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Report of the NZ Royal Commission into the 15 March 2019 terrorist attack on Christchurch Mosques

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Ten days after the devastating attack of 15 March 2019, the Government announced that a Royal Commission of Inquiry, generally reserved for matters of the gravest public importance, would be established to investigate and report on what had happened.

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The terrorist attack was carried out by Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who has since been convicted of terrorism, the murder of 51 people and attempted murder of 40 people. He is now serving a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. We generally refer to him in our report as “the individual”. His name will not appear again.

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The Terms of Reference set by the Government directed us to investigate three broad areas – the actions of the individual, the actions of relevant Public sector agencies and any changes that could prevent such terrorist attacks in the future. This required a detailed, forensic examination of evidence. It also led us to expansive thinking about the systems and institutions set up to protect and connect New Zealanders.

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Our Terms of Reference required us to make findings on:

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  1. whether there was any information provided or otherwise available to relevant [Public] sector agencies that could or should have alerted them to the terrorist attack and, if such information was provided or otherwise available, how the agencies responded to any such information, and whether that response was appropriate; and
  2. the interaction amongst relevant [Public] sector agencies, including whether there was any failure in information sharing between the relevant agencies; and
  3. whether relevant [Public] sector agencies failed to anticipate or plan for the terrorist attack due to an inappropriate concentration of counter-terrorism resources or priorities on other terrorism threats; and
  4. whether any relevant [Public] sector agency failed to meet required standards or was otherwise at fault, whether in whole or in part; and
  5. any other matters relevant to the purpose of the inquiry, to the extent necessary to provide a complete report.

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We saw the first four questions as directed primarily to whether Public sector agencies were at fault in respects relevant to the terrorist attack.

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We were also required to make recommendations for the future.

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At the heart of our inquiry were whānau of the 51 shuhada, and the survivors and witnesses of the terrorist attack and their whānau. Connecting with Muslim communities was an expectation in our Terms of Reference, but it was also the right thing to do. We gained valuable insights in this way.

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From whānau of the 51 shuhada, and the survivors and witnesses of the terrorist attack and their whānau we heard about the ongoing impacts of the terrorist attack, including challenges in obtaining government support. Through broader engagement with Muslim communities we learned about frustrations with the Public sector that go back many years. Muslim communities talked candidly about racism, discrimination and experiences of being suspected of being, or treated as, terrorists as well as their fear of being the targets of hate speech, hate crime and terrorism.

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Communities we spoke with wanted to see greater social cohesion and told us about their wish for closer community connections to help all people feel safe and welcome. Social cohesion has direct benefits including people leading happy, rewarding and participatory lives, with increased productivity. Importantly, it also means that people are less likely to become radicalised towards extremist and violent behaviours, including terrorism.   

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There was strong public concern that the individual was granted a firearms licence. A large proportion of submissions we received came from firearms owners with suggestions to strengthen the firearms licensing process, introduce measures to better track large purchases of firearms and ammunition and obligations to report concerning behaviour.  Many felt that banning military style semi-automatic firearms unnecessarily penalised responsible firearms owners, preferring improvements to the licensing system instead.

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Part 4: The terrorist is the result of our extensive inquiries into the life of the individual, his background and particularly his planning and preparation for the terrorist attack. We understand some people may prefer not to read about him, but we had a duty to report on what influenced his extreme views, why he chose New Zealand for a terrorist attack and how he avoided coming to the attention of Public sector agencies.

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The individual is a white Australian male who was 28 years old in March 2019. He displayed racist behaviour from a young age. His life experiences appear to have fuelled resentment and he became radicalised, forming extreme right-wing views about people he considered a threat. Eventually, he mobilised to violence.

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The individual arrived in New Zealand on 17 August 2017. As an Australian, he was entitled to live in New Zealand. Within a few days of arrival, he moved to Dunedin and from this time, his life was largely devoted to planning and preparing for the terrorist attack. We looked at his use of online platforms before and during the terrorist attack. We also examined how the individual obtained a firearms licence and how he was then legally able to acquire firearms and ammunition.  We tracked how he trained for the terrorist attack by developing firearms expertise and working out at a gym and taking steroids to bulk up. 

