New Zealand had tried for years to deport the terrorist who stabbed shoppers in an Auckland supermarket on Friday before being shot dead by the police officers tasked with watching him, the country’s prime minister has said.
Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen, a 32-year-old Sri Lankan man, was fighting to keep his refugee status in New Zealand when he carried out the attack, which Jacinda Ardern said was inspired by the Islamic State.
Neither his name nor the fact that he was a refugee could be reported until a suppression order by a New Zealand judge was lifted late on Saturday night. The identity of refugees, and their immigration status, are automatically protected by law in New Zealand.
Officials had tried to justify detaining Samsudeen in jail until his asylum case was resolved but there were no legal grounds for doing so. Instead, 30 officers watched him around the clock for more than 50 days before he grabbed a knife from a supermarket shelf and attacked shoppers, metres away from the undercover police surveilling him.
Seven people were hurt in the attack, five of them with stab wounds. Three of those injured were in a critical condition in hospital on Saturday.
The attack rattled New Zealand, which until Friday had not experienced an Islamic State-inspired act of terror, with the nation’s grief echoing the aftermath of the 2019 terrorist attacks on two Christchurch mosques, when 51 worshiping Muslims were murdered by a white supremacist from Australia.
Friday’s attack provoked fresh debate about a proposed law change currently before Parliament that would make the act of planning a terrorist attack a crime – a legal gap identified after the Christchurch shooting.
Samsudeen had previously spent time in prison on charges including possession of objectionable materials, had been on the radar of the police since 2016, and was arrested in 2017 attempting to travel to Syria.
Authorities had known Samsudeen wanted to commit a terrorist attack, but planning one is not a crime in New Zealand. Ardern said her government had asked the passage of a controversial new antiterrorism law to be sped up on the same day Friday’s mass stabbing took place, and she hoped it will pass by the end of the month.
The attack prompted Ardern to say it was “disappointing” that officials had not been able to detain Samsudeen in jail while his refugee status was resolved. That was because a tribunal was likely to allow the Tamil man to keep his refugee status, given the danger he faced if he returned to Sri Lanka.
Ardern added that Samsudeen’s refugee claim had been based on a fraudulent document, although she did not elaborate further. Samsudeen and his family have said that he was harassed for his politics and tortured in Sri Lanka, before he came to New Zealand aged 22.
After three years in prison on various charges, he was released in July.
“Agencies used every tool available to protect innocent people from this individual,” Ardern said. “Every legal avenue was tried.”
But some of those who had suggested rehabilitation strategies for Samsudeen said there were questions for the government and officials to answer about how the terrorist’s mental health conditions were addressed, and what deradicalisation work had been undertaken with him.
One analyst produced a report about Samsudeen for a court hearing in 2018 that assessed him as being of low harm if he was engaged in an adequate deradicalisation process. Such rehabilitation was ordered by the judge, but the analyst, Clarke Jones, told the Guardian it was not immediately clear whether any was carried out.
“The Australian and now New Zealand governments prefer to go on this securitised approach,” Jones said, referring to the decision to tail the terrorist and attempts to force him out of the country.
Referring to rehabilitation programmes when he said had worked well overseas, Jones said: “There’s no guarantees in any intervention to stop someone going down the pathway of crime or violent extremism but we would have had a much better chance.”
Advocates for Samsudeen suggested a programme for him in cooperation with Auckland’s Muslim community, Jones said. The Sri Lankan man did not fit the profile of young, radicalised ideologues and did not have a political agenda, Jones added.
Jones said New Zealand’s deradicalisation approach was still immature, and that work could not be left solely to religious leaders, especially for those, like Samsudeen, who had serious mental health conditions.
The terrorist’s brother echoed the concerns about his mental health in a statement provided to the Guardian by one of Samsudeen’s lawyers.
“Aathil always contradicted what he was told. He would hang up the phone on us when we told him to forget about all of the issues he was obsessed with. Then he would call us back again himself when he realised he was wrong,” wrote Aroos, the brother, in a statement that characterised Samsudeen’s mental health as deteriorating over a decade. “Aathil was wrong again yesterday. Of course we feel very sad that he could not be saved.”
The family was “ready to help you all in the healing process no matter what it is needed from us”, Aroos added.
Ardern earlier said Samsudeen had refused a psychiatric assessment that could have seen him forced into a mental health facility.
There appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary when Samsudeen left his house to buy groceries at a supermarket in a west Auckland mall on Friday, said Andrew Coster, New Zealand’s police commissioner. Officers tailing him – who had waited at the entrance to the supermarket – had not realised until 60-90 seconds into the attack that he was stabbing shoppers.
Samsudeen was “highly paranoid”, took counter-surveillance measures, and had on other occasions accused members of the public of tailing him, Coster said.
Although court documents about the man were released on Saturday night, after a hastily convened hearing hours after the attack, Ardern said she would not speak the terrorist’s name, a policy she implemented after the Christchurch attacks for fear of giving the killer notoriety.
“No terrorist alive or deceased deserves a name to be shared for the infamy they were seeking,” she said.