Reflections on Christchurch — Kevin Fernandez and Greg Lopez

MARCH 20 — On March 15, 2019, a single gunman — Brenton Harrison Tarrant, an Australian citizen — killed 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

Those killed — which included the elderly, women and children — were at the mosques for Friday prayers. New Zealand Prime Minister Jessica Arden stated that this was the “worst act of terrorism on our shores.”  

This terrorist attack has drawn varied responses, from outright condemnation (of the terrorist act), and shows of solidarity (with Muslim communities in Christchurch and elsewhere) from the vast majority of individuals, communities and leaders both in New Zeland and abroad; but also a vocal minority that sought to justify the actions of the alleged terrorist.   

The tragedy is still unfolding, and pieces of information are being gathered and put together. Therefore the views here are preliminary.  

Why Christchurch, New Zealand

It is not known at this stage why Tarrant chose Christchurch, New Zealand to stage his terrorist act. There are views as to his motive (including from Tarrant) but at this point, nothing is definitive. 

New Zealand is perhaps the most uncontroversial developed nation in the world. It is a strong supporter of the international rules-based system. They are marvelled for their pristine environment, and the location of Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings fans know this). 

Malaysians know that we have much in common. We are both members of the Commonwealth of Nations, with a Westminster style parliamentary democracy. 

Malaysia and New Zealand, together with Australia, the United Kingdom, and Singapore are members of the Five Power Defence Arrangements. 

Importantly, we are both small nations that have done well through the rules-based international trading system, with a healthy mix of state and market approach in achieving high levels of human development. 

In 2018, the Global Peace Index ranked New Zealand the second most peaceful nation in the world (Malaysia was 25th) and the Human Development Index had New Zealand at 16 (Malaysia was 57th).  

Christchurch, known as the Garden City, is the largest city in New Zeland’s South Island, and the third largest city in New Zealand. 

It has been experiencing a revival since the devastating 2011 earthquake. A warm, vibrant, welcoming city, like much of New Zealand, Christchurch represented the best that New Zealand had to offer. 

That such a lovely city, in such a beautiful and peaceful country, could be a target of a terrorist attack is indeed a cause for concern for all. No city is safe. 

A terrorist attack

What is definite, is that this was a terrorist attack. It is not an isolated and/or random shooting by a deranged individual. 

Jessica Stern, Research Professor at Pardee School of Global Studies, states that terrorism is “an act or threat of violence against non-combatants, with the objective of intimidating or otherwise influencing an audience or audiences.” 

Professor Bruce Hoffman of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Services at Georgetown University defines terrorism as “violence — or equally important, the threat of violence — used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of, a political aim.” He, however, confines terrorism to the realm of politics. 

Eminent linguist, Professor Noam Chomsky of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, however, includes religion by defining terrorism as “the use of coercive means aimed at populations in an effort to achieve political, religious, or other aims.” 

There is a consensus that the act of terrorism is deliberate, planned and motivated by political, religious or ideological purpose. 

Purpose, ideology, technology and finance

Tarrant had a purpose for this attack. Tarrant considered Australia to be part of Europe. 

He wanted to get rid of migrants. He wanted his attack “to incite violence, retaliation and further divide the European people and the invaders currently occupying European soil.”

He claimed that he planned it for two years and financed it through earnings he made from investing in Bitconnect. 

Tarrant had an ideology. It is a white supremacist ideology. The title of his manifesto, “The Great Replacement”, was to see non-whites replaced by whites. 

White people, he contended, were suffering from ethnic and cultural genocide. In his manifesto, Tarrant wrote that his sole inspiration was Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist, who killed 77 Norwegians in 2011 for the same reasons (but targeting Norwegians — children of liberal Norwegian politicians [from the Labour Party] — whom Breivik claims facilitated the “Muslim invasion” of Norway).  

Tarrant knew technology. He knew how to take advantage of the net (social media, in particular) to amplify his message. 

On the day of the attack, Tarrant posted his white-supremacist manifesto titled “The Great Replacement” online. 

Tarrant also emailed the manifesto to more than 30 recipients including New Zealand’s Prime Minister’s Office, just nine minutes before shots were fired. 

