Hisham el Zeiny was at Friday prayers when he first heard gun fire. “There was a burst of fire and then brief silence, then another burst. Silence, then two or three bursts, each one about 15 shots. And it was getting closer.”
Hisham remembers the scenes of devastation as he fled the mosque. “Outside the mosque we found dead bodies on the ground, people we knew."
On Friday 15th March, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant committed the deadliest mass shooting in New Zealand's history, killing 50 people and injuring a further 50 before he was finally detained by police. Tarrant’s act of terror has jolted the West out of its complacency over the threat of right-wing extremism. But how did he come to commit such a grievous act?
Growing up in Grafton, a small town in Australia, there were few indicators that Tarrant was on the path to extremism. Friends describe an awkward boy, obsessed with computer games who was picked on at school for his weight. Yet for Neil Fergus, an International Security Consultant, Tarrant’s early social media posts, where he boasts of snorting cocaine and paying for strippers, indicate the profile of an extremist in the making. “He fits a bit of a profile in terms of white supremacist and right-wing extremist. In a sense you can say that what they're looking for is for something to take their frustrations out [on].”
However, it was far away from his Australian home where Tarrant’s hateful views began to crystallise. Dr David Kilcullen, a counter-terrorism strategist, believes Tarrant’s trip to Europe was fundamental to his radicalisation. “He talks in his manifesto about being radicalised by seeing Muslims in France.”
Europe may have been the catalyst, but it was the internet where Tarrant was able to find like-minded individuals and where he first began to share his views. The United Patriots Front (UPF), an anti-Islam hate group in Australia, has over 100,000 Facebook followers, including Brenton Tarrant. In a 2016 Facebook comment, Tarrant praised the UPF’s then leader, neo Nazi Blair Cottrell, as his “emperor”
. Professor Paul Spoonley believes the internet has empowered these viewpoints. “It has been a game changer for these groups. The ability to be anonymous, the ability to convey their views cheaply, to do it one to many, to do it instantaneously….It has been a disaster in terms of encouraging them and enabling them.”
Despite his publicly declared views, Tarrant, who had moved to New Zealand, was able to obtain a gun licence. On Wednesday 13th March, two days before the massacre, he flooded Facebook with posts on extreme right-wing themes. That same day he posted photos on Twitter of guns and magazines covered with symbols of his fascist ideology. At midday on the day of the attack, he posted links to his manifesto on Facebook. At 1:28pm on the online message board 8chan he announced what he called "an attack against the invaders"
and provided a link to a Facebook livestream. Three minutes later, he emailed his manifesto to 70 addresses including the office of New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. At 1:40pm he walked into the mosque.
For Robert Evans, Bellingcat’s online extremism investigator, the authorities’ failure to take right-wing extremism seriously allowed the massacre to happen. “I think the fact that the shooter was commenting on neo-Nazi Facebook pages absolutely should have tripped an alarm."
Evans contends that if Tarrant had been commenting on a radical Islamic Facebook page and had been registered with the government as owning a substantial amount of ammunition then "the government of New Zealand and the government of Australia would absolutely have been looking into this person before the shooting, he would not have been an unknown quantity.”