Terror in Chch
The Royal Commission made 44 recommendations. More than a year on, what progress has been made? David Williams reports
On the day the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attack released its report, the Government agreed “in principle” to implement all its recommendations.
“The Royal Commission found no failures with any Government agencies that would have allowed the individual’s planning and preparations to have been detected,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was quick to point out.
The Commission did, however, identify many lessons, the PM went on, and “significant areas needing change”.
Ministers signalled changes immediately. That was in December 2020. By then, important things had already happened.
On top of the ban on military-style semi-automatics and assault rifles, the gun buyback scheme had wrapped up a year earlier, and taxpayers’ money was used to upgrade security at mosques, and buildings within “communities at risk from hate incidents and terror attacks”.
The country was already changing, however.
Covid-19 lockdowns prompted immediate protests from fringe groups, and the conspiracy-theory-spouting Advance NZ party rose to prominence in the 2020 general election. Online hate and misinformation increased.
Fast-forward to the recent occupation outside Parliament, where a hodge-podge of interests – some genuine, many misguided – coalesced.
Sprinkled through the Wellington protest, and copycat events elsewhere, are political slogans from the US, conspiracy theories such as QAnon, mingled with threats aimed at institutions and individuals.
Wednesday’s conflagration near the Beehive was seen as a metaphor for what had happened to the country’s innocence. The occupation shocked many – but should it have?
The sociologist Paul Spoonley, a distinguished professor at Massey University, says the online ecology of the alt-right has exploded since 2019. “It’s exploded partly because of the anxieties that are produced by Covid, but it’s also meant that more people have been online.”
Aliya Danzeisen, national coordinator of the Islamic Women’s Council (IWCNZ), says: “What people have been seeing in front of Parliament is just what a lot of us are exposed to regularly.”
In the years leading up to the 2019 attack on two Christchurch mosques, her council’s members banged on Wellington doors, trying to alert officialdom to threats against their community. Little was done, as our under-resourced and badly coordinated national security apparatus was consumed with the potential threat from Islamist extremist terrorism.
In 2015, after Prime Minister John Key stirred up the “jihadi brides” controversy, young Muslim women were harassed at school.
Unfortunately, little appears to have changed.
News broke last month of an Otago Girls’ High School student who was beaten, and her hijab ripped off, as others filmed the attack. The incident drew international attention and condemnation.
But should it come as a surprise? “It’s not by any means the only one,” Danzeisen says.
A key finding of 33 national hui – held between government, Muslim communities and wider faith and ethnic communities just over a year ago – was “deep concerns about racism and faith-based bullying and discrimination in our schools”.
And the Royal Commission’s report said: “Secondary schools students reported experiencing a lot of discrimination and harassment. Some have had their scarves torn off and were punched, and ending up in fist fights … Even teachers have challenged students about the actions of Isis, and other terrorists.”
Covid-19 has necessarily consumed the Government over the past two years. But where are the law changes to combat hate speech? A national discussion on racism? A ‘see something, say something’ campaign? The recommended overhaul of our intelligence agencies?
Now seems a good time to take stock – more than a year since the 44 recommendations were revealed, and as the third anniversary nears of the attack on two city mosques that killed 51 peaceful worshippers, wounded 40 more, and traumatised an entire community.
Earlier this week, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet released its “progress tracker” stocktake of the Government’s response. Also released was a December Cabinet paper outlining “significant” progress and the Government’s plans.
Achievements listed include the establishment of Kāpuia, an advisory group to Minister Little, and a Collective Impact Board, comprising community members, agencies and non-government organisations overseeing services to affected whānau and individuals.
There was also the inaugural He Whenua Taurikura, a hui on countering terrorism and violent extremism – which made news mainly because of a walkout.
The Cabinet paper says six Royal Commission recommendations have now been implemented “or are now part of agencies’ normal activities”. Another 36 are underway, including policy and legislative reviews for national security, development of a social cohesion “framework”, and implementation of a firearms “transformation” programme.
The only recommendations listed as “not started”, relate to the establishment of the national centre of excellence – expected to happen in the second half of the year. DPMC is yet to establish a counter-terrorism advisory group, and include their advice and actions in security and intelligence priorities and the annual “threatscape” report.
Key proposals are expected to be announced in this year’s Budget.
Are the traumatised, injured and bereaved getting what they need?
Little tells Newsroom after the initial response, many services “fell away”, but after the Royal Commission report agencies were told “make sure that those needs are met”.
