WELLINGTON/CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – Days before the first anniversary of the shooting in Christchurch that killed 51 Muslim worshippers, an image appeared in a post on an encrypted messaging app showing a balaclava-clad man outside one of the attacked mosques with a threat and a gun emoji.
The message was the latest in a number of threats against minorities in New Zealand, evidence of what experts say is an increase in hate crime and xenophobia since the mosque massacre by a suspected white supremacist on March 15 last year.
The gunman, armed with semi-automatic weapons, attacked Muslims attending Friday prayers in the South Island’s largest city, broadcasting New Zealand’s worst mass shooting live on Facebook.
Brenton Tarrant, an Australian, faces 92 charges in relation to the attacks on the Al Noor and Linwood mosques. He has pleaded not guilty and faces trial in June.
New Zealand’s extraordinary outpouring of love and compassion for the Muslim community after the attack was led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She swiftly introduced new gun laws and started a global movement to stamp out online hate in a response that was hailed as a model for other leaders.
Ardern said Friday at anniversary events in Christchurch that New Zealanders have become more engaged with the Muslim community in the year since a gunman killed 51 people at two mosques.
“But the challenge for us,” she added, “will be ensuring that in our everyday actions — and in every opportunity where we see bullying, harassment, racism, discrimination — calling it out as a nation.”
Some questioned why the memorial event on Sunday, which would pack thousands of people into an arena, was still going ahead after Ardern and other officials chose to cancel a festival in Auckland celebrating Pacific culture due to fears over coronavirus.
Ardern said that with only five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, there were no signs yet of a community outbreak. She said the Pasifika Festival had been cancelled out of a specific concern that the virus could spread to Pacific islands that don’t have the health infrastructure to cope with an outbreak.
The attack inspired far-right nationalists and anti-immigration campaigners to be more active both online and offline, according to Muslim leaders, activists and experts.
“The attack certainly emboldened people who want to spread hate,” said Anjum Rahman from the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand.
The council has repeatedly alerted the government in the past year about the rise of the extreme right and the growing threat felt by Muslim women in New Zealand.
Rahman reported the latest threat against the Al Noor mosque to police after she was shown the image, which was being shared on the messaging app Telegram.
A 19-year-old man was charged with failing to assist police with a search warrant in relation to the incident.
Local media reports have linked the man to a white nationalist group called Action Zealandia, which was formed in July 2019, just months after the Christchurch attack. On its website it says it is focused on “building a community for European New Zealanders.”
In response to the incident, Action Zealandia said on Twitter the alleged actions of the accused were not within its code of conduct and were “immature and unproductive as we do not use violence to reach our goals.”
Police are working to ensure they have an in-depth knowledge of individuals and groups whose actions pose a threat but said they do not comment on any specific group.
In a parliamentary committee meeting chaired by Ardern last month, New Zealand’s spy chief laid down the growing challenge since the attack.
“It (the attack) has given encouragement to some people, it has been inspirational to other people, and so it remains still quite a fluid picture,” NZ Security Intelligence Service Director-General Rebecca Kitteridge told the committee, according to transcripts of the meeting. “We have got more information about more people who are expressing extremist views than we had before 15 March, and some of those people existed beforehand, and then there is the impact of the attacks themselves afterwards.”
Between 30 and 50 people are being actively investigated by the agency at any given moment for posing a terrorist threat, a higher number than in previous years.
Kitteridge said that between March 15 and the end of June 2019, the spy agency received leads about people who had expressed racist, Nazi, identitarian or white supremacist views.
A survey by the online safety agency Netsafe in December showed hate speech online had increased in New Zealand in the last 12 months, with about 15 percent of the adult population targeted with online hate.
White supremacist posters have appeared in Auckland universities in the weeks leading up to memorial on Friday.
There are about 60 to 70 groups and somewhere between 150 and 300 core right-wing activists in New Zealand, said Paul Spoonley, from Massey University, who has been researching far-right extremism for decades.
Aya Al-Umari, 34, whose 35-year-old brother Hussein was killed at the Al Noor mosque, said she has been reflecting on the casual racism she experienced growing up in New Zealand. She first noticed it after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S.
“I remember at school I would feel like I was the one being blamed for what’s happened,” she said. “The Muslims were being tainted by one brush.”
Ardern has said that she was “devastated” by the latest threats against Al Noor mosque and that they indicate more work needs to be done.
A big part of the problem is that New Zealand had never recorded specific hate crimes, raising questions about what signs the security agencies may have missed.
Police have now started recording instances of offenses that appear to be motivated by hate, Justice Minister Andrew Little said.
The ministry is also reviewing the country’s hate speech laws, although these plans have been challenged by groups who say free speech would be curtailed by such laws.