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Sunday, September 19, 2021

After stabbing attack, New Zealand examines its anti-terrorism efforts

New Zealand has low and declining crime rates and is far from the flashpoints of global terrorism. But questions about how the country handles potential assailants have grown in volume since 2019 after an anti-Muslim terrorist murdered 51 people at two mosques in the city of Christchurch.

By: New York Times | Auckland |
Updated: September 5, 2021 8:48:39 am
Police and ambulance staff outside the Auckland supermarket after the 'terror attack' on Friday. (Alex Burton/New Zealand Herald via AP)

Written by Natasha Frost

When Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen grabbed a knife at a Countdown supermarket Friday in West Auckland and began stabbing shoppers, the police were just outside.

They had followed him there. They had, in fact, been following him for months, since he was released from prison. Officials at the highest levels of New Zealand’s government knew about Samsudeen, an Islamic State group sympathizer — including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who had received briefings about his case.

Samsudeen, whose name was made public Saturday night after a New Zealand court order lapsed, was considered so dangerous that on the very day he wounded seven people at the supermarket and was shot dead by the police, Ardern’s government had been trying to expedite counterterrorism legislation in Parliament to give law enforcement officials a legal way to take him back into custody.

“Agencies used every tool available to them to protect innocent people from this individual,” Ardern said at a news conference Saturday afternoon. “Every legal avenue was tried.”

Three of the people wounded in the attack were in critical condition Saturday.

New Zealand has low and declining crime rates and is far from the flashpoints of global terrorism. But questions about how the country handles potential assailants have grown in volume since 2019 after an anti-Muslim terrorist murdered 51 people at two mosques in the city of Christchurch.

Now, like other countries, New Zealand is grappling with the trade-offs between monitoring suspects and preventing terrorist attacks, and with concerns about containing the power of the government and the police to surveil and detain people based on suspicions.

More details about Samsudeen’s case, including his name and immigration status in New Zealand, came to light Saturday night. A judge had ruled Friday that an order restricting reporting of his personal information should be lifted, but left some of the restrictions in place for a further 24 hours to give Samsudeen’s family time to challenge the decision.

Samsudeen, who was a Sri Lankan national, traveled to New Zealand on a student visa in 2011. A Tamil Muslim, he was granted refugee status in 2013 on the grounds that he and his father had “experienced serious problems with the Sri Lankan authorities due to their political background,” according to court documents. He said that he had been “attacked, kidnapped and tortured” and that he feared that deportation to Sri Lanka would put him in increased danger.

Four years later, in 2017, Samsudeen was arrested at the airport in Auckland on suspicion of planning to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State militant group, which then controlled parts of Syria and Iraq. He subsequently spent three years in prison on a variety of charges, including assaulting a corrections officer, before being released in July.

In a presentencing report, Samsudeen was described as having an “isolated lifestyle, a high sense of entitlement and a propensity for violence,” with “minimal insight” into why what he had done was wrong. He thought of himself as “an activist or journalist,” a probation officer said.

Officials had taken steps toward removing Samsudeen from New Zealand in 2018 and 2019. But a deportation appeal process was still playing out at the time of the attack, with a hearing scheduled for this month after delays because of an earlier criminal trial and because of coronavirus restrictions.

In a statement Saturday night, Ardern said Samsudeen’s refugee status had been obtained under false pretenses. “In July this year, I met with officials in person and expressed my concern that the law could allow someone to remain here who obtained their immigration status fraudulently and posed a threat to our national security,” she said. “I asked for work to be undertaken to look at whether we should amend our law, in the context of our international obligations.”

She said that New Zealand’s immigration service had received legal advice that under current law, it could not detain Samsudeen while he awaited the appeal hearing, something she described as “incredibly disappointing and frustrating.”

As Samsudeen’s release date drew near this year, officials had become increasingly concerned, Ardern said earlier Saturday. Having refused psychological evaluation, he could not be committed to a mental health facility, she said.

Weeks after Samsudeen’s release in late August, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster and other officials recommended speeding up amendments to New Zealand’s counterterrorism laws that were already working their way through Parliament, Ardern said. The legislation, initially introduced as part of a wider review of the anti-terrorism laws, includes a provision that would make planning a terrorist attack a criminal offense — plugging a gap in the law that a court called “an Achilles’ heel” in a ruling on Samsudeen’s case in July 2020.

“Within 48 hours of these discussions, the minister of justice contacted the chair of the select committee with the intention of speeding that law change up,” Ardern said. “That was yesterday, the same day the attack happened.”

Coster said at the news conference that Samsudeen had been under constant surveillance since his release, with as many as 30 officers sometimes monitoring his behavior. He said Samsudeen believed he was being watched and had confronted members of the public, asking if they were following him.

Coster said there had been “nothing unusual” about Samsudeen’s activities Friday before he arrived at the supermarket. Armed officers were outside the store when the attack began — an indication of how dangerous he was believed to be, as the police in New Zealand rarely carry guns.

Coster said the officers had not followed Samsudeen into the supermarket because, under COVID restrictions, relatively few people were inside. That meant the officers would have been much more conspicuous and might have been compromised, he said. A member of the elite Special Tactics Group killed the assailant less than three minutes after the attack began, he said.

Ardern praised the police response. “This was a highly motivated individual who used a supermarket visit as a shield for an attack,” she said. “That is an incredibly tough set of circumstances.”

Countdown and three other New Zealand supermarket chains said after the attack that they would suspend the sale of sharp knives. Countdown said it would also temporarily stop selling scissors.

Ardern said her government intended to pass the counterterrorism amendments by the end of this month. Opposition lawmakers have said they would support the changes, while questioning why the attacker had not been deported.

Referring to the lifting of the name suppression order Saturday afternoon, Ardern said she would not use the assailant’s name in public, a rule she also applied to the Christchurch gunman. “No terrorist, whether alive or deceased, deserves their name to be shared for the infamy they were seeking,” she said.

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