Tarrant live-streamed the attack on Facebook. He mimicked the online game, PUBG to amplify his propaganda. He intended his gruesome act to go viral, picked up by news outlets globally, and shared a million times over. 

Tarrant financed his dastardly act through investments made in BitConnect. However, the bigger question is, did Tarrant work alone? 

The German Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU) terrorist cells that operated between 2000-2006 (that carried at least three separate bomb attacks) revealed through investigations, that it received operational funds from a wider underground network. 

How could Tarrant — an ordinary person — plan this attack so meticulously?  

Converging strands

Ironically, Tarrant learnt also from Daesh (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/IS). According to Benjamin Decker, a research fellow at the Shorenstein Centre at Harvard Kennedy School, both Tarrant and ISIL recruiters in Syria employed social media to inspire lone-wolf attacks using a “media manipulation operation to bait journalists into amplifying hateful propaganda.”

Decker also noted that Tarrant’s manifesto, like the IS, used symbolism and coded language to paint a historical narrative about the victimisation of a specific people attempting to reclaim lost glory. 

Decker also noted that Tarrant’s manifesto also contained questions and answers the author conducted with himself, that followed the IS glossy English language magazine, Dabiq.

Reflections for Malaysia

The terror threat posed by the Malayan Communist Party to Malaysia effectively ended in 1960. The Peace Agreement of Hat Yai in 1989 formally marked the end of the communist insurgency. 

Globally, communism exists in name with Eastern Europe, Russia and China adopting market based economic systems. China, the largest communist country, is a global leader, and a significant economic and development partner to Malaysia. 

What remains a severe terrorist threat to the region is terrorism in the name of religion. What could Malaysia potentially do to mitigate terrorist acts such as those committed by Tarrant? 

It is necessary to recognise the stellar work already undertaken by the Counter-Terrorism Division of the Royal Malaysian Police. That terror threats in Malaysia have been expertly headed off, is due to the effectiveness of this unit. That returning Malaysian foreign fighters from Syria are effectively rehabilitated is also due to the effectiveness of the various programmes put in place by the Malaysian government.  

However, Tarrant was said to be under the radar. No one noticed him. He was an ordinary individual, with an ordinary life, who had not committed any crime before this. 

One former employer portrayed him as a dedicated personal trainer. Something must have happened to him when he travelled overseas (to Europe), the former employer said. Tarrant was, however, a fragile, broken white male in a wealthy developed country. He felt he was a victim. 

Could some Malaysians feel the same way as Tarrant did? 

Could some Malaysians see other Malaysians as enemies; that is leading to ethnic and cultural genocide of the pure definitive race? 

Could some Malaysians see themselves as victims, and in search of lost glory, resort to violent means? 

Could some Malaysians be radicalised in the same way as Tarrant? 

Could a foreigner fuelled by right-wing extremism, come to Malaysia and perpetrate a terror attack? 

Dina Zaman’s article in The Star, “An Inconvenient Truth?”, (March 17, 2019) highlights how extremist ideas are gaining ascendancy in Malaysia through many different channels, driven by many different factors. 

Much more research and analyses are needed, as Dina Zaman concludes. However, attempting to understand what is the cause of extremism in Malaysia would be an essential first step. 

This understanding should include not only groups but also individuals with extremist views. This will require a definition of what extremism and extremist ideology is within the Malaysian context. 

The Christchurch terrorist attack is the latest in a long list of terrorist attacks motivated by right-wing extremism, underpinned by the hate of “the other.” It will not be the last. 

If Malaysia is to avoid its own homegrown right-wing terror, it may be wise to move quickly to stop in the first instance, the “victim and siege mentality” and the creation of “the other” among Malaysians. 

Increased surveillance and effective counter strategies on the conduits of extreme ideologies (organised groups, technology and financing) will also be a necessity.  

* Kevin Fernandez (Universiti Malaysia Kelantan) and Greg Lopez (Murdoch University, Perth) are involved in a research project to understand extremism and violent extremism in Malaysia, with the objective of developing measures to prevent and counter them.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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