Tuesday, 21 Sep 2021

Auckland mall terrorist attack: ‘Lone wolf’ Isis supporter identified as Sri Lankan refugee Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen; Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responds

The Islamic State supporter who stabbed at least five shoppers in an Auckland supermarket before being shot dead can now be identified.

He was Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen, a 32-year-old born in Sri Lanka who came to New Zealand in October 2011 and was granted refugee status two years later.

The Herald can reveal immigration officials had sought to revoke his refugee status in 2018, but he appealed and a final decision had yet to be made on whether he could be deported.

His uncertain immigration status was also the reason why the terrorist could not be identified until 11pm Saturday night, when it was lifted by a High Court judge, as anyone claiming refugee status cannot be identified by law.

Samsudeen was Tamil – a minority ethnic group persecuted by Sri Lankan authorities during a decades-long conflict – and claimed he and his father were attacked, kidnapped and tortured because of their political background.

His claim to asylum was supported by scars on his body, as well as a psychologist’s report which said Samsudeen presented as a “highly distressed and damaged young man” suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

In granting refugee status to Samsudeen, the Immigration Protection Tribunal ruling, obtained by the Herald on Sunday, said the appellant was “persistently re-experiencing traumatic events”.

“[The psychiatrist] believes it can only be explained in terms of traumatic experience, and she states that, in her opinion, it would be very difficult for him to have fabricated the degree of disturbance displayed during the interviews she conducted.”

He was angry and worried about the safety of his parents, with his anxiety heightened by living so far away in a strange country, without the support of friends and family, and lacking confidence and maturity.

In other words, almost the perfect candidate to be radicalised in his living room.

A key strategy during the ascendancy and peak of Islamic State was using social media to radicalise those in Western countries.

Sophisticated social media centres targeted those considered by intelligence agencies to be most susceptible – disaffected young men, particularly those who felt isolated.

Such targeting was used to lure fighters to the Middle East and also to encourage those unable or unwilling, to carry out terror attacks in their home countries.

Samsudeen first came to the attention of New Zealand police onMarch 23, 2016, after he posted images of graphic acts of war violence on his Facebook account, with comments supporting the Islamic State bombing attacks in Brussels the day before.

He was given a formal warning by police, but now aware of their interest, set up several different Facebook accounts under aliases.

Officers from the National Security Investigations group monitored his social media content, which included anti-Western and violent imagery as well as this comment on Facebook:”One day I will go back to my country and I will find kiwi scums in my country … and I will show them … what will happen when you mess with S while I’m in their country. If you’re tough in your country … we are tougher in our country scums #payback.”

He told a fellow worshipper at a mosque he planned to join Isis in Syria, and that if he were stopped from leaving, he would commit a random “lone wolf” style knife attack in New Zealand.

By this time, Samsudeen was now being watched closely under surveillance and on May 19, 2017, he was arrested at Auckland International Airport after booking a one-way ticket to Singapore.

A search of his apartment on Queen St found videos and songs espousing Isis extremism and imagery of sadistic violence.

There were also 24 images of Samsudeen posing with a long-barrelled air rifle and telescopic lens, and hidden under his mattress, a large hunting knife.

Because of the risk he posed, Samsudeen was denied bail for more than a year until he eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of possession of restricted material, after the Chief Censor ruled the videos were not classified as objectionable.

As a result, Justice Edwin Wylie had little choice but to sentence S to supervision on August 7, 2018, given the length of time he had already spent in custody on relatively minor charges.

The High Court judge also had no choice in granting a name suppression order to prevent Samsudeen from being identified.

A few weeks earlier, Samsudeen had been given notice that his refugee status would be revoked, meaning automatic deportation back to Sri Lanka.

He feared publication of his name would put his life in greater danger if he was sent back to his homeland.

“I’m very afraid of returning to Sri Lanka because I’m afraid of authorities there … the same risks and fears [that] I had when I left my country are still there,” Samsudeen wrote in an affidavit to the court.

Justice Wylie made an interim suppression order until his refugee status was determined.

A final decision had not yet been made but Justice Wylie lifted the suppression on Saturday night, given the significant public interest after the terrorist act in which at least five people were stabbed in the New Lynn Countdown supermarket on Friday.

Five of the six people taken to hospital had stab wounds, with three in critical condition.

Samsudeen – who was under 24/7 surveillance by police – was shot dead by members of the Special Tactics Group.

Because of the suppression order, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster were unable to fully explain the circumstances as to why Samsudeen had not been deported or was even still in the country.

Last night, the Prime Minister, in a statement following the lifting of name suppression, outlined her frustration in the process and length of time it had been taking in trying to have the terrorist deported.

