Could Auckland stabbing attack have been inspired by West’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Ekaterina Blinova

On 3 September, an individual, who has not yet been identified, stabbed and injured at least six people at a supermarket in Auck-land, New Zealand. Ter-rorism and security exp-erts have discussed the as-sault as well as the apparent influence of the US’ Afghan debacle on the possible future Islamist attacks.

New Zealand police managed to shoot dead the attacker within 60 seconds after he went on a stabbing spree at Auckland supermarket on Friday. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the incident as a terror attack, adding that the culprit, a Sri Lankan national, was inspired by the Daesh terrorist group.

The man came to New Zealand in October 2011 and has been on the police radar since 2016 as a “kn-own security threat”. Acco-rding to Ardern, there had been no legal reason to de-tain him earlier. In an official statement Police Com-missioner Andrew Coster noted that law enforcement officers were not seeking a-nyone else in relation to the supermarket attack becau-se they were confident that the assailant acted alone.

‘Not a Complete Success, But Not a Complete Failure’

“There were all precautions that could be taken, but they clearly weren’t en-ough,” says Greg Barton, a professor of global Islamic politics at Deakin Univer-sity and one of Australia’s leading scholars on terrorism and violent extremism. “We’re dealing with lone actor terrorism; we know how hard it is to deal with lone actor terrorism. It’s notoriously difficult for any state, any security force.”

The professor noted that although the New Zealand authorities sought to charge the man with acts in preparation for an act of terror earlier this year, the country’s laws did not allow this. “We need the parliament to change the laws before we can deal with problems like this,” the academic remarked.

Eventually, the would-be attacker was put on a 12-month bond and a community detention while police assigned a 24/7 surveillance team to keep an eye on him.

“It was because that surveillance team was on hand that although they didn’t stop the attack, they stopped it within 60 seconds and almost certainly saved lives,” Barton explains. “So it wasn’t a complete success, it wasn’t a complete failure. What they didn’t realise was that when he went inside this supermarket, he headed for a section of the supermarket stocking large knives, grabbed a knife and started lunging at people indiscriminately.”

The academic suggests that the surveillance team had limited options while dealing with the suspect in the supermarket. While they could stop him from purchasing a gun or hiring a heavy vehicle that he could use to run into pedestrians, it was hard to predict what he could do on a routine trip to a supermarket, according to Barton.

Impulsive Attacker & Apparent Influence of Taliban Win

“It is a well-known phenomenon that lone actor attackers who manage to act impulsively, or who keep their attack intentions to themselves can be very difficult to detect and stop,” echoes Dr John Battersby, teaching fellow in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand, and a specialist on terrorism and counter-terrorism.

According to Battersby, the individual reportedly had no weapon with him and may not have made his decision to attack until he saw the knife on the supermarket shelf. The terrorism expert insists that the Auckland police acted professionally. They needed to get within distance for a practical shot, while avoiding accidently shooting any other member of the public.

“I am unaware of a faster anti-terrorist response to an attacker – given that New Zealand Police are not normally armed, the fact that armed officers were present and acted quickly has saved what could have been a much larger mass casualty event,” Battersby says.

The latest attack has once again demonstrated that “it is virtually impossible to stop someone getting access to simple household items such as knives that can be used to such devastating effect and no matter how complete surveillance is,” according to Philip Ingram, a former British senior intelligence and security officer.

Ingram does not rule out that the debacle surrounding the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban victory may have emboldened terrorist organisations and like-minded individuals to carry out similar attacks around the globe. “The way the evacuation happened has left the world in a much more dangerous place with regard to radical extremist terror,” he warns.

Ardern Gov’t is Fairly Strongly Positioned

The observers believe that the Friday stabbing sp-ree is unlikely to cast a sh-adow over the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Barton notes that previously Ardern had to deal with the Christchurch attack of 15 March 2019 when at least 50 people were killed at two mosques by accused gunman Brenton Tarrant in a mass shooting after Friday prayers. “She came out and spoke frankly with compassion and people respected her for that,” he recalls.

Still, he expects that the people will be asking why the government didn’t stop the Sri Lankan migrant if they knew that he was a concern for the past five years. “That’s why I think the next step is to try to explain to the public how this works and just how very difficult it is when you look at the details,” the academic underscores.

“I am not sure that there will be political consequences as such,” agrees Battersby. “I have been critical of the inability of successive governments to address deficiencies in the Terrorism Suppression Act, and although a Counter-Terrorism Legislation Bill is currently before Parlia-ment, it was only introduced a few months ago.”

The terrorism specialist notes that one might argue that had those changes been made, stronger measures could have been taken. Ho-wever, according to Bat-tersby, it’s nothing but speculation. The tragedy “needs to be weighed against the individual being identified, being under surveillance by armed anti-terrorist officers who reacted rapidly,” he insists, adding that if this had not been the case, “the casualty list could have been vastly greater.”

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