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The individual had no close friends and largely avoided social situations and, in that sense, he was socially isolated. He was financially independent and widely travelled. In his preparation and planning for his terrorist attack, he was methodical and single-minded. The individual could present well and conduct himself in a way that did not attract suspicion. He was not identified as someone who posed a threat. We expand on the reasons for this in the report.

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As we explain in detail in Part 4: The terrorist, we are satisfied that the individual acted alone.

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We look closely at firearms in Part 5: The firearms licence.

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Despite the individual having almost no history in New Zealand, his application for a firearms licence was approved within about three months of his arrival in the country. He had named his sister as a referee but, because she lived in Australia, firearms licensing staff asked for a replacement referee.  In the end two New Zealand-based referees (an adult and their parent) described as “friends” of the individual, vouched for him as a “fit and proper” person. The adult (whom we refer to as “gaming friend”) had played online games with the individual over ten years but had been physically in his company for only approximately 21 days in that entire decade.  Gaming friend’s parent had spent only approximately seven days in the individual’s presence over four years.  In both cases, time spent with the individual was sporadic.

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We conclude that during the firearms licence application process, insufficient attention was given to whether gaming friend and their parent knew the individual well enough to be appropriate referees. We discuss what might have happened if the application had not been approved at that time or perhaps had been handled differently.

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We find that New Zealand Police’s administration of the firearms licensing system did not meet required standards. The reasons for this include a lack of guidance and training for licensing staff and incomplete guidance for dealing with applications where nominated referees cannot be interviewed in person. 

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For contextual relevance, as amendments to firearms legislation are not within our scope, we discuss the regulation of semi-automatic firearms. It was lax, open to easy exploitation and was gamed by the individual. The risk that highly lethal weapons might be used in a terrorist attack in New Zealand had been recognised on a number of occasions. One warning followed a terrorist attack conducted in Oslo and on Utøya Island in Norway in 2011, in which a semi-automatic rifle was used.

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We examine in detail what was known by Public sector agencies about the individual before the terrorist attack in Part 6: What Public sector agencies knew about the terrorist. We put detailed questions to 217 agencies in the wider Public sector and found that ten agencies held information that we are satisfied relates to the individual. 

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The only information that directly referred to the terrorist attack was an email the individual sent to the Parliamentary Service (as well as politicians, media outlets and individual journalists) just eight minutes before the terrorist attack began. The critical information about the attack (in terms of the location) was within a 74 page manifesto attached to and linked within the email. It took some minutes for the Parliamentary Service to open the email, read and make sense of the manifesto and then pass the details on to New Zealand Police. By then the terrorist attack had just started. We explore this in detail in Part 6: What Public sector agencies knew about the terrorist and we are satisfied that the Parliamentary Service followed correct procedures and acted promptly.  

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Other information known about the individual was largely unremarkable. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that some did relate to the individual’s planning and preparation. That, however, was not apparent at the time as this information was fragmentary. No single aspect of it could have alerted Public sector agencies to an impending terrorist attack. Public sector agencies involved in the counter-terrorism effort are not set up to collect and aggregate information like medical and firearms licensing records.  We discuss this in Part 6: What Public sector agencies knew about the terrorist.

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In Part 7: Detecting a potential terrorist, we discuss the challenges of detecting and disrupting terrorists. Terrorist attacks by lone actors are difficult for intelligence and security and law enforcement agencies to detect and stop.  Despite this, many intended lone actor terrorist attacks have in fact been disrupted. In this Part we use the individual as a case study to test and explain some of the issues at play before we move on to look more closely at countering terrorism.

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The counter-terrorism effort (which forms a subset of the broader national security system) is reviewed in Part 8: Assessing the counter-terrorism effort. The Public sector agencies involved in the counter-terrorism effort include the National Security Group of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Government Communications Security Bureau, Immigration New Zealand, New Zealand Customs Service, New Zealand Police and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. 

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The most pointed of the questions we have been asked to address about the counter-terrorism effort is whether relevant Public sector agencies failed to anticipate or plan for the terrorist attack because of an inappropriate concentration of counter-terrorism resources or priorities on other terrorism threats. This question is not susceptible to an easy answer, but we work through the issues methodically.

