At 1:45 PM on 15 March 2019, a gunman attacked Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday prayer, killing 51 and wounding 50 out of 300 worshippers.
During the indiscriminate shooting, the terrorist assailant had a camera fixed on his helmet livestreaming this horror on Facebook. The gunman, Brenton Tarrant, was a 28-year-old right- wing extremist believing in white supremacy.
The terrorist was held in pre-trial detention on 5 April before being committed to the High Court to stand trial. On 27 August 27 2020, Judge Cameron Mander sentenced New Zealand Mosque gunman Brenton Tarrant to life in prison without parole on 51 charges of murder. He was also sentenced to a lifetime in prison for committing a terrorist act and 12 years for 40 counts of attempted murder.
It was the first time a court in New Zealand had sentenced a person to prison for the rest of their life without parole. It is the utmost penalty in the country.
Auckland Law School lecturer Dylan Asafo wrote after the verdict: “But while we may celebrate the criminal justice system for giving the terrorist the strongest available punishment, which it has never given before, it might also be a good time for us to take a moment to think about how well our government has responded to the attacks; in particular, the steps it has taken to stop similar attacks of Islamophobic hate from happening again. In other words, we need to ask ourselves: what laws and policies has the government implemented to protect Muslim communities, and peoples of colour in general, from future acts of extremist right wing, white supremacist terrorism? While these laws show that the government was willing and able to respond to the gun violence aspect, one cannot help but ask – what has been done to address the white supremacist, Islamophobic hate that drove the attacks and to stop these ideas from proliferating in the first place? Unfortunately, this is where our government is failing – and it’s not because it’s not able, but because it’s not willing”.
Media and Terrorism
Tarrant left behind a 74-page manifesto titled “The Great Replacement” that was posted online, in which he plotted for the attack 2 years prior and chose Christchurch as the target only 3 months before the attack. He warned against a potential invasion from India, China, or Turkey. He believed attacking Muslims shall receive maximum support and that they are one of the strongest groups with high fertility. He praised Pope Urban II who launched the first crusade against Muslims. He expressed his support for US President Donald Trump as a symbol of renewed white identity. When Trump was asked whether he saw white nationalists as a global threat, he answered, “I don’t really ... I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess ... But it’s certainly a terrible thing”.
The livestream posted by the terrorist spread on other streaming platforms, such as Live Leak and YouTube. Accordingly, the police, Muslim support groups and government entities called for taking down or reporting the video whenever anyone comes across it. Moreover, the Office of Film and Literature Classification (New Zealand) banned the livestream video of the attack, thus criminalizing any copying, display, or redistribution of it. However, several media houses in Australia and tabloids in the UK published parts of the livestream, including Sky News Australia.
The terrorist incident demonstrates how far-right extremists may use the internet to gather support across several platforms. It also shows how governments, security agencies, and tech companies are unprepared to deal with the mobilization of far-right extremism via the Dark Web.
Two months after the terrorist attack, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met with French president Emmanuel Macron, 10 other Presidents, and senior officials from internet companies in Paris on 15 May 2019 and launched the initiative of Christchurch Call to eliminate online terrorist and violent extremist content. The initiative was supported by over 50 countries, 3 international organizations, and 8 internet service providers. The Trump administration refused to sign the Christchurch Call Initiative, but Biden’s did in May 2021.
The initiative comprises a series of active and effective commitments made by states, facilities, and civil society to combat online violent extremist and terrorist content by cooperating, coordinating efforts, and respecting the internet core values of transparency, openness, and the protection of rights.
This unprecedented cooperation yielded good preliminary results. At the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2019, and after several rounds of negotiations with internet companies in Paris, San Francisco, and Seattle, the French President and New Zealand’s Prime Minister announced a number of measures, primarily:
- Structural and governance reform of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT).
- The creation of task forces for the GIFCT forum to conduct research on terrorist and violent extremist groups’ usage of the internet, and developing a common framework for data exchange that respects user privacy and fundamental rights.
- Developing a joint protocol for crisis management between states and facilities to counter any online terrorist attack or content effectively and promptly.
It is truly alarming that this type of terrorism and extremism is steadily growing. All European and US statistics and official reports show a gradual increase in the number of far-right terrorist attacks in recent years, which increased 400% in the US between 2016 and 2017. The Global Terrorism Index (GTI 2019) confirms that attacks attributed to extremist far-right individuals or groups have tripled, which is the same rate of extremist far-right prisoners recorded in European countries in 2018.