Our security services have been waiting for this day. Stopping a determined, ideologically motivated and obsessive individual from carrying out a low-technology terror attack is extremely difficult.
Today’s events will bring a sinking feeling to those who work to protect us from people like this young man. It will not bring surprise. This is what was expected. Neither will it be welcome.
Those who worked to stop this specific young man will feel hopeless and sick. As the Prime Minister told the public today, there has been extraordinary effort to constrain this individual from carrying out an attack that has rarely been far from his mind.
He was isolated, lonely and consumed by content developed by Isis for exactly this purpose. Radicalised online, vulnerable to influence, driven to hate.
He was the weapon, years in the making, who worked as intended. He attacked in a public place, his actions were – in part – recorded on social media. That imagery is the damage Isis wanted from its weapon.
For this young man, the law has been used to its fullest extent. Make no mistake – he has been subject to intense focus by police, security services, Crown lawyers and others.
There will be scrutiny on police and security services but much of that work was done by the Royal Commission into the March 15 attack. Did they do all they could? Almost certainly. Could they have done more? Probably not without breaking the law.
That doesn’t mean the law isn’t strong enough. It means elements of it are not fit for purpose. We know this and have known it for decades.
The Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 has had holes in it since it was drafted. Successive governments have been aware of this and done nothing about it. The Royal Commission into the March 15 attack recognised this and made recommendations.
It is only recently that work has begun on closing some of those holes. The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Bill passed its first reading in May and has since been before select committee.
That work began after a strong signal from a High Court judge after a court case involving this individual that identified issues with current legislation.
So, we have all three branches of state that knew what was possible. They have known for years. Parliament knew. The Government knew. The judiciary knew. The theoretical has now moved to the actual with today’s mass stabbing in New Lynn, Auckland. All those who had a role to play will consider what has happened, what they did and what to do now.
There will be urgency where there has not been before. There also needs to be caution. Our laws are not weak, just broken in parts. The tools given to handle someone like this were not absent, just poorly constructed.
The urge to strengthen the arm that shields us from people like this needs to be considered with all that has been done in recent years. The NZ Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau have capability and funding far beyond what existed a decade ago.
That this young man was shadowed by the Special Tactics Group and other police also speaks to an agency that is not wanting for capability or resourcing. To shadow someone 24/7 is incredibly resource intensive. In this case, they did just that and did so despite his hyper-vigilance.
Ramping up surveillance powers, arming police, allowing detention without charge – these are knee-jerk responses.
It should be considered that this young man is an angry echo of Isis at its peak. He was radicalised at a time the Caliphate spanned enormous territory. Since then, Isis has crumbled. It exists in pockets. Its focus is on survival and far less on exporting terror across the world.
It also should be recognised that there is a different threat now. We learned that on March 15, 2019. There are other angry young men – disenfranchised from society, desperate and disturbed, isolated and lonely with a values base that has become warped. And when the anger and hate of white supremacists pass, there will be others again.
There will be the obvious law change which will now, finally, be made. It would have landed this young man in jail but does not solve the problem. Almost everyone gets out eventually and there’s little about how our prisons are run to suggest he would emerge happy and whole.
Instead, the background mantra among those who protect us is “social cohesion”. This is the safety net that provides real security – communities that are less fragmented, where people don’t become isolated, where desperation doesn’t leave people vulnerable to the rot that infested this young man’s life.
The law is the tactical response for an immediate quick safety fix. Improving acceptance of differences as a society, across our communities, is the strategic response. That is the pathway to long-term safety.
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