New Zealand Security Intelligence Service director Rebecca Kitteridge (Photo: Alexander Robertson for RNZ)

The 15/3 inquiry: what questions will they need to ask?

The PM has confirmed an inquiry will be held into the circumstances leading up to the Christchurch terrorist attacks. Alex Braae asks they will have to look into.

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, questions are being raised about how closely security services were watching white supremacists. The accused was not on any watch-lists for police or the intelligence service, and at this stage there have been no proven coordination between him and other white supremacist groups. However, possible links are being investigated in Britain and Europe, in particular to the ‘Identitarian’ movement, which has railed against Islam and Muslim migration to Europe. It’s clear that he at least shared many ideological views with such groups.

But all of that raises a wider question: even if he did have links to such groups, would intelligence services or police have noticed? That’s something many critics of the strategy of various agencies have been asking. It’s certainly what the Islamic Women’s Council have been saying – that they tried to lobby intensively to get threats against the Muslim community looked into, but felt they got nowhere with either of the last two governments. Instead, the Muslim community were the ones being watched.

It’s thrown into sharp relief in this analysis by RNZ political editor Jane Patterson, who has gone through 10 years worth of “annual reports and ministerial briefings” from the spy services. Not once do they mention right wing extremism in specific terms. A brief warning was made by SIS boss Rebecca Kitteridge earlier this year, but the overwhelming focus of the security services appears to have been on Muslims themselves.

Could that be because of the close relationship our spy agencies have with the rest of the Anglosphere, in the form of the Five Eyes network? Of those countries, all have participated in the various wars and occupations in Muslim countries. One of them, the US, is led by a man who has made a string of Islamophobic statements, a man who has refused to condemn white supremacy.

Britain, Australia and Canadian governments have all flirted with policies and rhetoric that could be described as Islamophobic in the past decade, along with many in both politics and media in New Zealand. Might it be that our international security alliances aren’t fit for purpose to combat white supremacy? The accused was born in Australia, but had travelled extensively around the world and lived in New Zealand for several years.

There are other specific examples of warnings that have been alleged. Radio NZ reports that a Christchurch gunsmith says he warned police last year, about an increasing number of right wing extremists getting access to guns. “I did warn him specifically that there were real neo-Nazis out there and they had gained access to all manner of firearms… I’m talking about machine guns, pistols, submachine guns, the whole gamut of what’s available to restricted collectors.”

Then there’s the not insignificant matter of what sort of online activity the accused was engaged in before the attack, and how closely the online forums where white supremacist propaganda spread are watched. Given that others have in recent days been charged in relation to either allegedly creating objectionable material before the attack, or sharing the stream of it while it was being carried out, there will need to be investigations into whether these people were all known to each other before it took place.

Yesterday’s NZ Herald article by David Fisher is well worth reading on this point – the attacker at this stage is being considered a ‘lone wolf’ – someone who operated entirely alone – which makes it substantially more difficult to prevent. But sometimes lone wolves howl loudly enough that they should be heard, and sometimes there’s a pack backing them up. Extremist, white supremacist attitudes exist both in a local, on the ground sense, and also in a global online sense. A crucial question for the inquiry to determine exactly how the accused was radicalised, and what signs there were beforehand. Prevention of other, similar attacks might depend on it.

GCSB and SIS minister Andrew Little has said the services absolutely have been keeping an eye on white supremacists, and that as the person who signs off warrants, he can say that all forms of extremism are being looked at. He also said that the last nine months have seen an increased focus on this sort of activity. And in the immediate term, police had been following up with known white supremacists.

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Little said that he didn’t at this stage consider the security services to have failed. But he has indicated on Q+A that organisational culture will be one of the aspects that the inquiry looks at, “to see whether within those organisations, there were blind spots.” He says he doesn’t buy the explanation that there has been too much focus on potential Islamic terrorism, as opposed to other forms of terrorism. Time will tell, and both the SIS and Little have welcomed an inquiry. He said on Monday night that as yet, no resignations had been offered.

At her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday Jacinda Ardern confirmed there would be an inquiry into the leadup to the terrorist atrocity. She said she was not yet sure whether that would take the form of a Royal Commission or a public inquiry or a ministerial inquiry.

As to who could take on the monumental task of trying to sift through exactly what went wrong, one name springs to mind. Dame Sian Elias just finished up her tenure as the Chief Justice – the most senior member of the judiciary in New Zealand. Surely an inquiry like this will require someone who wields an immense amount of mana, and will have no obstacles to asking the toughest of questions.

A condensed version of this piece appeared in this morning’s edition of The Bulletin



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