Alex Ryvchin, an Australia-based author and analyst, shares insights on the latest Islamic State attack in the West, in New Zealand: the remaining threat from ISIS despite the loss of its territorial strongholds; the struggles for law-enforcement in dealing with radicalized individuals who cannot be held in custody; and the sensibility of the media coverage, which needs to be applied in all cases, without selective exceptions.
Below is a full transcript of his remarks.
The terrorist attack carried out by a lone assailant in a supermarket in Auckland, New Zealand reveals the continuing threat posed by ISIS in the West, notwithstanding the territorial defeat of its forces in Iraq and Syria. When we take this attack together with the attack at Kabul airport last Thursday, carried out by an ISIS affiliate, and which left thirteen US service members and at least ninety Afghans dead.
The Auckland attack shows that ISIS has the capacity to carry out large scale centrally planned attacks on a devastating scale, while it’s curated online propaganda and the grooming conducted by its members continues to inspire lone wolf attacks in the West. The Auckland attack carried out by a Sri Lankan national left seven people wounded, with three in intensive care.
The terrorist was well known to New Zealand law enforcement since 2015 when he began posting ISIS materials online and was under extremely close surveillance, including on the day of the attack. He had been a person of national security interest since 2016 and was under the highest level of surveillance due to his extremist views.
A judge even noted his extreme attitudes, isolated lifestyle, sense of entitlement, and propensity for violence. In other words, he fit the profile of a lone wolf terrorist immaculately. The Prime Minister of New Zealand revealed that the government utilized every legal surveillance power available to them to try and keep people safe from this individual that had no legal means to keep him in custody.
Despite being trailed by a tactical and surveillance team, the attacker entered the store, obtained a knife and proceeded to stab indiscriminately for sixty-nine seconds before he was shot and killed after the attack as he ran in the supermarket still wielding the knife.
The circumstances of the attack demonstrate the immense challenges in disrupting terrorist attacks of this kind, where there are no prior communications that reveal intent, and no conspiracy that can be detected and disrupted. Seven people have suffered life-altering trauma in circumstances involving an individual under extremely stringent surveillance. Auckland Mayor Phil Goff described the neutralization of the terrorist at the scene as justice that came pretty swiftly.
Now, the manner in which the attacks have been reported is also worthy of consideration. No major media noted the death of the terrorist in its headlines, nor have there been criticisms of law enforcement for killing the assailant rather than using non lethal force. Rightly, the focus has been on these heinous crimes and the fate of his victims.
Now, this shows the contrast in attitudes arising from terrorist attacks committed that target Westerners compared with those that target Israeli civilians. Reports of terrorist attacks in Israel frequently lead with the death of the assailant, often avoid using the term “terrorist” (even where attacks unequivocally meet the definition), intensely scrutinize the actions of law-enforcement at the scene, and generally seek to place terrorist attacks in the context of a “cycle of conflict”.
For example, a Guardian headline from the 25th of May 2021 declared that “Israeli police shoot dead Palestinian knife attacker in Jerusalem”. A BBC headline following the stabbing deaths of two Israelis announced: “Israelis killed in Jerusalem, Palestinians banned from Old City.” No such formulations were useful in the Auckland attack, nor did we see journalistic sleights of hand that shift responsibility from the attacker to the attacked. Following this attack, the New Zealand Prime Minister said no terrorist, whether alive or deceased, deserves their name to be shared for the infamy they were seeking.
The lone wolf attack can never be obliterated as a threat. However, the intensive monitoring of individuals adhering to Islamist ideology, the power to prosecute before an attack is carried out, and leadership that condemns and marginalizes adherence to violent ideologies without false equivalences or moral ambiguity, are all vital tools in this perennial struggle.