Two consecutive mass shootings occurred at mosques in a terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday Prayer on 15 March 2019. The attack, carried out by a single gunman who entered both mosques, began at the Al Noor Mosque in the suburb of Riccarton at 1:40 p.m. and continued at Linwood Islamic Centre at 1:52 p.m. He killed 51 people and injured 40.
Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old man from Grafton, New South Wales, Australia, was arrested shortly afterwards. He was described in media reports as a white supremacist and part of the alt-right. He had live-streamed the first shooting on Facebook, and prior to the attack, had published an online manifesto which many considered equivalent to shitposting; both the video and manifesto were subsequently banned in New Zealand.
After a police investigation, he was charged with 51 murders, 40 attempted murders, and engaging in a terrorist act. He initially pleaded not guilty to all charges, with the trial expected to start on 2 June 2020. On 26 March 2020, he changed his plea to guilty on all charges and was convicted. His sentencing hearing began on 24 August 2020, where he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The attack was linked to an increase in white supremacy and alt-right extremism globally observed since about 2015. Politicians and world leaders condemned it, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described it as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”.The government established a royal commission of inquiry into its security agencies in the wake of the shootings, which was the deadliest in modern New Zealand history.
Al Noor Mosque
Tarrant arrived at the Al Noor Mosque, Riccarton, and began shooting worshippers at around 1:40 p.m. Police received the first emergency call at 1:41 p.m. Approximately 190 people, mostly men, were inside the mosque attending Friday prayer at the time of the shooting. A neighbour of the mosque told reporters he saw Tarrant flee and drop what appeared to be a firearm in the driveway.
Tarrant live-streamed the first 17 minutes of his attack on Facebook Live, starting with the drive to the Al Noor mosque and ending as he drives away from the mosque. Moments before the shooting, he played several songs, including “The British Grenadiers”, a traditional British military marching song; and “Remove Kebab”, a Serb nationalist song celebrating Radovan Karadžić, who was found guilty of genocide against Bosnian Muslims. One witness said Tarrant continued to play “military music” from a portable speaker inside the mosque. As he approached the front entrance to the mosque, Tarrant appeared to be greeted by one of the worshippers, who said “Hello, brother” and was the first victim to be killed in the attack.
Tarrant spent several minutes inside the mosque, shooting attendees indiscriminately. He first fired nine shots from a semiautomatic shotgun towards the front entrance before dropping it. He then began using an AR-15 style rifle and opened fire on people inside. He killed four men near the entrance and dozens more inside a prayer hall. A strobe-light attached to one of his weapons was used to disorient victims. During the attack, a worshipper, Naeem Rashid, charged at him and was shot; Rashid later died from his injuries. Tarrant fired indiscriminately at worshippers in the prayer hall from close range, shooting many of his victims multiple times. He then left the mosque and fired on more people outside, killing a man.
Returning to his vehicle, he retrieved another weapon before returning to the mosque and opening fire again on people who were already wounded and unable to escape. Tarrant exited the mosque once more and killed a woman lying wounded on the footpath as she pleaded for help. He then returned to his car and fled the scene to the music of “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, in which the singer proclaims: “I am the god of hellfire!” He fired at people in cars and on foot as he fled. Tarrant had been planning to set fire to the mosque, as stated when he drove away to the Linwood Islamic Centre: “It was too quick. I should’ve stayed longer. There was more time for the fuel.” He had four modified petrol containers in his car, which were intended as incendiary devices.
He had spent a total of about six minutes at the Al Noor Mosque. At 1:46 p.m., as Tarrant drove away from the mosque, the Armed Offenders Squad (AOS) arrived near the scene. Police Commissioner Mike Bush said at this point Tarrant was already leaving the area, his car hidden by a bus. At this time, AOS members did not know how many shooters there were and were not informed that the offender had left the mosque. At 1:51 p.m., first responders arrived at the Al Noor Mosque. About three minutes after Tarrant left the mosque, his vehicle passed by one or more police vehicles responding to the shooting but remained undetected by police as he continued on his way eastwards on Bealey Ave to the Linwood Islamic Centre. As Tarrant drove to the Linwood Islamic Centre, reports came in of a vehicle driving “erratically” along Bealey Ave. When Tarrant reached the end of Bealey Ave, the headcam footage suddenly stops and the Livestream ends.
