Analysis: Country Reels following Christchurch Mosque Attack but Terrorism Threat Remains Low

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

This content was originally published on RiskMonitor by our Intelligence and Analysis Services Team on 06/02/2019. Find out more about RiskMonitor now.

Description

  • Killing of 50 people in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch prompts reflection on far-right extremism and gun ownership in New Zealand.
  • The national terrorism threat level was raised from low to high following the shootings, a significant move in a country which has historically faced a limited extremist threat.
  • Although the Christchurch gunman is believed to have acted alone, authorities have expressed concern over the potential for copycat attacks.
  • Government efforts to restrict ownership of semi-automatic weapons are likely to face some public opposition, but legislation looks likely to be passed in the coming days.

The killing of at least 50 people in attacks at two mosques in the South Island city of Christchurch on the afternoon of Friday, 15 March, has sent shockwaves through New Zealand. The incident, the deadliest terrorist attack ever to occur in the country, was made all the more shocking by being live streamed on social media and gained widespread international attention.

In the aftermath of the attack, the government has taken the unprecedented step of increasing the country’s terrorism threat level to high, with authorities expressing concern over the potential for copycat islamophobic attacks.

There have also been calls to reform New Zealand’s liberal firearm laws to restrict the ownership of semi-automatic rifles, which, although it may face some public opposition, has garnered cross-party political support. However, Friday’s attack is unlikely to have permanently affected the terrorism threat environment in the country, which remains among the lowest risk in the world.


Christchurch Attack

The attacks in Christchurch began at around 1340hrs (0040 UTC) on Friday when the gunman, Australian Brenton Tarrant, opened fire with a military-style semi-automatic rifle at the Al Noor Mosque on Deans Avenue in the city centre. At least 42 people were killed in the mosque in a six-minute assault before Tarrant returned to his car and drove to his second target, the Linwood Islamic Centre, located around 5km (3 miles) east of the mosque.

Eight people were shot dead at the second attack site but Tarrant was forced to flee after being challenged by a worshipper. Two crude vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) were also discovered and rendered safe by security forces, although it is unclear whether these were found in the vicinity of any further targets or at sites linked to the gunman. Security forces responded to the initial attack within several minutes but the gunman was able to leave the site before police arrived, leading to a wide-scale manhunt throughout the city.

Schools and other public buildings were placed on lockdown from around 1410hrs (0110 UTC) as security forces searched for the attacker while other areas, such as Hagley Park, were evacuated. Tarrant was eventually caught and arrested at around 1416hrs (0116 UTC) when his car was chased and rammed by a police vehicle.

Minutes before the beginning of the attack, Tarrant had emailed a manifesto to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office, and to other government officials and media companies. Although it did not specify Tarrant’s attack plans or intended targets, the document included a rambling islamophobic tirade in which he identified himself as a white supremacist.

In the hours following the attacks, four other people, a woman and three men were arrested in connection with the attack, although police later confirmed that Tarrant had carried out the shootings by himself and had been the only gunman. Police in Australia also raided two properties in New South Wales linked to the Christchurch attacker on Monday, with media speculation that the two houses in the Grafton suburbs of Sandy Beach and Lawrence belonged to the gunman’s family.

Tarrant appeared in court on Monday and was charged with murder, although additional charges are expected to be brought in the coming days.


Terrorism in New Zealand

Before Friday’s incident, New Zealand had remained largely removed from the threat of global terrorism. Although the country has become involved in a number of military actions over the last two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been little evidence of extremist networks operating in the country and no significant terrorist attacks have occurred since several small, isolated and unrelated bombings in the 1980s.

The country has stood in stark contrast to Europe and countries elsewhere in the region, including its neighbour Australia, which have seen an increasing terrorism threat in recent years amid the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group, and has made very few terrorism arrests at a time when hundreds of remotely-radicalised extremists were being arrested elsewhere. Even where the government has attempted to use anti-terrorism legislation to prosecute radical environmental and Maori rights activists and criminal gangs, these moves have been widely criticised as being unrelated to a terrorist threat, and have largely failed.

As in many countries in Europe and elsewhere, New Zealand has developed a national terrorism threat assessment system since 2001, which sees threat levels being set by Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG), a body with representatives from various government agencies including the intelligence services.

Unusually, New Zealand’s threat level includes the risk of violent crime and unrest in its official wording but its focus has always been primarily related to terrorism. There are six threat levels in the CTAG system, ranging from negligible, meaning that an attack is very unlikely, to extreme, meaning that an attack is considered imminent. Since the system was introduced in 2004 the threat level remained at its second lowest stage of very low until it was raised to low in 2014 amid a rising international threat from IS, although an attack was still not expected.