MSD’s Canterbury commissioner Diane McDermott says its Kaiwhakaoranga Specialist Case Management service was enhanced a year ago, by bringing in staff from ACC and Immigration NZ and adding a dedicated work broker, to bring job seekers and businesses together. All are employed by MSD.
The service helps about 270 families – up from about 190 families – access support from more than 40 government agencies and non-government organisations.
Counselling is available through Canterbury DHB’s Purapura Whetu service and the Christchurch Resettlement Service.
Dr Maysoon Salama is a former national coordinator of IWCNZ. Her son, Ata Mohammad Ata Elayyan, was killed in the March 15 terror attack, and her husband, Mohammad Atta Ahmad Alayan, was injured.
Help has been offered in the form of counselling, employment, housing, ACC, and some programme funding, but Salama says her community is still suffering.
“Mental health and trauma is the biggest area of concern.”
Counselling sessions were nowhere near adequate or culturally appropriate, she says. Some had to lobby to get extended sessions.
“IWCNZ brought Muslim trauma experts from Canada and the US who did a great job and recommended utilising their skills to help,” Salama says. “But three years down the road and nothing had happened.”
The Collective Impact Board was established last May and met for the first time in June. (Little say it’s the board’s job to oversee services to the community.)
Its chair is Hamimah Ahmat, whose husband, Zekeriya Tuyan, was shot at Masjid An-Nur and died 48 days later, in Christchurch Hospital’s intensive care unit.
She says the Board met with Canterbury DHB last October to discuss services and access to mental health support. The difficulty accessing in-depth counselling is most unfortunate, she says.
“We understand that some people are accessing counselling and it is working well for them, some are accessing counselling and it isn’t fully meeting their needs, and there are some who have chosen not to seek counselling support. We are working on addressing them with our partner agencies and beyond as needed.”
Over the next few months – Covid permitting – the board plans to meet with the affected community about services.
Where is Nisa?
In January, FIANZ, the Federation of Islamic Associations, produced a report card on the Government’s progress.
The report compared New Zealand with three countries: recommendations from the US’s 9/11 Commission; the UK’s response to an independent review of MI5 and police after attacks in London and Manchester in 2017; and the Canadian response to the 2017 shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec.
“Compared with other countries who experienced similar tragedies, New Zealand is well ahead,” says Abdur Razzaq Khan, of Wellington, who heads the FIANZ advocacy team.
Speaking to Newsroom on behalf of FIANZ, and not as a member of Kāpuia, Razzaq says relatively good progress doesn’t negate questions on several fronts – about coordination between different arms of government, particularly over social cohesion, and a lack of funding details for various programmes.
His main concern is there is not yet a new national intelligence and security agency (Nisa) – the Royal Commission’s second recommendation.
The Commission’s report said existing agencies lacked leadership, operated largely in parallel, and had little shared direction. “It is apparent that the counter-terrorism effort was not functioning as a national security system should.”
Razzaq says the national security structure is still essentially the same. “The reporting may have slightly changed and there are more conversations on it, the structure’s exactly the same. We still don’t know what the shape of Nisa is going to be like.”
Danzeisen says of the Government: “They need to show their cards to somebody, because it looks like they’re not playing them.”
Minister Little says the statutory review of the Intelligence and Security Act was brought forward, and conclusions were expected in a few months. If a single national security agency is to be created it has to be recognised statutorily, he says, and it made sense to tie that into the review. Then Kāpuia has to be consulted.
He said “if” – is Nisa not going to happen? Little says the recommendations have been accepted in principle, and national security coordination does need to be improved.
So Nisa will arrive this year?
“You can expect it to happen by late this year,” he says. “The thing being considered is the ‘what’ as opposed to the ‘whether’.”
The social faultlines in Wellington, and the Otago Girls’ High School incident, suggest the country isn’t more inclusive than three years ago.
Salama, the former IWCNZ national coordinator, says many people are more empathetic, understanding and supportive of marginalised ethnicities, especially Muslims.
‘They are us’ was an uplifting mottto, she says, “but unfortunately it did not take long before we started experiencing a rise in acts of hate, discrimination, bullying, [and] threats at all levels, online and offline.”
The Cabinet paper reveals social cohesion work has been “re-phased” to allow for what it calls genuine engagement. This appears to be in response to criticism from Kāpuia.
Arihia Bennett, who chairs the 28-person group and is CEO of Ngāi Tahu, wouldn’t be interviewed for this story. But Kāpuia’s letters to Little, which are public, show frustration with the Government’s approach.
Last July, the minister was told timeframes for consultations on social cohesion and incitement were too short. Many meetings were held when people couldn’t attend, at out-of-the-way places, and only in main centres. The material hadn’t been translated widely enough into other languages.
