As Friday prayer rung out on March 15, 2019, a lone gunman arrived at the Al-Noor Mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, armed with two rifles and wearing a head-mounted camera.
“Hello, brother,” said a man greeting the man at the front gate. The gunmen arriving was a 28-year-old white supremacist who had been planning an attack on the mosque for the past two months.
The 20-minute attack on the Al-Noor Mosque and then the Linwood Mosque left 51 men, women and children dead and another 49 injured. It remains the deadliest attack in New Zealand’s history, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calling it “New Zealand’s darkest day.”
About an hour after the attack ended, Ardern addressed the nation from an impromptu studio set up in a rural hotel on the country’s north island.
“Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here,” she said. “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.”
Ardern followed up on her speech by visiting Christchurch the following morning wearing a Muslim-style headscarf known as a hijab, where she tearfully told members of the refugee and Muslim community that the whole country was “united in grief.”
“My job is to make people feel safe,” she later told The Project of her decision to wear a hijab. “The idea that people currently do not, I find very distressing and so it’s my job to try and bring that sense of security back.”
Almost a year later, a recently unclassified report by New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) found that there had been a rise in tip-offs about people who expressed racist, Nazi or white supremacist views and that reports spiked in the weeks following the Christchurch attack.
The report included comments made by Ardern last September in which she told her ministers that New Zealand is at “greater risk” of another terrorist attack and said that more money may be needed in this year’s budget to bolster counterterrorism efforts.
Also just publicly released were elements of the government’s updated counterterrorism strategy, which will include a new “tip-off messaging” system due to begin this April and plans for NZSIS to release the first of an annual “unclassified threat environment report.”
NZSIS came under pressure after the Christchurch attack for not being transparent about the risks posed by far-right groups in New Zealand.
An RNZ report found that there was not a single specific mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 years of NZSIS documents, despite repeated warnings from the public.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry is expected to report back in April about what intelligence agencies knew about the attacker prior to Christchurch.
In the days that followed the attack, several sympathizers of the attacker had their homes raided, with one man killed in a stand-off with police after they found a cache of firearms, ammunition, Nazi uniforms, helmets and clothing inside his home.
It’s estimated that there are about 60 to 70 groups and somewhere between 150 and 300 core right-wing activists in New Zealand.
Research by anti-hate groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and HateLab shows that an increase in online hate speech will be accompanied by hate crimes.
This has troubled authorities in New Zealand given the spike in online hate speech in the months that followed the Christchurch attack.
Earlier this month, New Zealand police arrested a 19-year-old man for allegedly threatening the Al-Noor Mosque on encrypted messaging app Telegram. It later emerged that he is a member of the white supremacist group Action Zealandia.
“I will be amongst many New Zealanders who will be devastated to see that as we head towards the one-year anniversary of a most horrific terror attack on the Muslim community, that they should them be the target of this kind of activity,” Ardern told reporters at the time.
Since Christchurch, though, the government has done everything but sit on its hands.
Within a week of the Christchurch attack, Ardern announced that all military-style semi-automatic and assault rifles would be banned and less than a month later every lawmaker in parliament bar one voted in favor of the first sets of legislation, and in June, a six-month amnesty and gun buyback program was announced.
As of December 2019, more than 56,000 firearms had been handed in and police had paid out about $102 million to gun owners.
The deputy commissioner Mike Clement said at the time that police estimate that there are around 1.2 million firearms in possession of around 250,000 owners across the country and warned that those who did not surrender the firearms would be liable for prosecution.
“For anyone that has refused to abide by the law, my advice to you is to go to a station and hand in your firearm under amnesty now.”
A government-commissioned assessment by the consulting firm KPMG estimated that the number of now-banned guns still in private hands in New Zealand could be between 50,000 and 170,000.
Police Minister Stuart Nash hailed the policy as a success telling TVNZ that the vast majority of gun owners in New Zealand are good, law abiding citizens.
“I just do not believe there’s 170,000,” he said. “I believe we’ve got the majority of these guns in.”
Nash reiterated that anyone who retains their now-illegal gun faces up to five years’ imprisonment.
New Zealand’s gun lobby groups and the main opposition party have both taken issue with gun-control legislation, claiming it was rushed through parliament with little negotiation and that there wasn’t enough time for gun-owners to respond.
But Nash rejected that criticism, telling TVNZ: “I don’t buy into that. There’s been 580 collection events, there’s 52,000 guns that have been taken out of our community…I think our community is safer for it.”
Just a few days after parliament passed the legislation, a survey by Colmar Brunton found that 61 percent of New Zealanders agreed with the new laws, and a further 19 percent said they did not go far enough.
Ardern has also gone after the world’s tech giants for their role in allowing the Christchurch attacker to live-stream a video of the attack, resulting in 300,000 uploads to Facebook alone.
She has been working with Microsoft’s Brad Smith, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey as well as France’s Emmanuel Macron on preventing the spread of online terrorist and violent extremist content online.