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New Zealand Finds Intelligence Lapses Leading To Last Year's Mosque Attacks

On Tuesday, New Zealand's Royal Commission of Inquiry released its report in relation to the March 2019 attack on two Christchurch mosques. The attacks by an Australian white supremacist killed 51 people and wounded dozens of others. Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Brenton Tarrant, the man who carried out last year's deadly assaults on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was able to amass an arsenal of weapons without alerting authorities, whose focus was on potential threats from Islamist terrorism rather than right-wing extremism, according to a new report.

It's one of the findings outlined in a 792-page report released Tuesday by the Royal Commission, New Zealand's highest level of inquiry. It concludes that the country's national security agencies spent an "inappropriate" amount of time focusing on the potential threat of Islamic terrorists in the months leading up to the attack.

The commission also criticized lax gun laws, lackluster counterterrorism efforts, "fragile" intelligence agencies and ineffective leadership leading up to the attack.

But despite these findings, there was still "no plausible way" government officials could have detected Tarrant's plan "except by chance," according to the report.

Even at a young age, Tarrant expressed racist views. As an avid Internet user and online gamer, he had few childhood friends. And, as an adult, he rarely made long-lasting relationships with people outside of his immediate family. 

But, he was single-minded to the point of obsession, and by January 2017 his mind was made up.

The Australian moved to New Zealand in August 2017. On Sept. 1, just 15 days after arriving in New Zealand, he took the first steps to obtaining a firearms license. From that point on, his primary focus in life was planning and preparing for the attacks.

Nearly two years later, on March 15, 2019, Tarrant went on to commit the worst massacre in New Zealand's history, opening fire on Muslim worshipers at Christchurch's Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center — killing 51 people and wounding dozens of others.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said after the report was released that there were "failings" by the government leading up to the attacks.

"For that I apologize," she said.

Tarrant, who was 28 at the time of the attack, has since been convicted of terrorism and for the murder of 51 people, as well as the attempted murder of 40 others. He is now serving a life sentence without parole.

Further findings

The four-chapter report includes a deep dive into Tarrant's background and motivation, as well as what was and wasn't done at the government level leading up to the attack.

New Zealand Security and Intelligence Service and the Government Communications and Security Bureau missed several red flags, the report says, which included Tarrant's regular visits to far-right online forums and social media sites, and a growing cache of weapons.

But there was no way those agencies could have had prior knowledge to Tarrant's grand scheme, the Royal Commission said.

An email Tarrant sent to Parliament, several media outlets and journalists was the only information directly referring to the impending attack. That email was sent just eight minutes before Tarrant began his shooting rampage at the Al Noor mosque. It was buried within a 74-page manifesto attached to the message. By the time the message was read and police were notified, the attack had already started, the inquiry found.

Tarrant went on to live-stream his brutal assault on Facebook for 17 minutes before the video was pulled by the site.

The report also found that during the 18 months Tarrant was in New Zealand prior to the attack, he lived off an inheritance from his deceased father. He trained for the attack by visiting a rifle club, working out and taking steroids to bulk up. He was frequently online in extreme right-wing discussion boards hosted by 4chan and 8chan, and regularly watched extremist videos on YouTube.

Next steps

Failure to scrutinize Tarrant's activity may be due to the way the nation's counterterrorism agencies are set up, the report indicated.

"Public sector agencies involved in the counter-terrorism effort are not set up to collect and aggregate information like medical and firearms licensing records," it said. "Looking back to 2014, the intelligence and security agencies were in a fragile state. A rebuilding exercise did not get underway until mid-2016 and was still unfinished when the terrorist attack took place in 2019."

For members of New Zealand's Muslim community, there is still work to be done.

Aliya Danzeisen, leader of the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand, said in an op-ed in The New Zealand Herald that she was unhappy with the report's findings.

"For the past two days, I have read the findings and conclusion with hope that the report would correct the damage and provide the answers we needed. It has not," Danzeisen wrote. "My view is information is missing and justice to the affected has not yet been served. More must be done."

The government said it will take serious steps to address issues brought up by the Royal Commission. Officials accepted all 44 recommendations in the report, including establishing a new national intelligence and security agency, and appointing a new minister to better coordinate the agency.

The country will also move to strengthen laws on counterterrorism, gun licensing and hate-crime reporting.

Tarrant was able to flout New Zealand's gun laws. Despite having no ties to New Zealand before moving to the country, he was able to quickly access a gun license.

Following the attacks, the country quickly banned most semi-automatic and military-style firearms. New Zealand also held a months-long amnesty and buyback program.

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