“We have utilised every legal and surveillance power available to us to keep people safe from this individual,” Ardern said.

The Herald had previously revealed the police tried to charge Samsudeen for allegedly plotting a “lone wolf” style knife attack, but could not because of a longstanding gap in New Zealand’s counter-terrorism law.

The attempted prosecution arose shortly after Samsudeen walked free from the High Court on the first set of charges.

The very next day, he went to a store to buy a new hunting knife – which Samsudeen asked to be couriered to his address – and went home.

The police were forced to arrest him again. Another search of his apartment found a large amount of violent material, including an Islamic State video about how to kill “non-believers” in which a masked man cut a prisoner’s throat and wrists.

This time, prosecutors sought to charge Samsudeen under the Terrorism Suppression Act.

But a High Court judge ruled that preparing a terrorist attack was not in itself an offence under the legislation, which he said could be described as an “Achilles’ heel” hindering the authorities’ abilities to stop such would-be attackers.

Justice Matthew Downs acknowledged there was a serious threat to public safety from “lone wolf” attackers, especially after the Christchurch shootings that killed 51 people and injured 40.

But he dismissed the Crown’s application to charge Samsudeen under the anti-terror law, saying it was for Parliament, not the courts, to create an offence of planning an attack.

The judgment, first reported by the Herald in August, was cited by government officials as one of the key events leading to the introduction of new anti-terror powers in April.

The judge’s concerns were echoed by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch attacks when it presented its findings in November.

Labour’s new Counter-Terrorism Legislation Bill, which passed its first reading in May, would make it a criminal offence to plan or prepare for a terrorist attack.

On Saturday afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said work was under way to change the law by the end of the month.

Samsudeen was instead prosecuted on lesser charges.

On May 26, he was found guilty by a jury of possessing propaganda-style material supportive of Islamic State. He was acquitted on other charges of possessing a graphic video depicting a prisoner being decapitated and possession of an offensive weapon.

In his own words when giving evidence at his trial, Samsudeen claimed he was interested only in the centuries-old Islamic State established by the prophet Muhammad and learning about his religion.

“You’re worried about one knife, I am telling you I will buy 10 knives. It’s about my rights,” he said.

One of the nasheeds (hymns and chants) referenced martyrdom, featured a black-clad fighter with a machine gun, Isis flag, and lyrics advocating for jihad and decapitation.

The other, titled “We came to fill horror everywhere”, depicts men dressed in black with assault rifles, the Isis flag and a city on fire.

“We will drink from the blood of disbelievers,” the lyrics said.

In explanation for his offensive Islamic State material, Samsudeen compared the nasheeds to the haka.

“You guys have Māori war cries,” he said.

Samsudeen was combative throughout the trial and had frequent outbursts in the courtroom, some directed towards Justice Sally Fitzgerald.

He said the Crown had wasted years of his life.

“I thank God, there have been prophets, other prophets who have been to prison,” he said.

“It’s just like a test … You guys put me in prison cause I’m a Muslim and you don’t like my religion, that makes you an enemy. Allah says you will be punished.”

According to a report prepared for his sentencing in July, Samsudeen has “the means and motivation to commit violence in the community”. Despite police concerns about the threat to public safety, he was sentenced to one year of supervision.

At that point in time, Samsudeen was still in prison on two active charges for assaulting Corrections staff members while waiting for the High Court trial.

However, once the High Court case ended, Samsudeen was released on bail on July 16 by an Auckland District Court judge.

This was because the amount of time he had already spent in prison, if bail was denied, would be longer than the maximum sentence even if he was convicted of the assaults.

Since his release from prison, Samsudeen had been under 24/7 surveillance by police including members of the elite Special Tactics Group.

The undercover officers managed to stop him within minutes of his attack, where he took a knife from a supermarket shelf and stabbed nearby shoppers. Seven were injured, and three are in hospital in a critical condition.

Ardern said the attack was carried out by an individual, not a faith, not a culture, not an ethnicity, but an individual person gripped by an ideology that is not supported here by anyone.

“This was a violent attack on innocent New Zealanders,” said Ardern. “It was senseless.”

Ardern: Ministers had sought advice on deporting terrorist since 2018

Following the lifting of name suppression, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last night issued a statement that provided further information on steps Immigration New Zealand had taken over several years to try to have Samsudeen deported from the country.

Ardern said facets of the process had been “frustrating”.

Samsudeen arrived in New Zealand in October 2011. Shortly after he made a claim for refugee status which was declined by Immigration New Zealand.

