Christchurch mosque attacks: How New Zealand has changed since March 15, 2019 - and what could still change

A lot has changed since the terror event on March 15, 2019 when shockwaves were sent through New Zealand and the world.

Monday marks two years since gunman Brenton Tarrant stormed Christchurch's Al Noor and Linwood mosques, opening fire during Friday prayers and killing 51 people.

The impact from his actions were far-reaching and saw Christchurch - which last month marked 10 years since the devastating earthquake - emerge united in the wake of tragedy, growing closer over grief.

As a result of that day, New Zealand has changed and adapted accordingly.

'One of those defining days'

Waikato University international law professor Al Gillespie explains the many sectors of New Zealand society changed after that day.

"Everything's changed after March 15," he told Newshub. "It's not just with regards to intelligence - it's also with regards to firearms law, and also with regards to awareness about different types of terrorism - in particular the far-right.

"In terms of the change in the intelligence sector, there's clearly a very strong cultural change and that's for the good, and you can see that coming through.

"That change is not just with regards to the language that the directors are using - we seem to be aware of a lot more extremism on the right being caught, which we didn't quite see before either." 

Prof Gillespie says New Zealand acted quickly to change its culture after March 15. A Royal Commission of Inquiry into the mosque attacks was released in December - an 800-page report that came with 44 recommendations. 

"The Royal Commission bottom line was that if you really want to stop the next terrorist, it's not going to become the responsibility of the agencies - it's the responsibility of the entire community," Prof Gillespie says.

"It's the security intelligence, it's the police, it's the neighbours effectively keeping an eye out - and so that cultural change is happening, and I think New Zealand will be more amenable to those changes than some other countries because we're a more inclusive society than other parts of the world.

"I think our identity is strong and the overwhelming majority of people feel terrible about what happened in Christchurch -  they want to make sure it never happens again."

Earlier this month, a man was charged with threatening to kill and remanded in custody after an alleged online threat against the Linwood and Al Noor mosques. The 27-year-old was arrested after a member of the public tipped police off to the threat, which was posted on the notorious web forum 4chan. 

Intelligence expert Paul Buchanan, who earlier this month urged New Zealand agencies to improve their work in blocking 4chan, told Newshub there's more work to be done.  

He says threats that emerge from extremist websites such as 4chan still exist.

"In the past, the authorities have discounted the threats of white supremacists and in this instance, they moved immediately."

They moved so quickly on this latest incident because of March 15, he says.

"Whatever their approach to white supremacists before March 15 [was], they certainly now have them on their radar so that approach is good. The bad part is that all the resourcing that has gone to New Zealand's intelligence agencies - they did not discover this individual on an open forum."

Paul Buchanan.
Paul Buchanan. Photo credit: The AM Show

What could still change, or what still needs change?

The big debate New Zealand has yet to have is whether laws will change with regards to hate speech - something recommended by the Royal Commission of Inquiry. 

In its report, the Royal Commission suggested creating hate-motivated offences in the Summary Offences Act that correspond with the existing crimes of offensive behaviour or language, assault, wilful damage, and intimidation.

The Royal Commission also recommended adding hate-motivated offences to the Crimes Act that correspond with the existing offences of assaults, arson, and intentional damage.

Prof Gillespie says the question will be whether the Government introduces new laws, or utilises existing laws.

"We have laws in this area that prohibit various forms of violent speech - but they're not adhered to strictly, so the next debate will be whether we need to have a new series of laws - that may or may not be the next step."

From an intelligence point of view, Buchanan believes agencies will continue to expand their cyber-capabilities to crack down on extremism.

"I think that we'll see a renewed emphasis on cybersecurity but also countering cyber-extremism.

"The intelligence agencies need to step up their game and step it up quickly."

A national remembrance service - cancelled last year due to COVID-19 - was held on Saturday to honour the victims of March 15.