Report Finds Lapses Before New Zealand Mosque Attack

(AP) -
Brenton Tarrant, the gunman who shot and killed dozens of people in the Christchurch mosque attacks, is seen during his sentencing at the High Court in Christchurch, New Zealand, August 24, 2020. (John Kirk-Anderson/Pool via Reuters/File Photo)

There were no clear signs that an attack last year on two New Zealand mosques was imminent, but police should have done a better job vetting the lone gunman when he applied for a gun license, and intelligence agencies should have focused more on threats such as white supremacism, according to a new report.

Among 44 recommendations, the report released Tuesday says the government should establish a new national intelligence agency.

The report details how the attacker, white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, was able to live a solitary, almost ghostlike existence by relying on an inheritance that was fast dwindling when he killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry report runs nearly 800 pages. It says that New Zealand’s intelligence agencies were far too focused on the threat posed by Islamic extremism at the expense of other threats including white supremacism.

It found that despite the shortcomings of various agencies, Tarrant hadn’t told anybody about his plans or left any clues — until he emailed out his manifesto just eight minutes before he began shooting, which came too late for agencies to respond.

New Zealand currently has one intelligence agency that focuses on domestic threats and one that focuses on international threats. Often those agencies are focused on immediate events such as keeping visiting dignitaries safe. The report recommends establishing a new, well-financed agency that’s more strategic in nature and can focus on developing a counterterrorism strategy.

New Zealand’s liberal prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said the government has agreed to implement all the recommendations and apologized for agency shortcomings. Immediately after the attacks, Ardern helped push through new laws banning the deadliest types of semiautomatic weapons.

But conservative opposition leader Judith Collins said the report’s recommendations need to be scrutinized and the nation must tread carefully to safeguard rights and liberties.

As part of the process for getting a gun license, Tarrant was required to provide to police the names of two people who could speak to his good character. He gave them the name of a friend he knew mostly online, along with that friend’s father. Vetting officers interviewed Tarrant and the referees and recommended he be given his license.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said that in deciding whether Tarrant was “fit and proper” to hold a gun license, “we could have done more to consider whether the two referees knew the individual well enough to serve as referees.”

The report also found that the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, the domestic spying agency, had chosen to concentrate scarce counterterrorism resources on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism inspired by groups like the Islamic State at the expense of other threats.

Despite the shortcomings of various agencies, the report concludes, there was no plausible way Tarrant’s plans could have been detected “except by chance.”