However, following the attack in Christchurch, officials took the unprecedented step of increasing the threat level to high on Friday, suggesting that a terrorist attack is likely. The increased threat level has seen additional armed police deployed throughout New Zealand at prominent sites, including religious buildings, government offices, transport hubs and other public spaces, although disruption from these operations is believed to have been limited.

The precise reason for the terrorism threat level being raised to high, skipping medium, is unclear, but a number of government officials have suggested that the move came in response to an elevated risk of copycat attacks on mosques and other sites. It is likely that the increased threat level gives security forces additional powers and access to resources which have enabled the current heightened security posture, widely seen as providing reassurance to the public rather than being in response to any specific threat. However, it remains unclear how long these measures will remain in place and when the terrorism threat level will be downgraded.


Changing Threats

While the threat of Islamic terrorism has been prominent in New Zealand’s intelligence assessments since 2014, Friday’s attack has put renewed focus on far-right extremism, something which had previously received relatively little attention.

Recent years have seen an increased far-right extremist threat in many Western countries, including Europe, the US and Australia. However, these threats have proven more difficult to monitor and respond to than traditional terrorism plots, with attackers typically acting alone rather than in close-knit cells and having limited communication with external parties and ideological leaders. Nevertheless, there has been some criticism of intelligence agencies for having failed to monitor Tarrant, given that he had allegedly posted extremist views and pictures of his weapons on multiple online forums, although none of these identified a specific plot or potential targets.

It is unclear when New Zealand’s terrorism threat level will be reduced. Given the apparent absence of any clear plots or groups operating in the country and low probability of further attacks linked to Tarrant, it is likely that there will be calls to reduce the threat level in the coming days as the increased police security posture begins to wind down.

However, there is a realistic possibility that the threat level could be reduced to medium, indicating that another attack is feasible, rather than its previous state of low. In the aftermath of the attack, the New Zealand Secret Intelligence Service (NZSIS) and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) are likely to increase their focus on far-right extremism.

This may lead to a number of arrests of far-right activists and associates of Tarrant in the medium term, but is not necessarily indicative of an increased risk of far-right attacks. Intelligence agencies are also likely to be concerned about the potential for retaliatory attacks by extremists within the country’s Muslim population in the medium to long term, particularly as both al-Qaeda and IS have attempted to exploit Friday’s attack to incite resentment within the community and internationally as an example of violent islamophobia.

However, given the well-integrated nature of New Zealand’s Muslim communities and previous low levels of extremism, the threat from Islamic terrorism in the country is unlikely to be significantly elevated.


Gun Ownership in New Zealand

Although levels of violent crime in the country are low, firearms legislation in New Zealand is among the most liberal in the world and around 1.5 million guns are believed to be in circulation among the country’s roughly five million residents. Firearms owners are licensed, requiring a basic police background check, but individual weapons are not, meaning that estimates of guns in circulation are only approximate.

Pistols, shotguns and small-calibre semi-automatic rifles are all available for purchase under a basic category-A licence; although a special application has to be made to be able to buy military-style semi-automatic weapons with larger magazines such as those used in the Christchurch attack.

But despite the ready availability of weapons, firearms-related violence is relatively uncommon in New Zealand, with the last major mass shooting occurring in 1990 when 13 people were shot dead in the coastal town of Aramoana.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has indicated that the government plans major reform of firearms legislation in the coming days in order to limit access to or ban military-style semi-automatic weapons. Other political parties in New Zealand, including Labour’s coalition partner New Zealand First and the opposition National Party, quickly came out in support of the move, although no precise legislative changes have been announced and the passing of reforms may require negotiation between the parties.

Ardern has declared that the reforms will be set out and presented to parliament within the next week. Although the reforms are likely to draw significant popular support, with many people having already turned in semi-automatic rifles to police over the weekend, and the backing of the police, there have been suggestions that the prime minister may face significant opposition from right-wing lobby groups and some rural farming communities. Nevertheless, the reforms are highly likely to be passed.


Outlook

Although the Christchurch attack has stunned the country and prompted a large-scale response from security forces, the incident is unlikely to significantly affect the terrorism risk environment in the long term. Police and intelligence agencies are likely to refocus on far-right extremism in the medium term in response to the attack and may make further arrests, but the risk of copycat attacks is likely to remain low.

Despite propaganda campaigns by al-Qaeda and IS, retaliatory Islamist attacks are also considered unlikely in the short to medium term given the limited spread of such ideology in New Zealand and the unifying public and political response to the Christchurch attack.

Attempts to reform firearms legislation, particularly changes which outlaw military-style semi-automatic weapons, have the potential to draw aggressive opposition from some groups, and there is an increased but low risk of isolated violent incidents relating to enforcement of bans. However, political opposition is likely to be limited if Ardern is able to pass the legislation within the next two weeks and a properly implemented firearms amnesty has the potential to reduce the risk of violence associated with its enforcement.