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There is a context that must be recognised. The intelligence and security agencies have comparatively little social licence.  For this and other reasons that we explore, the Public sector agencies involved in the counter-terrorism effort had limited capability and capacity – far less than many believe. The idea that intelligence and security agencies engage in mass surveillance of New Zealanders is a myth. 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.  

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Our assessment has focused primarily on the period between 2016 and 15 March 2019. During that time the primary, but not exclusive, focus of the counter-terrorism resources was on what was seen as the presenting threat of Islamist extremist terrorism. It is important to note that counter-terrorism agencies did follow up leads relating to possible right-wing extremist terrorism. So, the concentration on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism was not to the exclusion of addressing other leads when they arose.

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In 2016, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service identified that establishing a baseline picture (an understanding) of other emerging terrorism threats was a goal, but one it would pursue only when they had the capacity to do so. This work eventually began in May 2018, with one of the projects focused on developing an understanding of right-wing extremism in New Zealand. At that time, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service had only a limited understanding of right-wing extremism in New Zealand and work on this was not complete when the terrorist attack occurred.

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The intelligence function of New Zealand Police had degraded and from 2015 was not carrying out strategic terrorism threat assessments.

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We conclude there was an inappropriate concentration of counter-terrorism resources on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism, but the reasons for this require some teasing out.

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Our concern with the focus of counter-terrorism resources on Islamist extremist terrorism is one of process. There are two aspects to this. First, there had been no substantial assessments of other potential threats of terrorism. So, the concentration of counter-terrorism resources was not based on a comparative risk analysis. Second, there had been no informed system-wide decision to proceed on this basis. By this we mean a decision made by all relevant Public sector agencies with the knowledge that there were other potential threats of terrorism that were not well understood. This also requires brief explanation.  

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The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service had decided to concentrate its scarce counter-terrorism resources on the presenting threat of Islamist extremist terrorism. This was in part because it had a lack of capacity until mid-2018 both to deal with that threat and, at the same time, to baseline other threats. Other Public sector agencies involved in the counter-terrorism effort did not engage in informed discussion about this approach and its implications, including the unmitigated risks. So there was not an informed and system wide decision to proceed on this basis which we see as inappropriate.

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All of that said, we find that the concentration of resources on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism is not why the individual’s planning and preparation for his terrorist attack was not detected. Given the operational security that the individual maintained, the legislative authorising environment in which the counter-terrorism effort operates and the limited capability and capacity of the counter-terrorism agencies, there was no plausible way he could have been detected except by chance.  Despite the concerns we have just discussed and other systemic issues we have reviewed in Part 8: Assessing the counter-terrorism effort, the fact the individual was not detected was not in itself an intelligence failure.   

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We have looked more broadly at the counter-terrorism effort. We have already mentioned limited social licence, capability and capacity. By the middle of the last decade, the subjects of counter-terrorism, intelligence and security had become politically and publicly toxic. There was little political ownership. Public sector leadership was fragmented through a decentralised national security system with the Public sector agencies involved in the counter-terrorism effort acting in ways that were only loosely co-ordinated.  

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As discussed, rebuilding the capacity and capability of the intelligence and security agencies began in mid-2016. Although progress has been made, significantly more is required.  As well, systemic change is needed, including the creation of a national intelligence and security agency. This will deliver a more systematic approach to counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism efforts. The chief executive of the new agency will be the national adviser on intelligence and security, with the agency having the advantage of focusing solely on intelligence and security issues. It will provide comprehensive strategic policy advice, develop a counter-terrorism strategy and administer relevant national security legislation. The agency will assume responsibility for the development of intelligence assessments, underpinned by horizon scanning, and be responsible for the design of the performance management framework and monitor progress against it.

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We acknowledge that while our focus has been on the counter-terrorism effort our key recommendations for system-wide change, which relates to all threats and intelligence issues. It is impractical to carve out counter-terrorism responsibilities. 

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This and other detailed recommendations are set out in Part 10: Recommendations.

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Full implementation of our recommendations will result in a better organised counter‑terrorism effort with enhanced capacity and capability and a less restrictive legislative framework. We expect to see far more political and public engagement and discussion and stronger oversight. This will result in greater public trust and thus social licence.  We wish to see discussion about counter-terrorism normalised. Our recommendations provide mechanisms for this to occur.