Linwood Islamic Centre
A second attack began at 1:52 p.m. at the Linwood Islamic Centre, a mosque 5 kilometres (3 mi) east of the Al Noor Mosque. Tarrant parked his vehicle on the mosque’s driveway, preventing other cars from entering or leaving. According to a witness, Tarrant was initially unable to find the mosque’s main door, started shooting people outside and through a window, killing four and alerting those inside. About 100 people were inside the mosque at the time.
The mosque’s acting imam credited a worshipper named Abdul Aziz Wahabzada with stopping the attack. Wahabzada told reporters he had taken a credit card reader and ran out of the mosque, by which time Tarrant outside had already shot several people. Tarrant was about to retrieve another gun from his car, so Wahabzada threw the reader at him. Tarrant took a rifle from his car and fired at Wahabzada, who took cover among nearby cars and retrieved an empty shotgun Tarrant had dropped. Despite Wahabzada’s attempt to draw Tarrant’s attention away from the mosque by shouting “I’m here!”, he entered the mosque and continued firing in a prayer hall, killing an additional three people. When Tarrant returned to his car again, Wahabzada threw the shotgun at the car, shattering the left rear window. Tarrant then drove away from the mosque at 1:55 p.m., and a minute later, a member of the public waved down a police car to report shots had been fired in Linwood. At 1:59 p.m., police arrived at the Linwood Islamic Centre, the same minute Tarrant was arrested on Brougham Street.
Early reports indicated “multiple, simultaneous attacks”, but later, only a single suspect, Tarrant, was implicated. A silver Subaru Outback matching the description of Tarrant’s vehicle was seen by a police unit and a pursuit was initiated at 1:57 p.m. Tarrant was arrested on Brougham Street in Sydenham at 1:59 p.m., 18 minutes after the first emergency call. Video footage taken by an onlooker showed his car had been rammed against the kerb by a police car before his arrest at gunpoint. The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, said Tarrant had been planning to continue the attacks at a third location, later identified as the mosque in Ashburton. According to Ardern, “There were two other firearms in the vehicle that the offender was in and it absolutely was his intention to continue with his attack”. Police Commissioner Mike Bush corroborated this, saying police had stopped Tarrant on his way to a third location.
Fifty-one people, 47 male and 4 female, were killed in the attacks: 44 at the Al Noor Mosque and 7 at the Linwood Islamic Centre. One of the victims died shortly after in Christchurch Hospital, while another died in hospital on 2 May, seven weeks after the attack. Those killed were between 3 and 77 years old. The hospital’s Chief of Surgery said on 16 March that four had died in ambulances en route to the hospital.
Forty others were injured: 35 at the Al Noor Mosque and 5 at the Linwood Islamic Centre. On 17 March, Commissioner Bush said 36 were being treated for gunshot wounds in hospital. Two were in a serious condition, and a 4-year-old girl was transferred to Starship Hospital in Auckland in a critical condition.
Among the dead listed in New Zealand, Police media releases were citizens of Bangladesh, Egypt, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Malaysia, Mauritius, New Zealand, Pakistan and Palestine. A citizen from Turkey died in the hospital in early May. Atta Elayyan, an IT entrepreneur and player in the New Zealand futsal team, was among those killed.
Police charged Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian man, with murder in relation to the attack. He grew up in Grafton, New South Wales, attended Grafton High School and worked as a personal trainer in his hometown from 2009 to 2011.
From 2012 onward, Tarrant visited a number of countries in Asia and Europe. Police in Bulgaria and Turkey are investigating his visits to their countries. Security officials suspected he had come into contact with far-right organisations about two years before the shooting while visiting European nations.
Tarrant appeared in the Christchurch District Court on 16 March, where he was charged with one count of murder. The judge ordered the courtroom closed to the public except for accredited media and allowed the accused to be filmed and photographed on the condition that his face be pixellated. In court, Tarrant smiled at reporters and made an inverted OK gesture below his waist, said to be a “white power” sign.
