On 15 March 2019, alleged offender Brenton Tarrant (currently before the courts) opened fire on worshippers inside two mosques – Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid in Christchurch, New Zealand. As a result, 50 people were killed and about the same again injured.
The complexity of this attack is unique, with elements such as the style of weapons used, cross-Tasman ties, white supremacist ideologies and the fact the incident was live streamed. This would have been especially difficult and alarming to New Zealand and its people, who until this point, had been free from terror.
The worldwide reaction has been universal condemnation of the attack and an outpouring of support for the New Zealand community. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised for her words and reactions, quickly labelling this incident a terrorist attack and promptly raising New Zealand’s threat level to high, for the first time in the country’s history.
Considering the scope of this terror attack, there are several critical components and lessons to take away – for all businesses and governments.
The following is an opinion piece compiled using historical knowledge of New Zealand and the public information available such as the event video, media coverage and government documents. The intent is to provide a summary of the incident and identify some key lessons.
Safe Haven – How safe is safe?
New Zealand, until this attack, was widely considered a haven from extremist ideas and actions. While there have always been elements of extreme political or religious views, New Zealand has generally steered clear of being too deeply involved in others affairs. The country has also been generous in its in-take of foreigners, promoting a very multicultural society. Ethnicity has continued to become more diverse over time. All major ethnic groups continued to increase based on census data, and the way New Zealand embraces culture has been seen in the time following the Christchurch attack. After the incident, there were countless posts and quotes from people describing the safety and inclusion New Zealand had provided, the sense of community and the ability to enjoy many freedoms. However, the Security Intelligence Service has always warned against complacency in thinking New Zealand was immune, but certain political parties (e.g. The Greens) had dismissed the idea there are people linked to international terrorism within the population.
New Zealand was also a haven for firearm ownership. Several categories of firearms licences exist allowing for a wide array of weaponry to be purchased and kept. The country has had mass shootings and significant law and order incidents, but these have not been disproportionate to the threat level or activity taking place (such as the Napier Siege in 2009). Deaths caused by firearms have been 11 or less year on year between 2007 and 2016 for example. Police reported a rate of seven deaths for every one million people from 2017-2018, and the country’s murder rate dropped to a 40-year low.
Police on alert.
Three recent firearms incidents in the Canterbury region (which includes Christchurch) where Police were allegedly fired on, or fired upon someone else, resulted in the District Commander issuing a directive that all front-line officers be armed from the 23rd of February. This directive was rescinded on the 3rd of March after a key suspect was arrested.
New Zealand Police are not routinely armed, although there has been an increase in availability of weapons over recent years. Like the UK, the societal view is widely held that Police should not be routinely armed. District Commanders can issue a directive to routinely arm, where operational safety requirements dictate. Else, firearms tend to be in lockboxes inside vehicles that front-line officers can access. Police are now keeping a record of the amount of times firearms are being presented, with the Police Union reporting Officers are coming across them daily.
Those who hold extreme views have been in New Zealand for a long time (for example the National Front, a far-right movement). New Zealand, like the rest of the world, is experiencing the ‘technological age’ – where anyone can access almost anything at any time. It is almost impossible to police every facet of the internet and this allows criminals to push their influence and extremists to get in touch with supporters.
In relation to response, New Zealand Police carry the responsibility for counter terrorism activities in the country and the STG (Special Tactics Group) are the full-time response branch who deploy for those sorts of incidents. They are closely supported by other specialist Police units and the New Zealand Defence Force (e.g. for bomb disposal).
An interesting point in the researched articles discussing gangs, guns and police, is the fact that New Zealanders do not want the Police routinely armed, and that there was no public opinion that firearms licensing should be changed prior to the attack.
At least 300 people were gathered inside the Al Noor mosque for Friday afternoon prayer. Just before 1:40pm local time, it is alleged that Brenton Tarrant started a livestream, including on Facebook, where he explained details of his manifesto that he had published online, indicating that he intended to carry out an attack. At 1:40pm, Tarrant entered the Al Noor mosque armed with a shotgun and began firing on worshippers. Police received calls about an incident occurring very quickly. In the stream, Tarrant indiscriminately shoots people in the Mosque, stopping only to reload for a moment and to get another weapon. Tarrant then exits into the street, shooting at passers-by before getting back into his car and driving away.
