The terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch by an Australian white supremacist accused of killing 50 people as they gathered for prayer has rightfully horrified people the world over. While police and security agencies grapple with how the attack came to pass without their knowledge of the individual or his views, people are wondering why peaceful New Zealand has been rocked by such an event.

A better understanding of what occurred and what we need to learn from it will emerge in the weeks to come, but it is worth asking five key questions to try to better understand what this attack means, and what it doesn’t mean for us in the future.    

Was this attack inevitable and who is to blame?

When someone is able to kill 50 people peacefully observing their religious practices, some things must change.

Responsiblity must first be with the alleged terrorist himself, of course. But before we accept the argument that there is a direct causal link between the attack and the political rhetoric of people like Senator Fraser Anning and One Nation, shock jocks and conservative media, let’s wait for a more thorough analysis of Tarrant’s online activities and any meetings he had or contacts he made during his travels.

Terrorists seek out influencers who shape or reaffirm their own warped sense of reality. Forget about Brenton Tarrant’s 74-page manifesto and the names contained therein – he’s simply feeding the world a narrative that his narcissism would have him believe will influence others, including the media. The real influencers are the ones the police will find when his social media and online history is analysed. If any of those mentioned above are proven to have influenced his thinking, then they must be held to account. But if not, then the claim of a direct causal link is much less persuasive.

Should this portend a fundamental shift in threat perception?

It is too early to tell. Naturally, when 50 people peacefully observing their religious practices are killed, some things must change. Government has a fundamental obligation to protect the community, and if white supremacists as a group are considered a threat after a thorough assessment of the circumstances surrounding this attack has been conducted, then there will be a sharper focus on such groups. What is certain is that such an assessment will take into account the events in Christchurch and will be informed by data gleaned from the investigation into Tarrant’s contacts.

Was this an “intelligence failure”?

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “This individual should have been someone that the authorities were aware of and were proactively already focused on.” But it is way too early to decide whether this is a fair criticism. It is easy to label any successful terrorist attack as an intelligence failure, but it isn’t realistic to expect perfect intelligence in an imperfect world, even less so in a liberal democracy where individual rights correctly limit the scope of law enforcement and security agencies’ activities. If an individual is acting alone, the challenges are even greater.

However, if there were indicators and warnings that were not picked up or analysed correctly then intelligence agencies should be held to account.

Was he missed simply because he was a white male from Grafton? 

Likely not. Resources are finite, and threats need to be prioritised. For example, the Khayat brothers, who will go on trial soon in Australia for an alleged attempt to bomb an aircraft on behalf of ISIS, an attack which would have killed hundreds of people, had a brother who was fighting with ISIS in Syria and two nephews who had been killed fighting for ISIS. Yet there was nothing in their activities nor history in Australia that placed them on a watch list here.

So it should come as no surprise that someone with objectionable views but without any criminal record or, as far as we know, history of violence or threats wasn’t on the radar. Warrants and the like have to be based on demonstrable evidence, not gut feel, dislike of an individual’s views or affirmative action.

Why did he undertake the attack in New Zealand?

This will be a key line of inquiry. Are there trans-Tasman far-right/white supremacist links we’re unaware of? White supremacists tend to attack locally, which makes this one somewhat unusual. He was obviously out to kill as many Muslims as possible and said he had been planning the attack for two years. Perhaps Australia’s strict gun laws (which have frustrated planning by Islamist terrorists in this country) meant he looked for a more permissive environment, and New Zealand’s relatively looser gun laws offered an opportunity. In order to avoid a repeat of an attack such as this, gun law reform will become a priority for New Zealand.


The Lowy Institute is part of the  Pacific Research Program