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First terror attack recorded in New Zealand | Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre analysis

15 March 2019 Chris Hawkins

Key points:

  • Forty-nine people were killed and almost 50 wounded in small-arms attacks that targeted two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on 15 March. The attack was the first terrorism attack recorded in the country. New Zealand's threat level has been increased from low to high.
  • Four people have been arrested, but none of the suspects were known to New Zealand or Australian security services.
  • The apparently co-ordinated small-arms attacks on two Christchurch mosques on 15 March were unprecedented in New Zealand.
  • The firearms used are highly likely to have been acquired locally and would not necessitate an international network for weapons supply.
  • New Zealand and Australian authorities will readily collaborate in their counter-terrorism efforts but are likely to be better trained to counter Islamist terrorism.

Outlook

One of the suspects has been named by local media as 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant, an Australian citizen. Tarrant live-streamed his attack on Masjid Al Noor on Deans Avenue, the larger mosque, where 40 were killed; in addition, a 74-page manifesto was released against cultural dilution through immigration, which was particularly aimed at Muslim migrants. His video (and eyewitness accounts) show that the attack began during Friday's afternoon prayers, when at least one gunman entered the main room before a sermon. The gunman in the video also fired at parked cars and another building as he drove away from the mosque.

Two improvised explosive devices were found attached to a vehicle at one of the mosques, and several firearms were recovered from the suspects at both mosques. One local report suggests that a threat was made on a Facebook page against local Muslims before the attack, but this has yet to be confirmed by police. New Zealand's threat level has been increased from low to high.

The firearms used in the attack on Masjid Al Noor - two assault rifles, two shotguns, and two other rifles - were all reportedly legal, but were purportedly coupled with high-capacity magazines that enabled the attacker to launch a greater concentration of fire on his unarmed targets. Although the firearms used required licensing in New Zealand, the magazines were likely available online. This suggests (but does not rule out) no need for a sophisticated international support network to acquire weapons. Tarrant's apparent co-ordination with other assailants indicates a pool of anti-Muslim sympathisers in Australasia but does not evince a much larger cell or network.

What does this mean for counter terror operations?

Authorities in New Zealand and Australia will readily collaborate in their counter terrorism efforts - Australian authorities will participate in the investigation, given the Australian origin of one of the suspects charged with murder, and both countries closely co-operate in intelligence and military matters.

It is likely that Islamist-related terrorism has been a priority for the New Zealand security services' resources, given the passage of some New Zealand nationals to Syria to join the Islamic State, for example, and Islamist attacks in Australia. The focus on Islamist terrorism attenuates the risk of reprisal attacks, and local counter- terrorism forces are likely to be sufficiently resourced to detect and disrupt the emergence of new far- right radicalism.

Writing that was found on the weapons used - including references to historical battles against Muslims - further underlined the anti-Muslim motive. An uptick in right-wing extremist attacks, likely emboldened by the electoral success of far-right politicians, has subsequently been recorded, including attacks targeting mosques in the UK capital London and Quebec City in Canada. The names of the perpetrators of these attacks were cited in the manifesto that was released prior to the attack. The mass casualty nature of the attack has the potential to inspire other right-wing extremists, but future attacks are likely to be of lower capability and intensity.

Posted 15 March 2019 by Chris Hawkins, Senior Analyst Country Risk – Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC), Jane's by IHS Markit

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