But that was successfully appealed to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, and he was granted refugee status in December 2013.

“In 2016 the terrorist came to the attention of the police and the NZSIS,” Ardern said.

“In the course of these investigations, Immigration New Zealand were made aware of information that led them to believe the individual’s refugee status was fraudulently obtained. The process was started to cancel his refugee status, and with it, his right to stay in New Zealand.

“In February of 2019, Immigration New Zealand cancelled his refugee status. He was served with deportation liability notices. In April, he appealed against his deportation to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal.He was still in prison at this time, and facing criminal charges. For a number of reasons, the deportation appeal could not proceed until after the conclusion of the criminal trial in May 2021.”

Ardern said agencies also became concerned about “the risk this individual posed to the community”.

“They also knew he may be released from prison, and that his appeal through the Tribunal, which was stopping his deportation, may take some time.

“Immigration New Zealand explored whether the Immigration Act might allow them to detain the individual while his deportation appeal was heard.

“It was incredibly disappointing and frustrating when legal advice came back to say this wasn’t an option.

“A person can only be detained under the Immigration Act for the purpose of deportation. Immigration New Zealand was required to consider whether deportation was likely to proceed. That meant making an assessment of what the tribunal would likely find. Crown Law’s advice to Immigration New Zealand was that the individual was likely to be considered a ‘protected person’ because of the status of the country from which he had travelled, and likely treatment on return. Protected people cannot be deported from New Zealand. After receiving this advice Immigration New Zealand determined they could not detain the individual while he waited for his appeal.”

Soon after he was released from prison and the police monitoring and surveillance of Samsudeen begun.

On August 26, the Immigration and Protection Tribunal hearing was rescheduled.

“At the time of the terrorist attack, the offender’s attempt to overturn the deportation decision was still ongoing,” Ardern said. “This has been a frustrating process.

“Since 2018 Ministers have been seeking advice on our ability to deport this individual.”

Ardern also said she had met with officials and “expressed my concern that the law could allow someone to remain here who obtained their immigration status fraudulently and posed a threat to our national security”.

“Ultimately these timelines show that Immigration New Zealand from the beginning have sought to deport this individual, and were right to do so.” Ardern said.

Terrorist's family's full statement

“We wish to begin by saying that our family would like to send our love and support to those who were hurt in the horrible act yesterday.

“We are so shaken by what has happened and we do not know what to do. We hope these words will help bring some peace to your beautiful country. We are ready to help you all in the healing process no matter what it is needed from us.

“We hope to find out with you all, what happened in Aathil’s case and what we all could have done to prevent this. We are heartbroken by this terrible event. My father still doesn’t know my brother is dead because he has been missing him so much and is very ill these days.

“Unfortunately, Aathil was suffering from some mental health problems in his life. He suffered a lot during his political torture at home. We were grateful he found the country where he wanted to live.

“We saw his mental health got worse and worse during the last 10 years or so. He spent a lot of his time in prison and was always struggling with some court cases. When we heard that he was in prison in New Zealand, we thought it would do him some good but didn’t realise he would spend so much time there. He also had many problems in prison. He always wanted help and support. He told us that all the time.

“Aathil did spend a lot of time online and that was a problem we saw. He wanted to impress his friends from Sri Lanka on Facebook. He wanted to share the sufferings and injustices. He saw himself as someone fighting those injustices.

“Some of us visited your beautiful country New Zealand in 2013. We love your country and your people and we know from what we have seen since the Christchurch attack that you are good people. We want to stand with you. We have lost Aathil. We don’t know what to do while our father is still very ill and doesn’t know about this situation. Aathil was the youngest and very close to my father. He grew up with my parents in the family home while the rest of us grew up mainly in hostels. Aathil was the baby of the family. My mother is so upset.

“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. Aathil was wrong again yesterday. Of course we feel very sad that he could not be saved. The prisons and the situation was hard on him and he did not have any support. He told us he was assaulted there.

“We have done this statement quickly because Aathil’s name has been published now. We have not had time to plan advice or safetyfor any of us who all live separately. We have not had a chance to discuss this because some of us were being interrogated. We are hoping we will be safe where we are. We hope you will all be safe where you all are too.

“We all have to try to accept this. I pray that God will help us all to heal from this very sad day. We are thinking of you all. We are thinking of our parents. We are thinking of the boy who left us and the innocent people were injured yesterday. Our lives have changed forever. We realise that it will take us some time to come to terms with this. We are thinking of the injured, both mentally and physically. May we all heal from this together. God be with you. Amen.

“We ask for privacy as we grieve and process what has happened.

“May God Bless all those impacted.”

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