The Christchurch Attacks: Livestream Terror in the Viral Video Age.

AuthorMacklin, Graham

On March 15, 2019, at approximately 1:40 PM local time, Brenton Tarrant, a 2 8-year-old Australian gym trainer with no previous criminal history (1) who was active on extreme-right internet forums, entered the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he allegedly shot dead 42 people. Exiting the mosque, he allegedly shot another person on the pavement before driving the short distance to Linwood mosque where he allegedly continued his killing spree. In the space of 36 minutes, Tarrant allegedly killed 49 people. Two more subsequently died of their wounds, bringing the death toll to 51. (2) New Zealand, which until this point had experienced terrorism as a "latent" threat rather than a "lived reality," (3) suffered the single largest loss of life to terrorism in its history.

On June 13, 2019, Tarrant, who is currently facing 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder, and one charge of engaging in a terrorist act, pleaded not guilty to all charges in relation to the Christchurch mosque shootings. Thus, despite the attack being livestreamed on Facebook, the following details are considered allegations based on press reports, which, at the time of writing in June 2019, are yet to be proven in court. Tarrant's trial, currently estimated to take six weeks, is scheduled to begin on May 4, 2020. (4) In the interim, the New Zealand government has launched a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attacks, headed by Sitting Supreme Court Justice Sir William Young, which will report on December 10, 2019. Its remit is to investigate the perpetrator, the accessibility of semi-automatic weapons, his use of social media and international connections, and any missed opportunities by the intelligence and security services to prevent the massacre. (5)

Potential intelligence failures are likely to be a key focus of the inquiry. Asked if he had confidence in New Zealand's intelligence apparatus, Andrew Little, the government minister in charge of the intelligence agencies, stated that "until there's a very microscopic look at what the agencies have been doing, and whether they've missed anything, I can't say for certain." Monitoring extreme-right activity does not appear to have been a priority, however. It is not mentioned in any of New Zealand's Security and Intelligence Agency annual reports from 2001 onward, and Little conceded that the Agency had only begun conducting a "base line review" of extreme-right activity in mid-2018. "I don't know how far they'd got," he stated. (6)

While awaiting the conclusion of both the inquiry and Tarrant's own trial, this article seeks to draw together some of the major threads of what is known so far.

The Christchurch Terrorist Attacks

Somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes before the first mosque was attacked, Tarrant, logged on to the /pol/section of 8chan, an image board popular with the extreme right. As an anonymous user, Tarrant announced himself with a post entitled "*ahem*." It read: "Well lads, it's time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post. I will carry out and [sic] attack against the invaders, and will even live stream the attack via facebook." He then allegedly posted the link to his account (Brenton.tarrant.9), which was subsequently removed. "By the time you read this I should be going live." The post was also a farewell and indicated that he had been a frequent user of the platform. "I have provided links to my writings below, please do your part spreading my message, making memes and shitposting as you usually do. If I don't survive the attack, goodbye, godbless and I will see you all in Valhalla!" (7)

The link to his 'writings'--which directed users toward several file-sharing/storage sites--referred to his 74-page manifesto, "The Great Replacement," in which he set out his ideology, rationale, and self-justification for the impending atrocity. Tarrant emailed a copy of the manifesto to the generic email account of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the opposition leader, the speaker of the parliament, and approximately 70 media outlets. The email informed them that its sender was about to commit a massacre, and though the authorities were immediately alerted, there was "nothing in the content or timing that would have been able to prevent the attack," a spokesman for the Prime Minister asserted. (8)

