Christchurch terrorist's radicalisation shows the limits of surveillance and censorship

New Zealand's inquiry found YouTube and Facebook were central to the right-wing mass murderer's radicalisation, but detecting the lone-wolf attacker would have required connecting dots they didn't have.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor
Image: Chris Duckett/ZDNet

The official inquiry into the 2019 lone-wolf terrorist attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 51 people and injured another 40, has found that YouTube was "a far more significant source of information and inspiration" than extreme right-wing websites.

The inquiry also highlighted the limitations of counterterrorism efforts when a potential terrorist is just one of many people espousing extremist views.

The final report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch masjidain [mosques] on 15 March 2019, was published on Tuesday.

In line with common New Zealand media practice and the report itself, your correspondent will not name the perpetrator here, but refer to him simply as "the individual".

"The individual claimed that he was not a frequent commenter on extreme right-wing sites," the report said.

"Although he did frequent extreme right-wing discussion boards such as those on 4chan and 8chan, the evidence we have seen is indicative of more substantial use of YouTube and is therefore consistent with what he told us."

He also followed instructions on YouTube videos to modify his guns and accessories to maximise their effectiveness during his attack.

"YouTube has been often associated with far right content and radicalisation," the report said.

Whether YouTube's recommendation engine leads users to ever more extreme material, or whether the widespread availability of videos supporting far-right ideas reflects demand, remain unanswered questions.

"What is clear, however, is that videos supporting far-right ideas have been very common on YouTube," the report said.

"YouTube has made changes in response to these criticisms, in particular to their recommendation system, so it is less likely to continue recommending increasingly extreme content and has also made it more difficult to access extreme content."

New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has said she would raise radicalisation directly with YouTube's leadership.

The individual was also active in a number of far-right Facebook groups, including those of Australian groups United Patriots Front and The True Blue Crew, and under a pseudonym on pages created by The Lads Society.

The report said that according to a friend, "the individual had a number of Facebook accounts over the last few years, randomly closing one down and creating a new one".

"From time to time he deleted data and removed Facebook friends," the report said.

In all of these online forums the individual used known far-right language, posted far-right memes, and expressed strong anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic sentiments.

He included a neo-Nazi reference in his username at New Zealand auction and classifieds site, Trade Me, and bought far-right publications and accessories to send to his family.

"He reprimanded his mother for using the term 'neo-Nazi' in Facebook Messenger when she commented on his shaved hair and rhetoric," the report said.

"His mother understood that he was not offended at being called a 'neo-Nazi', but rather was worried that her use of the term on a popular messaging platform would be detected."

He also expressed concerns to his sister that he was being tracked by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, although he told the inquiry that there was an element of play-acting here.

That said, the individual is known to have used the Tor browser and virtual private networks to help hide his activities.

'No single aspect' could have alerted authorities to the lone wolf

Despite all this activity, the inquiry found that New Zealand's public sector agencies had just one piece of information that directly referred to the terrorist attack.

Just eight minutes before the attack began, the individual sent an email to the Parliamentary Service, as well as politicians, media outlets, and individual journalists.

"The critical information about the attack (in terms of the location) was within a 74-page manifesto attached to and linked within the email. It took some minutes for the Parliamentary Service to open the email, read and make sense of the manifesto, and then pass the details on to New Zealand Police," the report said.

"By then the terrorist attack had just started."

The inquiry found that other information known about the individual was "largely unremarkable".

"With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that some did relate to the individual's planning and preparation. That, however, was not apparent at the time as this information was fragmentary," it wrote.

"No single aspect of it could have alerted public sector agencies to an impending terrorist attack."

The 'practical difficulties' of detecting lone wolves

The capability and capacity of New Zealand's counterterrorism efforts are "far less than many believe", according to the inquiry.

"The idea that intelligence and security agencies engage in mass surveillance of New Zealanders is a myth."

It observed that "intelligence and security agencies have comparatively little social licence". In 2014, the agencies were in a "fragile state". A rebuilding program didn't start until 2016 and was still unfinished in 2019.

