As New Zealand’s security services raced to investigate the deadliest terror attack in the country’s history on Friday, authorities were facing searching questions over how they had failed to spot and prevent what appears to have been a sophisticated right-wing extremist plot to target Muslims.
At a press conference several hours after at least 49 people were killed in the attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand's police commissioner Mike Bush told reporters that three suspects arrested in connection with the attacks had not been on any security watchlists.
“Part of our investigation will be to look at every possibility to make sure law enforcement and security did not miss any opportunity to prevent this horrendous event,” said Bush.
"Something went wrong with the New Zealand system," said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, the UK think tank. "These people weren't on the radar. There was an absence of knowledge."
Police have not revealed the names of those arrested but much of the focus has fallen on one of the suspected shooters, who was identified by New Zealand media as Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian.
Tarrant posted a 74-page "manifesto" online setting out his extreme right-wing views and motivations before driving off to carry out the attack. He wrote he had been inspired by the 2011 right-wing attack in Norway carried out by Anders Breivik, which killed 77 people.
He used the little-known online chat platform 8chan, which has attracted controversy over its links to the alt-right movement in the US, to alert other users to his plans. Tarrant then posted a link to a live Facebook video stream, which broadcast the attack as it happened.
Even if those postings left police little time to respond, two days earlier Tarrant had uploaded images on Twitter of some of the guns he would use in the attack. The names of past perpetrators of attacks against Muslims were written in white pen on the weapons. Twitter suspended his account after the attack on Friday.
Later on Friday, Britain’s counter-terror police revealed that in addition to Tarrant’s social-media postings, he had sent an email to national and international media organisations indicating his intentions 12 minutes prior to the attack, meaning there was a potentially valuable window for the authorities to stop the shootings.
Lone-wolf attacks, such as the one carried out by Breivik or the more recent spate of Islamist attacks that have used vans or trucks to target pedestrians, are difficult for the security services to identify and prevent. Often the attackers are radicalised online and do not leave a communications trail for intelligence agencies to follow.
It is still unclear what role all the people arrested played in the shootings, but investigators will be looking at whether this was a marauding style attack carried out by a small terror cell.
Apart from asking why Tarrant's extremist views were not picked up by New Zealand's Security Intelligence Service, ministers and police chiefs will want to know how a foreign national, admittedly one from its closest neighbour Australia, managed to enter New Zealand and plan such a deadly attack.
His Facebook Live video showed Tarrant using four different guns, including a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle. Police later found and detonated two improvised explosive devices in a car 3km from where the first mosque was attacked.
Paul Buchanan, director of 36th Parallel Assessments, a geopolitical and strategic assessment consultancy based in New Zealand, said the gunman's social-media posts and published manifesto showed that he had planned the attack for up to two years.
“The fact that this wasn’t picked up by the New Zealand security services is troubling,” he said.
It was possible, he added, that the intelligence agencies in New Zealand had been too focused on the threat posed by Islamist extremists to consider the risk from right-wing ideologues.
New Zealand’s Islamic Women’s Council had warned officials about the risk of violence towards its community, council spokeswoman Anjum Rahman told state broadcaster RNZ.
“We have made them aware of our fears around something like this happening and we need to be heard on this,” she said.
However, this is not a problem exclusively for New Zealand. For years western intelligence agencies have poured the majority of their resources into fighting the threat posed by Islamist-inspired terrorism groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Right-wing extremists were viewed as a lower-level problem.
“There will be a lot of soul searching after this attack,” added Buchanan.
Andrew Little, the minister responsible for New Zealand's intelligence agencies, said late last year that officials were reviewing the country's counter-terrorism laws amid worries authorities were reluctant to intervene in suspicious activities.
“What powers do you need to do that in this environment of heightened access to images and video footage of violent extremism? Do you need powers to act earlier? Those are the questions we are contending with,” Little said.
In 2017 New Zealand’s spying laws were widened to allow agencies to carry out surveillance on the country’s own citizens as well as foreign nationals.
Foreign intelligence services will work closely with their New Zealand counterparts to explore any possible international connections and networks. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019