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New Zealand Saw the Supermarket Attack Coming – But Couldn’t Stop It

New Zealand’s authorities had long thought the attacker was an extremist who posed a threat. But they had no legal recourse to stop him.

New Zealand Saw the Supermarket Attack Coming – But Couldn’t Stop It

Ahamed Aathil Samsudeen appears in the High Court in Auckland, New Zealand, on Aug. 7, 2018.

Credit: Greg Bowker/New Zealand Herald via AP

Immigration officers feared him. So, too, did prosecutors, prison officials, and police. They thought he could launch a terror attack at any moment. Even the prime minister wanted him deported.

Yet, in the end, nobody in New Zealand was able to stop an extremist inspired by the Islamic State group from walking free from prison in July. Seven weeks later, he grabbed a knife at an Auckland supermarket and began stabbing shoppers, injuring seven in a frenzied attack.

Court records, interviews and agency accounts explain how years of red flags weren’t enough to stop him.

In October 2011, Ahamed Aathil Samsudeen, then 22, arrived in New Zealand from Sri Lanka on a student visa. The following month, he withdrew from his studies and made a claim for refugee status. In April 2012, immigration officials declined his refugee claim, saying they found inconsistencies and an unreliable medical report. Samsudeen appealed, and an immigration tribunal took a fresh look at the case.

Samsudeen, a Tamil Muslim, told the tribunal in December 2012 that if he were to be sent back home, he would face persecution because of a falling out between his father and a former colonel from the Tamil Tigers insurgent group. He said that once, several armed men kidnapped him and his father, stripping them, cutting them, burning them with cigarettes, and beating them unconscious.

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A psychologist told the tribunal that Samsudeen is a “damaged young man” who’s suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The tribunal concluded that while parts of Samsudeen’s story were “superficially unsatisfactory,” it was best to give him the benefit of the doubt. It granted him refugee status, and he later became a permanent resident of New Zealand.

By April 2016, Samsudeen had caught the attention of police and intelligence agencies. He had been posting his support for the Islamic State on Facebook, including graphic videos, as well as support for terror attacks in Paris and Brussels. Police spoke twice to Samsudeen at his home. He apologized, saying he had closed down his Facebook page.

But he soon reopened the account and kept posting. He described stabbing enemies and cutting off their heads.

Exactly what caused Samsudeen’s descent into extremism remains unclear.

His brother described him as spending too much time online and suffering from mental health problems. Samsudeen’s mother said that at one point in New Zealand her son fell from a great height, and that neighbors from Syria and Iran helped him recover but also brainwashed him.

A roommate told police that Samsudeen wanted to travel to Syria to fight for the Islamic State group and, failing that, wanted to kill somebody with a knife.

In May 2017, police arrested Samsudeen at Auckland Airport with a backpack, a few thousand dollars, and a ticket to Singapore. They believed he was trying to get to Syria to join the Islamic State.

At his apartment, police found a hunting knife with a long blade (Samsudeen said the knife was for protection). They also found extremist videos and photos of him posing with a gun.

He was jailed on various charges, including distributing the videos, possessing the knife, and credit card fraud. He spent most of the next four years behind bars.

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Worried about the threat Samsudeen posed, immigration authorities reexamined his refugee application in August 2017. They found fabricated statements from his family to support his claim and an embellished medical report. They began a protracted process to cancel his refugee status.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern asked officials in May 2018 about his immigration status and options for him to be deported. The following month, Samsudeen pled guilty to five charges and was released on bail.

In August 2018, Samsudeen paid cash for another hunting knife — the same model as the one police found the previous year. Police searched his home again and found a ninja throwing star weapon and more Islamic State videos, including some showing extreme violence.

He had also been posting his support for terrorism on Facebook again. After just six weeks of freedom, Samsudeen was back behind bars, facing new charges similar to the earlier ones.

Immigration authorities finally cancelled Samsudeen’s refugee status in February 2019, accusing him of fraud. Two months later, he was served with a deportation notice. Samsudeen appealed once more to the independent tribunal. More than two years later, the hearing was still pending.

Meanwhile, in prison, staff believed he had potentially violent extremist views, but he refused to meet with a prison psychologist or engage with an imam. He repeatedly threw feces and urine at corrections officers. He argued with officers, punching two of them, and assaulted another staffer. Corrections officials decided to move him to a maximum security prison in June 2020.

The next month, in July 2020, prosecutors tried to charge Samsudeen with terrorism. They argued there was evidence that he bought the knife with the intention of killing people and to further an ideological cause.

But a judge didn’t think the act of buying a knife was enough to merit the charge.

The judge also found that New Zealand’s anti-terror laws don’t specifically cover plots. That “could be an Achilles’ heel,” the judge acknowledged, adding that “it is not open to a court to create an offense … the issue is for Parliament.”

By May 2021, with Samsudeen’s release from prison looming, immigration officials looked at options for keeping him behind bars until he could be deported. But after considering legal advice, they came to a startling conclusion: Samsudeen probably couldn’t be deported after all. He could face torture or death if he’s sent back to Sri Lanka, and therefore would qualify to stay in New Zealand as a so-called protected person.

It appears to be a Catch-22: Samsudeen’s extremism and crimes in New Zealand potentially exposed him to worse treatment back in Sri Lanka – and consequently protected him from being sent there.

Despite the concerns of many, from the prime minister down, a judge released Samsudeen on July 13, sentencing him to a year’s monitoring under the care of an Auckland mosque leader, after a jury found him guilty of more minor charges. The judge rejected a call from prosecutors for him to wear a GPS tracker.

Police assigned some 30 officers to tail Samsudeen day and night. He knew he was being followed.

On September 3, Samsudeen caught a train from the mosque in the Auckland suburb of Glen Eden to a mall in New Lynn. At a Countdown supermarket, he grabbed a shopping cart and walked the aisles for about 10 minutes.

By this point, undercover officers have been following him for 53 days straight. They were stationed just outside the supermarket, hanging back more than usual because a coronavirus outbreak that began the previous month meant there were new social distancing requirements and fewer shoppers, making their presence more obvious.

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Inside Samsudeen grabbed a kitchen knife from a store shelf and began stabbing shoppers while chanting “Allahu akbar” – meaning “God is great.” People began running and screaming.

The officers confronted Samsudeen within a couple of minutes of the attack beginning. Police say Samsudeen charged at them with the knife and they shot him dead.

In all, five shoppers were stabbed and two more injured in the chaos. Since the attack, two victims remain hospitalized in intensive care units while two more are in general wards, and all are in stable condition. Three more are recovering at home.

Ardern, the prime minister, vowed to hurry new anti-terror laws, which were already in the works, to address the gap in prosecuting those who plot an attack. She is also examining whether changes are needed to deportation laws and policies.