Meanwhile, as he had promised his fellow 8chan users, Tarrant had begun filming himself using the Facebook Live application as he got into his car to drive to his first target. "Let's get this party started," he said, talking directly to the viewer. (9) Arriving at the Al Noor mosque at 1:41 PM, Tarrant donned a helmet-mounted GoPro camera (originally designed for extreme athletes), entered the building, and went room-to-room, killing 42 worshippers, returning to his car midway through the massacre to retrieve a second weapon. Upon exiting the building, he shot and killed an injured woman on the pavement outside before driving away. (10) At 1:50 PM, he was still driving, talking about what he had just done when his livestream cut out. Undeterred, Tarrant pulled up outside the Linwood mosque where he allegedly killed another seven people. (11) Two more would later succumb to their wounds, bringing the death toll to 51. (12) Tarrant appears to have planned a third attack--his manifesto mentions a "bonus objective"--at the Asburton mosque, a former church converted into a mosque in 2017, which he described as a "desecration." He doubted, however, that he would reach this "target." (13) He did not. Police rammed his car and detained him 18 minutes after receiving the first 111 call. (14) Within 36 minutes, Tarrant had committed the worst mass shooting in New Zealand in 30 years. (a)

Tarrant, originally from the northern New South Wales city of Grafton, described himself as coming from a "working class, low income" family, enjoying a regular childhood "without any great issues." (15) He had "little interest in education" and barely achieved a "passing grade." (16) Between 2009 and 2011, Tarrant worked at the Big River Squash and Fitness Centre in his hometown, having attended the facility as a high school student. (17) He worked on its program offering free training to kids in the community. He was "very passionate about that," remarked the gym's owner. (18) He then left to go traveling in Europe and Asia on a trip apparently funded by an investment in the cryptocurrency Bitconnect. (19) Having returned to Australasia, Tarrant settled in New Zealand in 2017, (20) though he continued to travel sporadically thereafter. (21) "I only arrived to New Zealand to live temporarily whilst I planned and trained," Tarrant subsequently claimed in his manifesto, "but I soon found out that New Zealand was as target rich of an environment as anywhere else in the west." (22)

He joined the Bruce Rifle Club in South Otago, some 45 kilometers south of Dunedin on New Zealand's South island where he had lived alone. (23) At the time of his arrest, he owned five guns--including two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns, and a lever-action firearm--four of which he purchased through a police-verified online mail order process, (24) on which he had scrawled numerous historical and political references (discussed later). Tarrant had obtained the weapons legally and held a Category A firearms license, granted in November 2017, allowing him to obtain any number of sporting rifles and shotguns. (25) He appears to have illegally modified at least one of the semi-automatic rifles into a military-style weapon (which requires a much harder to obtain Category E license) through the simple expediency of purchasing high-capacity magazines, which can hold up to 100 rounds, instead of the legal limit of seven rounds allowed for Category A licensed firearms. (26) Tarrant also appears to have had some proficiency with explosives. As the police took him into custody, it was reported that the military had defused at least one improvised explosive device (IED) found in his car. (27)

Digital technology was an integral and integrated component of Tarrant's attack. His video was not so much a medium for his message insomuch as it was the message, even more so than his actual manifesto. As Jason Burke observed, the central point of his attack was not just to kill Muslims, "but to make a video of someone killing Muslims." (28) Tarrant visually choreographed his attack, filming the atrocity using a GoPro camera, (29) which gave the footage the quality of a first-person 'shoot 'em up.' 'Terrorism as theater' became terrorism as video game. Tarrant, who according to a relative had a "severe addiction" to video games, (30) had peppered his manifesto with in-jokes about them: Spyro: Year of the Dragon "taught me ethnonationalism" while Fortnite "trained me to be a killer," he mocked, "and to floss on the corpses of my enemies"--the 'floss' being a dance move sometimes performed by Fortnite characters. Prior to getting out of his car, Tarrant told those following his livestream, "Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie" (31)--a reference to Felix Kjellberg, a highly popular online gaming personality from Sweden whose YouTube channel currently has nearly 97 million subscribers.

This gamification of mass murder was not new. Jihadis have used it extensively as part of what Burke has termed the "selfie jihad." (32) The Magnanville terrorist attack in France in June 2016, in which a jihadi murdered two police officers in their home, incorporated livestream into the aftermath of the attacks, (33) while several other jihadi attackers, notably Mohamed Merah, (34) Mehdi Nemmouche, (35) and Amedy Coulibaly, (36) also sought to film their crimes. The Islamic State itself, perhaps desirous of greater editorial control over its narrative, has been rather more reticent to embrace livestreaming. (37)

While Tarrant's use of such livestreaming technology indicated a migration of such tactics...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT