Christchurch Mosque Attacks: A Tipping Point for New Zealand

Line of Defence Magazine - Autumn 2019

Embraer KC-390
Crowded places
There has been an increasing concern by authorities for managing the security of ‘open spaces and public places’.

New Zealand is experienced in responding to crises, write Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor (University of Auckland) and Dr Layla Branicki (Macquarie University), but achieving resilience requires a joined-up approach before crises hit.

New Zealanders are collectively shocked and saddened by the events at the mosques in Christchurch last Friday. However, sadly, some of us are also not surprised that a tragic event has eventually reached New Zealand’s shores.

The ‘tyranny of distance’ has meant that New Zealand has enjoyed being a long way from most political turmoil, New Zealand has therefore enjoyed a relaxed attitude towards towards political issues and instead successive governments have focused their attention on becoming a resilient nation in the face of natural hazards such as recurring earthquakes and extreme weather events.

However, due to the inter-connectivity of technology, New Zealand is no longer isolated from cyber-crime affecting both individuals and organisations. The Christchurch events also demonstrate how domestic extremism can breed onshore (or be imported here) via exposure to extreme ideologies online (seemingly under the radar of authorities) and how live-footage of a real-time extreme event can then be difficult to manage once it has gone viral on a global social media platform. 

As anyone who has experienced these extreme forms of terrorism involving violence directed at civilians will know, it is deeply upsetting for everyone involved, whether as individuals, communities or those organisations that are responsible for public health and safety. It undermines individual and collective ontological security, and invokes the reset button. Why? Who? What should happen to avoid further attacks?

Hence, after such extreme events such as this there is always a collective call for investigations into how this could have been allowed to happen, and who is to blame? Here in New Zealand this is something that government agencies are bracing themselves for.

Our research has found that exposure to recent events influences organisations’ willingness to be prepared to invest in mitigation and resilience to any future events. However, often the nature of the event, such as earthquakes, focuses all activity around preparing for a similar event, rather than a different risk scenario. 

There is often an element of nimbyism and denial as communities find it difficult to prepare for an event they have never experienced and consider unlikely to happen ‘in their back yard’.

From 2008 onwards the UK government realised the need to revise and broaden out the scope of its National Security Strategy every few years to ensure it maintained relevance to the threats faced. This meant that the scope of security-related events broadened out to include counter-terrorism, cyber, international military crises and disasters such as floods. 

This included a greater emphasis on spotting emerging risks and dealing with them before they became crises. Additionally, there was a desire to build a much closer relationship between government, the private sector and the public when it came to national security. 

It was recognised that “business and government need to work more closely together to strengthen our defence against cyber attack and to prepare for the worst, so that if it happens, we are able to recover rapidly and keen Britain moving.” The overall aim was to protect Britain’s security and remain vigilant and taking stock of changing threats Britain faced (UK National Security Strategy, 2010).

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Events in the UK have recognised that the threat of extreme events can come from within our outside, and hence that domestic extremism and terrorism need a joined up, multi-agency approach to monitor online and other behaviours to protect citizens. According to Adey and Anderson (2011), there has been an increasing emphasis by government on the responsibilities of private sector companies “to have a broadened understanding of civil contingencies activity to include planning, preparation, response, recovery, and protection.”

While the accountability of private sector actors for achieving continuity and resilience in the face of extreme events has been strengthened, there is little evidence on how organisations are meeting this challenge and still less evidence regarding the shared responsibilities of government and non-governmental organisations in producing secure and resilient communities. 

Additionally, our research indicates that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to resilience, and that routes to security vary significantly depending upon factors such as organisational size and risk profile. This poses a significant challenge for government, which needs to enable organisations to adapt to the evolving security challenges that they face, whilst recognising the constraints – including financial – within which they operate. 

Tipping point

For some time the accepted wisdom has been that the threat of terrorism is higher in not only particular countries and cities, but also in specific locations such as government offices, tourist attractions and business clusters. 

On the back of other recent terrorist events in Europe where soft targets were attacked, such as parades (Bastille Parade, Nice 2016) and family-focused concerts (Ariana Grande in Manchester 2018), there has been an increasing concern by authorities for managing ‘open spaces and public places’ which includes in places of worship.

In the past weeks, and years, we have also seen terrorists target places where we feel safe and are therefore at our most vulnerable. How can government work with organisations to make us all more secure whilst still providing accessible and inclusive places of meeting and meaning making?

Within the Australasian region, Australia has recently faced its own ‘tipping points’, with the recent Sydney Lindt Café (2014) attack and others (such as the foiled Anzac terror plot in Melbourne, 2016) and has thus recently published Australia’s Strategy for Protecting Crowded Places from Terrorism (2017), which is a government counter-terror strategy built around localised public-private forums, the bringing to the table of business leaders, and promotion of the private security industry as a valuable consultancy resource.

The more recent Australian Security Policy Institute paper Safety in Numbers (2018), explores the potential for government to work more proactively with the private manned security industry whose tens of thousands of security guards are a potential on-the-spot resource capable of identifying and reporting suspicious behaviours and unusual occurrences at street level.

New Zealand National Security: Challenges, Trends and Issues, published in 2017 by Massey University states:  

What we in New Zealand think of as ‘security’ has changed. It is no longer the sole domain of our defence forces to protect New Zealand and its citizens’ way of life. Lives and livelihoods around the globe are increasingly connected through the internet, telecommunications systems and complicated trade supply chains. These connections are great — they improve our lives immensely — but they also connect us to people and groups (both state and non-state actors) who threaten our security via cyber-attacks, terrorism, transnational crime and human trafficking. Other global threats, such as the complex, interrelated effects of global warming, environmental disasters, pandemics and the depletion of food stocks now impact us nationally and globally.

Yet there has been a real reluctance under previous and current governments for New Zealand to develop a national security strategy, and instead they have focused on existent threats that are known and perceived as legitimate concerns, such as earthquakes and cybercrime (hence the 2012 New Zealand National Cyber Policy). 

The government and security services have been aware that an event may happen in New Zealand in the near future but have not been able to determine when, and hence there has been a real reluctance to alert the public to a ‘known unknown’. 

Additionally, there has been a reluctance for New Zealand society, policy makers and corporate managers to prepare for terrorist-related scenarios ,which were deemed a low risk and low priority.Research indicates that senior managers and organisations vary widely in their preparedness for managing the threat of terrorist activity.

The Christchurch mosque attacks now act as a tipping point for the nation in relation to recognising the need for a rethink on security. Since an extremist attack has occurred on New Zealand soil, one would expect a higher level of citizen and stakeholder engagement as the threat is now perceived as real, credible and therefore legitimate and can no longer be deprioritised against traditional natural hazard threats.

Shared resilience

Urban resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience due to such events as terrorist attacks. 

Of all the cities in New Zealand to attack, Christchurch is arguably the most resilient and able to bounce back from disaster due to its still recent traumatic earthquake experience, which had brought the community together. As a result, Christchurch is one of the Rockefeller ‘100 Resilient Cities’. The city released its own Resilience Strategy in 2016. 

The New Zealand government has also signed up to the UNISDR-Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Adopted in 2014, the Framework aims for the “substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries.”

One of its priorities is “public and private investment in disaster risk prevention and reduction through structural and non-structural measures,” which it sees as essential to enhancing resilience. These can potentially become drivers of innovation, growth and job creation.

In our research we focus on the extent to which government and business leaders can generate a more joined-up organisationally proactive, informed and effective stance towards managing the threat and actuality of terrorism. 

As a society we need new perspectives on global, national and local security that highlight joint thinking and joint acting over isolated responses to specific risks. Government, businesses, NGOs and communities need to work towards a shared responsibility to achieve improved national security and crisis response. 

Organisations need to move beyond a process of business continuity compliance, which is internally directed, to a focus on both the adaptive capabilities and relationships required to deal with the threat of terrorism. For an organisation this operationally might take the form of a new focus on meaningful engagement with supply chain, local community  and government. 

During a terrorist attack a lack of clarity about roles, processes and expectations across organisational boundaries can create considerable delays in response and limit the pace and effectiveness of recovery. Resilience comes from more than a focus on the technical aspects. 

Community resilience is often achieved from change from below. Societal resilience requires not only physical and financial resources from organisations, but also cultural and emotional adaptation, arbitration and reconciliation between affected people. 

The letter penned in the wake of the Christchurch attacks by the heads of three of New Zealand’s largest telecommunications companies to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google to help them look for ways to limit videos like the attacker’s livestream, is an example of acting in a joined-up way.

The compassionate response of New Zealanders to this tragedy is also a striking example of society acting in a joined-up way. Research increasingly indicates that compassionate responses – particularly by government – can build individual and organisational resilience.

New Zealand responds well to a crisis. The challenge for the future is to act together to prepare well.


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