The New Zealand Mass Shooting
Year 4 - Week 10
ISSN 2603 - 9931
When analyzing a mass shooting incident it is useful to fit the subject into one operational category with the purpose of detecting the presence of patterns that, at their turn, allow us to draw conclusions. The Christchurch mass shooting of last Friday, March 15, is one of those cases where the interaction of different variables offers a wide field of research and analysis.
1.- The attack.
The morning of Friday March 15th, Brenton Tarrant, 28, drove to a near mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, with his car loaded with firearms. He parked in the an-Noor mosque driveway, took two of his weapons and entered in the mosque, opening fire over the worshipers who crowded the building during the Muslim holy day of the week. After a six minutes attack, where he went outside to reload in his car and came back to finished off some of the victims, he moved along to a second mosque six kilometers away, Linwood Islamic Association. On his way, the first police cars were heading to the an-Noor Mosque to respond to the incident, but the threat had moved to a different target, where he killed seven more people –including two children, also congregated for praying. This dynamic evolution of the threat meant a Multiple Assault situation where first responders had to divert forces to respond to both scenarios in a matter of minutes.
The whole attack, from its beginning to the moment Tarrant was detained by two lightly armed community police officers who ran the gunman’s car out of the road, took 36 minutes. The toll have raised to 50 deaths and another 50 injured, some of them still in critical condition.
As defined in the Crime Classification Manual, a mass murder is the killing of four or more victims at one location, whereas a spree murder is the killing of three or more victims at more than one location without a cooling off period between murders. The cooling off period is the state of returning to the murderer’s usual way of behavior and live between the killings. That is the case of serial murderers, while active shooters, according to working definitions as the one provided by the FBI, won’t present cooling off periods. According to this theoretical framework, Tarrant would be considered an active shooter –due to the modus operandi-, but also he fits in the category of spree murderer, due to the double scene of the two mosques attack in a same period of time.
2.- The Shooter.
New Zealand authorities have treated the attack as terrorism, although to pronounce such a statement without falling in mere rhetoric considerations, a further analysis is required. Beginning with a working definition based on the ones provided by authoritative theorist as Martha Crenshaw or David Rapoport, we can define terrorism as the illegal, politically motivated use of violence with the purpose of changing an established power or order through both the physical and psychological impact of that violence over a targeted audience, selected according to the ideological framework of the terrorist group.
It seems out of question that the attacker presented an ideological motivation, expressed through a 74-pages manifesto, titled “The Great Replacement” which criticizes mass immigration of non-Westerners into Western countries and explains the motivations of the attacks, such as:
“To take revenge on the invaders for the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by foreign invaders in European lands throughout history.
To take revenge for the thousands of European lives lost to terror attacks throughout European lands.
To directly reduce immigration rates to European lands by intimidating and physically removing the invaders themselves.”
In this discourse, with clear racist hints, the attacker show an ideological white supremacist framework that sets the underlying motivations for the attack and the modus operandi and target selection. In a similar way to Anders Breivik attack in 2011 in Oslo and Utoya island, also Tarrant was ideologically connected to the same loosely affiliated network designed almost three decades ago by Louis Beam in the United States, to prevent the white supremacist movement to be finally decapitated by the security forces. The outcome was the development of the “Leaderless Resistance” doctrine, where the absence of organizational ties between the members of a movement is eased through propaganda addressing individual behavior, potential targets and potential modus operandi to attack those targets, in a sort of “propaganda by the deed” able to mobilize new lone actors able to carry out new attacks following the same patterns. In other words, Beam set the basis for what we know today as “Lone Wolves”, while both Breivik and Tarrant have followed.
3.- The targets.
Analyzing the target provides a deeper understanding of the attack. In that sense, we must take separately the target as victims from the target as facilities.
The target as victims is symbolic. In this case, the Christchurch Muslim community is representative of the Muslim community in New Zealand, in turn representative of the selected target mentioned in the manifesto, the immigrant population who is destroying Western countries and that must be removed. As it frequently happens in active shooting incidents, the victims are random in the sense of unknown to the shooter, but they belong to the specific cluster of potential targets which is connected to the specific ideological framework of the attacker.
The target as facilities is related to the terrorist attack planning cycle and the search for effectiveness. Mosques, as other worship houses, are included in the category of soft targets –places of mass gathering of potential victims with a low perception of threat, and low security measures in order to not to disturb the activity they are performing-. Soft targets might be confined or open areas, although they are somehow delimited; in the specific case of worship houses, they are normally closed areas where the potential victims, concentrated in mass numbers, will found more difficult to run away from the attacker. In the three most recent white supremacist terrorist attacks, the one of Breivik in Utoya, Robert Bowers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh (2018), and this one, the fact of attacking soft targets must be underlined, since it involves a notion of maximizing the number of casualties while the planning cycle and modus operandi don’t involve a high level of difficulties –in the three cases the MO used was active shooting, but in the case of Breivik, who added a car bomb little time before moving to Utoya-; in this sense, although acquiring weapons powerful enough as to achieve the defined purpose might represent a logistic problem, the technical capabilities of the attacker are downsized if compared with the ones needed in cases involving for instance the manipulation of explosives and the fabrication of IEDs powerful enough as to obtain a similar number of casualties, what could increase the attack preparation time and consequently the trail to detect and neutralize the threat.
4.- Symbolism and psychological impact.
In this sense we may mention two different aspects, symbolism as mobilizer and symbolism as psychological impact.
Regarding the first topic, we should highlighted the message send with the inscriptions written in the weapons, which were coincidental with the general message of the manifesto. The weapons as well as the magazines are covered with inscriptions with names related with historical and current characters related with the fight against Islam, from the European invasion in the VIII century to the Crusades, the Ottoman invasion and final defeat in parts of Eastern Europe, etc. Appealing to historical facts is a well-known identity mobilizer to develop a dychotomic division of the world between “Us” and “They”.
Finally, one of the new elements introduced by this attack has been the use of livestream broadcasting through Facebook that the shooter did thanks to a GoPro camera mounted on his helmet. As happened with the manifesto, but probably with a much bigger impact due to the graphic content and the platform of distribution, the video became viral in a matter of hours, maximizing the psychological impact of the message to both targeted potential victims and targeted potential co-religionist of white supremacism who may follow the direct action example where the propaganda by the deed pattern has been adapted to the new technological available resources.
Many other elements in this attack may require further analysis. The access to weapons, possible modification of both weapons and magazines. The attacker’s radicalization pathway and red flags. First responders’ capabilities in situations of multiple assaults which require division of force. Situational and security awareness programs for worshippers. The balance between freedom of speech and hate crimes and distribution of propaganda through open channels as Facebook. Too early to come back with conclusions, too late to prevent this last mass casualty event.
 Chavez, N. et alter (2019) Suspect in New Zealand mosque shootings was prepared 'to continue his attack,' PM says
 Burgess, A. (2006), Mass, Spree, and Serial Homicide. Crime Classification Manual. P. 437.