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The absence of such discussion to date has had consequences.

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Since 2015, successive governments have been reluctant to proceed with a public‑facing counter-terrorism strategy. One reason for this was to avoid stigmatising Muslim communities further.  But, had such a strategy been shared with the public and also incorporated a “see something, say something" policy, it is possible that aspects of the individual’s planning and preparation may have been reported to counter-terrorism agencies.  With the benefit of hindsight, such reporting would have provided the best chance of disrupting the terrorist attack. A public-facing counter-terrorism strategy would also be likely to have included policies to make crowded places safer and to protect possible targets from attack. Implementation of such policies may well have reduced the loss of life on 15 March 2019. As well, if the known risk that a terrorist could take advantage of New Zealand’s lax regulation of semi-automatic firearms had been addressed earlier, it is likely that there would have been no terrorist attack on 15 March 2019. 

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The final set of issues we consider are how social cohesion, inclusion and diversity have been approached in New Zealand in Part 9: Social cohesion and embracing diversity.

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Social cohesion, inclusion and diversity were not on our original work plan. But, as our inquiry progressed and our engagement with communities deepened, it became clear that these issues also warranted consideration. Social cohesion has many direct benefits to individuals and communities. In contrast, societies that are polarised around political, social, cultural, environmental, economic, ethnic or religious differences will more likely see radicalising ideologies develop and flourish. Efforts to build social cohesion, inclusion and diversity can contribute to preventing or countering extremism. In addition, having a society that is cohesive, inclusive and embraces diversity is a good in itself. 

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We considered how Public sector agencies, local government, the private sector, civil society and communities can and should support a more cohesive society. Public sector efforts have been fragmented and frustrating for the community groups who have engaged with them. A public conversation about social cohesion has been notably absent.  Once again, we conclude systemic change is needed and we set out our thinking in Part 10: Recommendations.

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This report contains 44 recommendations which cover five key areas relating to the counter-terrorism effort, the firearms licensing system, the ongoing needs of those most affected by the terrorist attack, New Zealand’s response to our increasingly diverse population and implementing our recommendations. These are explained in detail in Part 10: Recommendations

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There are some recurring themes and issues that weighed heavily as we considered our recommendations. The most important of these is the need to confront and engage openly with hard issues. In the course of our inquiry we have looked at Public sector activities involving the firearms licensing system, the counter-terrorism effort and social cohesion and embracing diversity. Each of these has been characterised by limited political ownership and an absence of public discussion. 

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The looseness of controls on semi-automatic firearms had been appreciated for decades and the risk that a terrorist could take advantage of this was identified as long ago as 2011. But there was no significant tightening of the regime largely because of strong opposition from the firearms community. 

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Media controversy and generally low levels of public trust and confidence in the intelligence and security agencies and aspects of the work of the law enforcement agencies have meant that politicians have avoided the challenge of public engagement about countering-terrorism.

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Building social cohesion, inclusion and embracing diversity are goals that we can all aspire to. In a COVID-19 response and recovery environment where there is increased stress, growing mental health and addiction issues and an economic downturn, potential inequalities and vulnerabilities are magnified. As the country looks ahead there is an opportunity to build and enhance our social infrastructure and community resilience in the same way that physical infrastructure is being invested in. There is a strong case for further cross-government actions to improve social cohesion and how we embrace diversity.

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We accept political engagement on these issues will not be easy. But facing up to the hard issues and having open public conversations are critical.  We have already discussed the consequences of not promoting a public-facing counter-terrorism strategy and not tightening loose controls on firearms before the terrorist attack. We hope our report will encourage members of the public, officials and politicians to engage in frank debate so that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities in keeping New Zealand safe, secure and cohesive. There is impetus for debate about the kind of country New Zealand aspires to be.

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Finally, New Zealand will never be immune from violent extremism and terrorism. Even with the best systems in the world, a determined would-be terrorist could carry out an attack in New Zealand in the future. But there is much that government can do, starting with a greater commitment to transparency and openness with New Zealanders.  We all have a part to play in building common agreement about the values we share and want to uphold as a society and for our future generations.  

https://christchurchattack.royalcommission.nz/

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