The case was transferred to the High Court and he was remanded in custody, as his lawyer did not seek bail. He was subsequently transferred to the country’s only maximum-security unit at Auckland Prison. He has lodged a formal complaint regarding his prison conditions, on the grounds that he has no access to newspapers, television, Internet, visitors or phone calls. On 4 April, police announced they had increased the total number of charges to 89, 50 for murder and 39 for attempted murder, with other charges still under consideration. At the next hearing on 5 April, he was ordered by the judge to undergo a psychiatric assessment of his mental fitness to stand trial.
On 21 May 2019, Commissioner Bush announced that a new charge of engaging in a terrorist act had been laid against Tarrant under section 6A of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. One murder charge and one attempted murder charge were also added, bringing the total to 51 and 40 respectively.
An initial not guilty plea and pre-trial detention
On 14 June 2019, Tarrant appeared at the Christchurch High Court via audio-visual link from Auckland Prison. Through his lawyer, he pleaded not guilty to engaging in a terrorist act, 51 counts of murder, and 40 counts of attempted murder. Mental health assessments had indicated no issues regarding his fitness to plead or stand trial. The trial start date was set for 4 May 2020; the Crown prosecutor estimated the trial would last around six weeks. On 12 September 2019, the trial date was pushed back to 2 June 2020, to avoid coinciding with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
On 14 August 2019, it was reported that Tarrant had been able to send seven letters from prison, two to his mother and five to unnamed recipients. One of these letters was subsequently posted on the Internet message boards 4chan and 8chan by a recipient. Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis and the Department of Corrections was criticised for allowing the distribution of these letters. On 19 August, Prime Minister Ardern announced that the Government would explore amending the Corrections Act 2004 to further restrict what mail can be received and sent by prisoners.
A guilty plea and sentencing arrangements
On 26 March 2020, Tarrant appeared at the Christchurch High Court via audio-visual link from Auckland Prison. During the appearance, he pleaded guilty to all 92 charges: one of engaging in a terrorist act, 51 of murder, and 40 of attempted murder. Due to the nationwide COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the general public was barred from the hearing; however, media representatives and representatives for the Al-Noor and Linwood mosques were present in the courtroom. According to media reports, Tarrant’s lawyers Shane Tait and Jonathan Hudson had informed the courts that Tarrant was considering changing his plea. On 25 March, Tarrant issued his lawyers with formal written instructions confirming that he wanted to change his pleas to guilty. In response, court authorities began making arrangements for the case to be called as soon as possible in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown. The judge convicted Tarrant on all charges and remanded him in custody to await sentencing.
Having been convicted for murder involving multiple deaths, Tarrant faces a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole being granted after 17 years (unless in the circumstances such a sentence would be manifestly unjust). The sentencing judge may, taking into account the aggravating and mitigating factors of the offence, extend the non-parole period or impose life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. Prior to the shootings, the longest non-parole period imposed for murder in New Zealand has been 30 years, for a triple murder in 2001; no person has ever been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.
On 10 July, the Government announced that overseas-based victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings would receive border exemptions and financial help in order to fly to New Zealand for the duration of Tarrant’s sentencing. On 13 July, it was reported that Tarrant had dismissed his lawyers and would be representing himself during sentencing proceedings.
Sentencing began on 24 August 2020 before Justice Cameron Mander at the Christchurch High Court and is expected to last four days. Capacity in the main courtroom was limited to comply with social distancing requirements of COVID-19 alert level 2, with the proceedings live-streamed to seven other courtrooms to accommodate victims and media. In addition, the sentencing proceedings will be live-streamed to people at home who were unable to attend the proceedings in person. Extra security was implemented at the Christchurch courthouse; roads around the precinct were closed, armed police including police dogs and snipers were deployed, and non-urgent court business was suspended. Tarrant was flown from Auckland to Christchurch aboard an RNZAF C-130 Hercules and was held in the court cells to mitigate the risk of him being attacked on the 19 km (12 mi) journey between the courthouse and Christchurch Men’s Prison.
During the sentencing phase, the Crown prosecutors read the statement of facts to the court, showing how Tarrant had meticulously planned the two mosque shootings as well as more attacks. Numerous survivors of the mosque shooting and their relatives gave victim impact statements against the defendant, which were covered by national and international media. On 26 August, it was reported that Tarrant would not be speaking at his sentence but that his standby counsel, Pip Hall QC, would make a brief submission on his behalf. The Crown was reportedly seeking the maximum sentence of life imprisonment without parole