Police arrive to the first scene after 6 minutes and initiate their response. This includes arming responding officers, setting up cordons, sending armed police to the major hospital and activating the Armed Offenders Squad and Special Tactics Group. Misinformation starts to spread as media reports that there could be multiple shooters. It is believed Tarrant drives to the Linwood Mosque where he shoots more worshippers, before a member of that Mosque engages Tarrant by throwing an electronic payment machine at him. This may have proved a big enough distraction, as Tarrant then leaves.
As he flees, specialist officers who were training in Christchurch for armed offenders had heard of the incident and deployed. As they already had their equipment, they responded quickly. Two of these officers took a car along the roads on the outskirts of town where they located a suspicious vehicle, with a driver matching the description of Tarrant. A source from the Police told media that the two officers undertook a dynamic risk assessment on the spot and decided the threat was so great immediate action was required. They engaged a pursuit and rammed the suspect vehicle, taking it off the road. The officers have drawn sidearms and approached the vehicle, pulling Tarrant from the passenger side and arrested him, bringing the incident to a halt 36 minutes after it began. Two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were located on a vehicle not far from the Al Noor Mosque and are disarmed by the Defence Force. In total 50 people were killed and about the same again injured.
Uniqueness of Attack.
This terrorist attack was unique for several reasons:
- The attacker was Australian based, prompting raids on two properties in New South Wales.
- Most of the incident was live streamed.
- The attacker had an arsenal of weapons in his possession including rifles, shotguns, ammunition, fuel containers and IEDs.
- The attacker was able to carry out mass shootings in two locations.
- The attacker had deployed the IEDs.
- Specialist Police were training nearby, allowing for quick deployment.
- Police were on scene after 6 minutes, with the offender in custody (and not killed) after 36 minutes.
Credit: Photo from New Zealand Police. A graphical timeline.
Though there will be many more outcomes as the investigation and court case continues, these are some key learnings that can be considered immediately:
Run, Hide, Fight. (This differs from UK advice of: “Run, Hide, Tell”……… Ed.)
A simple message that can be easily recalled is important to surviving critical incidents.
Empower First Responders.
Any person that is on the front line could be a first responder. Leaders of a congregation, Security Officers, or Emergency Workers could all face situations where fast action is needed.
The two police officers who arrested the attacker decided in the heat of the moment to bring it to an end. There could have been all manner of policy, procedure and risk reasons not to, but when you are in the moment and the situation is constantly changing, those people on the ground need to be able to act.
Technology continues to be a major player in these incidents. On one hand it enables wider connection, faster reporting and a wealth of information. On the other hand, it removes social norms and drives an underworld offering a place for dark or criminal thoughts and behaviours to manifest. Training and educating people (in schools, at work, etc.) on the benefits and concerns is paramount, as is having clear policy on its use.
Emergency Services cannot always protect you.
In 6 minutes, the worst massacre in New Zealand had already taken place, the threat was on the move and Police were only just arriving. That is a very timely response, however a lot of damage was already done.
You need to act to protect yourself, your colleagues, friends, family and your business.
It won’t happen to us!
If anything, this attack has shown that the mentality ‘it won’t happen to us’ is flawed. This attack has impacted an entire country, if not several others as well.
Pause and consider the impacts to the wider community. The businesses next door. The schools. Hospitals. There are so many people an incident like this affects.
We must not look locally for our safety. We must look globally.
Our thoughts go out to all those who were impacted by this terrible event.
Jason has been working in the security industry since 2008 in both Australia and New Zealand, combining experience in major events, asset protection, crowd control, gaming, training and operations management. He holds a Diploma of Security and Risk Management and a Bachelor of Information Systems. Jason actively works in the industry as an independent consultant and security manager