Jacinda Ardern apologises for 'failings' leading up to Christchurch attack, promises beefed up counter-terrorism

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has apologised for "failings" leading up to the 2019 Christchurch terror attack and has promised beefed up counter-terrorism laws in response.

The Government has agreed to implement all 44 recommendations contained in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terror attack on Christchurch Mosques on March 15, 2019.

The independent Royal Commission was set up to investigate what state sector agencies knew about the Australian-born terrorist's activities before the attack, measures that could have been taken to prevent it, and how to prevent a similar event.

"The Royal Commission found no failures within any Government agencies that would have allowed the individual's planning and preparation to have been detected but did identify many lessons to be learnt and significant areas needing change," Ardern said on Tuesday.

"For many years, the Muslim community has raised concerns over issues like the disproportionate scrutiny by security and intelligence agencies. This report confirms there was an 'inappropriate concentration of resources'. It also identifies failings within the firearms licencing system.

"The commission made no findings that these issues would have stopped the attack. But these were both failings nonetheless and for that I apologise."

The Royal Commission concluded in its findings that the concentration of counter-terrorism resources on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism was "inappropriate".

It found that the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) had "decided to concentrate its scarce counter-terrorism resources on the presenting threat of Islamist extremist terrorism".

An academic said in a submission: "New Zealand authorities have focused their counter-terrorism resources almost exclusively on Muslim communities in New Zealand. New Zealand authorities appear to have been institutionally blind to terror threats from white nationalist and far right actors and groups, and threats to Muslim communities in particular."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

But the findings also say that the inappropriate concentration of resources on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism did not contribute to the terrorist's planning and preparation for his attack not being detected.

"For that reason, the public sector agencies involved in the counter-terrorism effort did not fail to anticipate or plan for the terrorist attack due to an inappropriate concentration of counter-terrorism resources," the findings say.

Director-General of the NZSIS Rebecca Kitteridge says she has "reflected deeply" on the submissions made to the Royal Commission by different Muslim organisations and made to the media who felt they have been unfairly targeted by security agencies.

"NZSIS should have done better at explaining our role to the community and listening to their concerns. I know that a number of people have found this upsetting, and to them I apologise."

Kitteridge also acknowledged the "need to ensure that there is an appropriate and adequate focus of resources on the range of threats New Zealand faces".

NZSIS Director-General Rebecca Kitteridge.
NZSIS Director-General Rebecca Kitteridge. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

How is the Government responding?

The Royal Commission recommended ensuring a Government minister is given responsibility and accountability to lead and coordinate the counter-terrorism effort.

The Prime Minister confirmed that Andrew Little, currently the minister responsible for New Zealand's spy agencies, will take on that role.

The Government intends to amend the Terrorism Suppression Act to strengthen counter-terrorism legislation, including making changes to clarify the definition of a "terrorist act".

The changes would also include the creation of a new offence to criminalise planning or preparation for a terrorist act, as well as a new offence to more clearly criminalise terrorist weapons and combat training.

The Government also plans to amend the 2019 Terrorism Suppression (Control Orders) Act, a targeted response to manage the risk posed by a small number of New Zealanders who have engaged in terrorism-related activities while overseas, such as Mark Taylor.

It gave the police the ability to apply to the High Court to impose control orders, or restrictions, on New Zealanders who have engaged in terrorism overseas.

Control orders impose conditions such as electronic monitoring, restricted internet access, restricted association with some people, meeting with police twice a week, and rehab or reintegration.

The Government plans to extend the eligibility for a control order to include the individuals who have completed a prison sentence for a terrorism-related offence if they continue to present a risk of engaging in terrorism-related activities.

Last year Cabinet also agreed to two other proposals which will be included in the amendments: creating a new offence for international travel to carry out terrorist activities, and expanding the criminal offence of financing terrorism to include broader forms of material support.

"Terrorism aims to shake our beliefs and divide us," Ardern said. "Instead, New Zealand responded to the events of March 15 with compassion, empathy and solidarity. I hope we remain united as we start to implement the recommendations of this inquiry to build a safer and more connected country."

Summary of actions:

  • Andrew Little will be placed in charge of coordinating the Government response to the Royal Commission's recommendations and implement them
  • A Ministry for Ethnic Communities will be established to support and strengthen the work programme on social cohesion
  • A new police programme, Te Raranga, The Weave, will be set up to drive improvements in frontline police practice to identify, record and manage hate crime, and deliver a service that is more responsive to victims
  • The Safer Communities Fund will be extended to enable communities at risk of hate crime and terrorism to upgrade their security arrangements
  • An Ethnic Communities Graduate Programme will be set up in the public service
  • A new National Centre of Excellence will be set up to bring together academic, civil society and the Government to research radicalisation and violent extremism and social cohesion in New Zealand
  • Police will establish an early intervention programme to develop wraparound support for individuals who are showing early indicators of radicalisation
  • New Zealand will sign up to the Budapest Convention on cybercrime

The Royal Commission recommended establishing a new national intelligence and security agency and the Prime Minister said while the Government agrees with the suggestion it will take some time to implement such a significant restructure.

Ardern confirmed it will be a new agency.

A multi-agency group has been set up to provide a response report to the Government in the first quarter of 2021 that will include an implementation roadmap for the report's recommendations.