An Islamic State-inspired attacker injured six people in a New Zealand supermarket knife rampage Friday, before being shot dead by undercover police officers who had him under round-the-clock surveillance.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was “gutted” the man, a Sri Lankan national, had managed to carry out his “hateful” assault even though he was on a terror watchlist.
She said the man, who arrived in New Zealand in 2011, entered a shopping mall in suburban Auckland and seized a knife from a display before going on a stabbing spree.
Six people were wounded, three critically, in the 60 seconds before surveillance officers opened fire.
Terrified shoppers fled for the exits and video footage shot by bystanders showed men running toward the incident before a barrage of shots rang out.
The attack has stirred painful memories of the Christchurch mosques shootings in March 2019, New Zealand’s worst terror atrocity, when a white supremacist gunman murdered 51 Muslim worshippers and severely wounded another 40.
“What happened today was despicable, it was hateful, it was wrong,” Ardern said after the latest attack.
“It was carried out by an individual, not a faith, not a culture, not an ethnicity. He alone carries the responsibility for these acts.”
Asked about the man’s motivations, she said “it was a violent ideology and ISIS-inspired”, using an acronym for the Islamic State jihadist group.
‘Lone wolf’ planning
Ardern said she was limited in what she could publicly reveal about the attacker because he had been before the courts previously and was the subject of court suppression orders.
But New Zealand media reported the man was a 32-year-old who prosecutors last year accused of plotting a “lone wolf” terror attack using knives.
The case failed after a judge ruled that planning a terror attack was not in itself an offence under existing laws.
The man was instead found guilty on lesser charges of possessing propaganda supporting Islamic State and sentenced to 12 months’ supervision.
Ardern said authorities had to release the man because there was no legal reason to keep him in custody.
She said new terror laws had been drafted to close the loophole but they had not yet passed parliament.
“The fact that he was in the community will be an illustration that we haven’t succeeded in using the law to the extent we would have liked,” she admitted.
Ardern said she was devastated a known terror risk had managed to carry out an attack, saying all aspects of the incident would be reviewed.
“I know that we’ve been doing everything that we could, so I was absolutely gutted,” she said, describing her feelings upon learning about the stabbings.
Ardern would not disclose exactly how many other terror suspects were under surveillance in the community, saying only “there are very few people who fall into this category”.
She thanked Aucklanders who helped victims, ignoring coronavirus lockdown as the city attempts to control an outbreak of the Delta variant.
“To everyone who was there and who witnessed such a horrific event, I can’t imagine how you are feeling but thank you for rushing to the aid of the people who needed you,” she said.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said authorities were confident the man was acting alone and there was no further known danger to society.
He acknowledged there would be questions about how an attack occurred in front of his officers, but defended their actions.
“I’m satisfied, based on the information to me, that the staff involved not only did what we would expect in this situation, they did it with great courage,” Coster said.
“The reality is that when you’re surveilling someone on a 24-7 basis, it’s not possible to be immediately next to them at all times.”
The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand called the attack an act of hate.
“Terrorists who do such inhumane and vile acts do not belong to any religion,” said the group’s president Ibrar Sheikh.