"With limited resources, counter-terrorism agencies have to make tough choices about where to focus their intelligence efforts," the report said.

"There are legal, logistical, and technical obstacles to counter-terrorism agencies conducting operations on far right internet sites on the scale necessary to pick up such comments and identify the people who make them."

There are also "practical difficulties" in distinguishing between those who are "just talkers" and the "potential doers", that is, those likely to mobilise to violence.

The inquiry found that there were perhaps three ways in which the individual could have come to the attention of relevant agencies.

One could have been a tip-off about his pseudonymous far-right rhetoric. However, counterterrorism professionals described such comments as "not being remarkable".

"Concerns were expressed as to whether such inquiry would have been appropriate (or proportionate) given the privacy implications of disclosing private Facebook comments to those who would have been spoken to at the gym."

The individual's training for the terrorist attack had included working out at a gym and taking steroids to bulk up.

Another could have been a tip-off from the public about his shooting style and comments about large-capacity magazines at his rifle club, or about his use of a drone to reconnoitre his intended targets.

"As many Muslim individuals have observed to us, an identifiably Muslim person who acted in the same way as the individual would likely be reported to the counter-terrorism agencies," the report said.

Indeed, the inquiry noted that the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service had "only a limited understanding" of right-wing extremism in the country.

"The inappropriate concentration of resources on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism did not contribute to the individual's planning and preparation for his terrorist attack not being detected," the report said.

The third possibility would have been "a more extensive system of data aggregation, analysis, and reporting".

The inquiry noted that put together, the known facts did paint a certain picture: The importation of ballistic ceramic plates and the like; steroid and testosterone use, which was known to health providers; the purchase of large numbers of hypodermic needles, syringes, and alcohol swabs; the individual's collection of eight firearms, and the purchase of high-capacity magazines and ammunition.

"Whether the New Zealand public would be prepared to accept data aggregation and analysis on the scale and basis just suggested is uncertain," the report said.

"It is worth pointing out that some large-scale data aggregation currently takes place... for example between some public sector agencies to allow people to be detained at the border for unpaid fines or significant and outstanding student loan debts."

The report also noted the down side: "The key feature of bulk data collection is that a large proportion of the data gathered relates to people who are not intelligence targets and is of no intelligence value."

New Zealand to set up new national intelligence and security agency

The inquiry has recommended New Zealand set up a new national intelligence and security agency that is "well-resourced and legislatively mandated" to be responsible for strategic intelligence and security leadership functions.

The agency should create a "public-facing strategy that addresses extremism and preventing, detecting and responding to current and emerging threats of violent extremism and terrorism" which is "developed in collaboration with communities, civil society, local government, and the private sector", the report said.

It should also "[set] the purpose and the direction of the strategy, with goals, milestones, and performance measures."

All up, there are 44 recommendations. The government has committed in principle to implementing all of them.

Can Australia learn from New Zealand's experience?

For your correspondent, one of the more remarkable paragraphs in the report concerns the matter of trust.

"Media controversy and generally low levels of public trust and confidence in the intelligence and security agencies and aspects of the work of the law enforcement agencies have meant that politicians have avoided the challenge of public engagement about countering-terrorism."

Another is its focus on "social cohesion, inclusion, and embracing diversity [which] are goals that we can all aspire to".

"We accept political engagement on these issues will not be easy. But facing up to the hard issues and having open public conversations are critical," the report said.

"We hope our report will encourage members of the public, officials and politicians to engage in frank debate so that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities in keeping New Zealand safe, secure and cohesive."

In your correspondent's view, Australia has much to learn here.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton sees the internet as a sewer and, in general, seems to see the world in terms of "us versus them". Consultation with communities, civil society, and the like, often seem tokenistic.

And as noted before, things like the Cyber Security Strategy lack measurable targets or even a timeline.

There has been a Senate inquiry into nationhood, national identity, and democracy but it is yet to report. Whether it outlines a vision for Australia, or whether it's merely a collection of gripes, remains to be seen.

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