“Kāpuia does not consider this represents authentic consultation.”
In September, Bennett wrote to Little that agency staffers conducting consultation and engagement should “better reflect the population diversity of those they are engaging with”.
A month later, Kāpuia said it wasn’t confident there was a “cohesive interagency approach”.
Little says work on social cohesion, led by the Ministry of Social Development, is a priority, but will take time.
“People are engaged, the community is engaged. But it was always going to take a while for a lot more people to physically see the actions that are being put in place.”
Detecting another terrorist
The Royal Commission report said detecting the terrorist before the 2019 attack would have come down to chance. In saying that, there were indications of his planning and preparation.
The strongest were his flying a drone over Masjid an-Nur, using Islamophobic and right-wing extremist language in social media posts under a monicker referring to his initials, the TradeMe username “Kiwi14words” referring to a white supremacist slogan, and his shooting style.
We ask Minister Little, if those things happened today, would the public know what to do?
His response doesn’t inspire confidence: that there is a “greater awareness” among “more people” about behaviours that look like they may turn violent.
The Royal Commission said a public-facing counter-terrorism strategy, incorporating a “see something, say something” campaign, may have increased the chances of catching the terrorist. Where is that campaign?
Work is ongoing, Little says, just as it is on the best place for reporting hate incidents.
“Do we want the police tied up in recording, reporting and responding to those? Or do we need to think about another channel in government that can absorb those kind of reports and be able to provide some sort of response, that isn’t a criminal response?”
(Last year, the Government asked the public about hate speech and social cohesion, in a tentative pre-consultation.)
One of the biggest revelations from the Royal Commission was that in July 2018, the terrorist went to Dunedin Hospital to have a metal fragment removed from his right eye, after a mishap with his gun.
Reporting of gunshot wounds should be mandatory, the report recommended. It’s still not, according to the Cabinet paper.
“A discussion document to support consultation on options to introduce mandatory reporting of firearms injuries for health practitioners is underway.”
Are we more safe?
Danzeisen, of IWCNZ, who also sits on Kāpuia, is forthright on this point: Government progress on recommendations is too slow. “It’s putting us at risk.”
Experts, police and the SIS are saying the Muslim community is less safe. “Have they got in front of it? No.”
(Compared with Australia, almost double the number of New Zealand internet users follow far-right Facebook pages – and more than three times those in the US.)
At last week’s “scope hearing” before a coronial inquiry, Danzeisen warned of a “clear and present danger” that another attack, similar to March 15, could occur again.
The Islamic Women’s Council urged Coroner Brigitte Windley to investigate the role digital platforms played in the radicalisation of the terrorist.
Minister Little says the Christchurch Call was set up to deal with social media companies and digital platforms..
“It’s a worldwide problem, regulating what those companies do. And it ends up coming back to the critical issue that we’re all faced with, which is, what are the limits of freedom of speech? How do you define it and how do you regulate it?”
Other countries could offer some answers.
In 2019, Germany’s federal government fined Facebook €2 million for under-reporting complaints. Under German law, tightened in 2020, internet platforms can face heavy fines for not promptly reporting and removing hate speech, terror threats and child exploitation.
In Australia, a parliamentary committee is investigating social media and online safety, while the UK government is finalising its Online Safety Bill. Meta, accused of putting profits before people, is reportedly on a hiring spree as it prepares to fight regulatory battles across Europe.
Razzaq believes it’s not good enough to pass it off as an international problem. “This government has to be extremely serious about those social media companies, which are registered in New Zealand; that we do something about it, that they be held accountable.”
Regulating what’s said on social media would be almost impossible, though, wouldn’t it? Danzeisen says: “If it’s an unsafe product then it should be regulated.”
Spoonley, of Waikato University, says you can’t divorce New Zealand from the rest of the world when it comes to online hate – what he calls an “international ecosystem of conspiratorial and vitriolic views”.
He has some sympathy for agencies having to sift through the volume of noise, and interpret what constitutes a threat. What’s needed, Spoonley says, is good information. And then action – some of it punitive.
“We need to do something about the hate that is online.”
Asked if New Zealand is safer now than three years ago, Minister Little says there are never any guarantees.
“I’m confident from what I know and see in the reports I get from the agencies, they’re dealing with all the national security threats that we’ve got. Terrorism is one of them.”
That said, there are limitations. “Our agencies can’t monitor the whole internet. And they are still dependent on leads coming from a variety of sources, whether it’s police, other government agencies or members of the public.”