media, choosing which tragedies are more important, and which lives matter more.
In the United States, the National Strategy for Counterterrorism was launched by US-President Trump’s administration last year, with a clear continuation and adaptation from the Bush and Obama administrations. Since the Global War on Terror, these strategies have almost exclusively focused on “American and foreign-born jihadists, overshadowing right-wing extremism as a legitimate national-security threat“.
White supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremist. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has reported that 71 percent of the extremist-related fatalities in the United States between 2008 and 2017 were committed by members of the far right or white-supremacist movements. Islamic extremists were responsible for just 26 percent. — Janet Reitman, “U.S. Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism. Now They Don’t Know How to Stop It.“, The New York Times Magazine, November 3, 2018.
However these facts and realities have not curbed US-President Trump’s rhetoric from being broadcasted around the globe – consistently linking the terms “terrorism”, “immigration”, and “Islamic radicalism” together. Tarrant mentions Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity” in his manifesto.
It has been 18 years since the attack on 9/11 and since the Global War on Terror was instigated, and new movies and television series’ continue to be made with Muslims pitted as the villains in storylines. Magazines, newspapers and news broadcasts continue to analyse the “radical Islamic terrorist” as its own archetype, and are all too quick to label a crime potentially committed by a person of an ethnic minority background as an act of terrorism. Without challenging the rise in violent acts perpetrated by right-wing or white supremacy extremism, policies will continue to normalise the idea of the “other”, and bypass addressing the root causes of why these types of violence continue to occur.
New Zealand’s approach to terrorism and what it might have missed
In response to the 9/11 attacks, and subsequent international obligations to put in place legislation against terrorism, New Zealand enacted the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 (TSA). An attempt to apply the measures prescribed in the TSA were made in 2007, involving an activist group suspected of carrying out guerrilla and military-style training for a wider purpose of creating an independent state (referred to as “Operation Eight“). However, when the case was examined, the legislation was deemed “unnecessarily complex, incoherent, and, as a result, almost impossible to apply to the domestic circumstances observed by the Police”. The Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 has not been used on any individual cases, and New Zealand relies on criminal legislation to deal with terrorist-related offences. Subsequent pieces of legislation have since been created and linked to preventing terrorism, such as the Counter-Terrorism Bill 2003, the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism Act 2009, the Search and Surveillance Act 2012, and the Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill 2014, among others.
In July 2018, a visit from the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate took place in New Zealand to follow up on an initial assessment made in 2009 on the implementation of terrorism-related Security Council resolutions. Citing general measures implemented for countering potential threats, the Committee “welcome[ed] New Zealand’s development of a draft national counter-terrorism strategy“. In November 2018, the Government stated it was reviewing current counterterrorism legislation, and recognised that the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 was unworkable and that authorities maintain reluctant to use the legislation.
New Zealand invests considerably in resourcing the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS), the Government Communications Security Bureau, and its membership in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. In 2016, the New Zealand Government invested $178.7 million over four years, mentioning that this investment allowed “significant staff recruitment and further extends the NZSIS’s ability to respond to the threat from foreign terrorist fighters”. However, Tarrant was not known to authorities in New Zealand or Australia. He did not have a criminal record and was not on any terrorist watch-list. This poses a wider question on the effectiveness of security apparatuses, counterterrorism measures, and the continuing investment in the Global War on Terror in general. Several security experts in New Zealand have commented on the missing link in it’s strategic approach:
Security analyst Paul Buchanan has stated that the “bulk of intelligence-gathering and efforts at prevention when it comes to terrorism have been directed at the Islamic community of New Zealand”, meaning that “resources were not directed towards right-wing extremists”.
On the contrary, counterterrorism expert John Battersby stated that authorities “have been looking at extremism as a problem, and whatever form that may take” noting “individual attackers were always difficult to prevent”.
The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service’s most recent annual report revealed that “the majority of leads in the 2017-2018 time period were linked to ISIS”, and that the intelligence community has difficulties “with stopping attackers who plan in a short timeframe”.
Meanwhile Paul Spoonley, an expert in right-wing movements in New Zealand, weighs in by mentioning that “since 9/11 there’s been this big international conspiracy theory that Muslims are the major threat, and they [right-wing extremists] think they’re undermining our culture and identity and also physically attacking us so we’ve got to fight back”.
Human rights lawyer Deborah Manning has urged that the right questions need to be asked, like “why these attackers were not on the radar and why the community, which has been under the most suspicion, are the victims of this”. The question of where New Zealand’s counterterrorist efforts were focused on will indeed be asked in the coming weeks.
As analyses are made, and investigations continue over the events and what could have been done, what is shocking for New Zealand is that the massacre of 50 people in one day has trumped the total number of murders in the country in a year. Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern has pledged to make a change to the country’s gun laws as the first point of response to the tragedy.
Counterterrorism responses must promote inclusion and tolerance, and should build on the psychological, social, and cultural capacities of individuals and communities to sustain their well-being, and respond to extremist influence. At the same time, responses must remain fair and free from bias in their implementation. This is a difficult balance act to not further exacerbate inequalities and ensure citizens are empowered to interact with responses and not be alienated by them.
It has taken 18 years of consistent political messaging and narratives to entrench the modern-day perception of a terrorist. With many nations concentrating on military and security investments to counter the terrorist threat, it is time to redirect those investments back into resources critical to support the well-being of the citizens that nations are trying to protect. Creating a counter-narrative to curb terrorism requires robust and accessible institutions in the areas of education, social welfare, and health so that adequate support and safety can be enjoyed by citizens.
The counter-narrative will equally be a long-term battle that needs to be systematically implemented in our societies – such as including anti-racism education in school curriculums, establishing opportunities for adult education focusing on mediation and problem-solving techniques to promote community-based resolutions, and the active inclusion of marginalised communities in meaningful dialogue and participation as active citizens.
There are also many lessons that can be learned from Scandinavian countries that have successfully implemented programmes and strategies targeting right-wing extremism and white supremacy movements. These lessons include responses being designed as long-term approaches to tolerance building, having a focus on providing opportunities to target groups (such as young people) instead of trying to foster a change in their ideology, utilising local insights and knowledge to identify potential threats, and investment into tailored approaches that do not isolate or paint a broad brush on different groups in society.
On an individual level, we are only victims if we let terrorism influence us, and in the end politics and power is shaped by us, the citizens of nations. The people of Christchurch and New Zealand have already shown their resilience in the face of this terrorist attack, fighting fear with “food and talk“, and organising peaceful vigils across the nation. The world will be watching New Zealand as it grapples with the consequences of this event, and it has a chance to be a leader in promoting community cohesion and non-violent solutions to terrorism.
- Sarah Manavis, “The Christchurch Shooting Shows How a Far-Right Web Culture Is Driving Radicalisation“, New Statesman, March 15, 2019.
- Adrian Hänni and Lukas Hegi, “What ISIS wants: The strategy behind the attacks in Europe and the US“, offiziere.ch, September 19, 2016.