The online activities of the Australian white supremacist who opened fire on two New Zealand mosques – and how much of a role social media and internet platforms played in his radicalisation – will form part of a coroner’s inquiry into the deaths of 51 Muslim worshipers in the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack.
But the presiding coroner, Brigitte Windley, who announced the scope of her inquiry in a decision released on Thursday, has warned of “monumental hurdles” to exploring the terrorist’s online activities – including Brenton Tarrant’s attempts to wipe parts of his digital footprint before committing the attacks.
The 15 March 2019 attack was planned for an online audience; the gunman streamed live footage and posted a manifesto online before he shot dozens of people at two mosques during Friday prayers.
Windley’s decision to include the terrorist’s online activity in her investigation of what factors caused the deaths was welcomed by some Muslim groups, who had asked her at a preliminary hearing in February to examine the influence of social and digital media platforms.
“This is a landmark moment for the accountability of digital platforms,” said Aliya Danzeisen, the national coordinator of the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand. She added that the coroner had “opened the door to investigating the responsibility” of online platforms in the radicalisation of Tarrant and others.
Many of the bereaved families had earlier decried the government’s decision to exclude the actions of private companies – including online platforms – from the royal commission into the attacks, which published its report in December 2020.
Windley said she would focus on Tarrant’s online activities between 2014 and 2017, during which he travelled the world extensively, and before he moved to New Zealand from Australia and began planning the attack in earnest. It was a window not covered by earlier investigations, she said.
It is known that Tarrant spent particular time on YouTube and the message boards 4chan and 8chan.
But the coroner said she would not scrutinise the actions taken by online platforms to monitor their users for extremist content unless her inquiry uncovered evidence that Tarrant’s online activities were a significant cause of his radicalisation. His “psychological makeup” and “upbringing in provincial New South Wales” were among other factors, she said.
Windley has ordered Tarrant to divulge the location of a hard drive missing from his Dunedin flat after the attacks, and whether information on it was uploaded to cloud-based storage. The gunman was sentenced in August 2020 to life in prison without the chance of parole after pleading guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 of attempted murder and a terrorism charge.
Tarrant’s guilty plea, which averted a criminal trial, meant the evidence against him was never heard, and the royal commission was conducted entirely behind closed doors. In a report of more than 800 pages, it concluded that while New Zealand’s counter-terrorism agencies had focused on Islamist terror threats to the exclusion of other ideologies, Tarrant’s attack could not have been prevented “except by chance”.
Some families bereaved in the massacre, New Zealand’s worst modern-day mass killing, have over the past three years raised what they say are lingering questions about whether their relatives’ deaths could have been prevented – either in the lead-up to or immediate aftermath of the attack. For many, the lack of access to material investigators had relied upon – some of which will now be provided to them as part of the coronial inquiry – has prompted distrust in official conclusions about the case.
In her 99-page decision outlining the inquiry’s scope, Windley acknowledged the “information void” to date for the bereaved families and survivors, but stopped short of expanding her inquiry to cover everything they had asked her to investigate.
It will include:
The events of 15 March 2019, from the moment the attack began.
How the police, ambulance service and nearby Christchurch hospital responded.
An examination of the police’s conclusion that Tarrant acted alone.
The final moments of those who died and whether their injuries could have been survivable with different treatment.
Whether the police granting Tarrant a gun licence despite his lack of appropriate references – allowing him to legally amass semiautomatic weapons – could be directly linked to the attack, and if so, how procedures for gun licensing have changed since.
How New Zealanders can detect and respond to people who pose a risk of violent extremism in future.
A public inquest would be held into the emergency response to the attacks, Windley said. She had not yet determined whether any other part of her inquiry would be heard publicly.
An inquest date has yet to be scheduled. The inquiry’s timeframe is unknown.