Christchurch terror attack inquest: St John ill-equipped to deal with mosque shootings - expert

4:01 pm on 1 December 2023
30th November 2023 Iain McGregor/The Press/Pool
Christchurch Masjidain Attack Coronial hearing.
Emergency Response Experts
Witness - Frank Straub (left) and Scott Wilson (right).
Nikki Pender - Counsel for some families.

Counter-terrorism experts Dr Frank Straub, left, and Scott Wilson gave evidence via audio-video link. Photo: The Press / Iain McGregor

St John did not have a plan to deal with a terror attack leaving the organisation unprepared to deal with the Christchurch mosque massacre that left 51 people dead, an inquest has heard.

Two international counter-terrorism experts have told the Coroners Court there was a clear breakdown in communication between police and paramedics on 15 March 2019, when a gunman opened fire at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre.

Scott Wilson, who was an expert witness at the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing inquiry, said while paramedics' response was good on the day, the wider organisation was ill-equipped to deal with a terror attack.

27th October 2023 Iain McGregor/The Press/Pool
Christchurch Masjidain Attack Coronial hearing.
Anthony James Wilding Ð Counsel for Hato Hone St John, cross-examines witness - Constable Dara Taylor (Police).

St John lawyer James Wilding. Photo: Iain McGregor

He told St John lawyer James Wilding that he could not find any St John plan for a terror attack and a strategy should be developed.

"You don't learn to dance the night of the ball," he said.

Since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Wilson said fire and ambulance services in the United Kingdom had realised officers might need to work in danger zones.

"We started the programme as far back as 2009 and that's exercised and tested regularly," he said.

"I didn't feel in Christchurch you had that personnel, that training, that expertise. You made it work on the day, but you probably weren't really as equipped as you could have been to deal with what you faced."

30th November 2023 Iain McGregor/The Press/Pool
Christchurch Masjidain Attack Coronial hearing.
Witness - Scott Wilson, Emergency Response Expert.

Counter-terrorism expert Scott Wilson. Photo: The Press / Iain McGregor

Wilson said the lack of preparation was even more concerning given other countries were "up to speed" with escalating global terrorism.

The inquest previously heard St John concerns about safety contributed to the delay in getting ambulances to both mosques.

Counter-terrorism expert Dr Frank Straub told the court there would always be a level of danger and emergency services had to make judgement calls.

"People are critically injured and dying and they're going to continue to do so unless there's aid rendered or extrication and transport to the hospital occurs," he said.

"I think we would all like to operate under ideal situations, unfortunately it doesn't work that way. It works in absolutely horrendous situations, and I think that at that point, we have to weigh 'what is the goal of our operation? What is the goal of the obligations we've made to enter into these professions?'

"I understand that it's a personal decision, particularly for people who are volunteers, but you're never going to have a perfect situation and you can't wait for the perfect situation."

30th November 2023 Iain McGregor/The Press/Pool
Christchurch Masjidain Attack Coronial hearing.
Witness - Frank Straub, Emergency Response Expert.

Counter-terrorism expert Dr Frank Straub. Photo: The Press / Iain McGregor

The experts did not agree with police incident controller Senior Sergeant Roy Appley's assertion there was some information that did not need to be given to St John, including ultimately incorrect reports of six armed offenders in Linwood and the terrorist's claim he was one of 10 shooters in Canterbury.

Straub and Wilson said it would have been appropriate to pass that information on to St John while the rescue operation continued.

They said both agencies should have had a commander at a safe forward point, liaising directly with each other about the emergency response.

24th October 2023 Iain McGregor/The Press/Pool
Christchurch Masjidain Attack Coronial hearing.
Witness - Detective Senior Sergeant Craig Farrant (Police).

Detective Senior Sergeant Craig Farrant, pictured earlier in the inquest. Photo: Pool / Iain McGregor / The Press

Terrorist was 'lone offender'

No evidence of the terrorist working with anyone in the preparation and planning of his attack was ever found, police have confirmed.

But two instances in the days leading up to 15 March 2019 had family lawyer Nikki Pender calling them a "remarkable coincidence".

On Friday afternoon, the inquest heard a teenager with strong white supremacist views became a person of interest after making a comment to a friend about bombing a mosque and posting a photo of Al Noor Mosque in a Facebook group with the caption 'target located'.

Detective Senior Sergeant Craig Farrant, who was second in charge of Operation Deans, confirmed the teen's acquaintances messaged him on the day of the attack, believing he was the offender.

Farrant said a search warrant of his home was executed the day after the attack but no links or association to the terrorist were ever found.

Another person of interest was identified after telling his probation officer "something's going to go down at the mosque" in the lead-up to the attack.

The person said "two old homeless white power guys" intended to bomb a mosque.

Farrant said this person was spoken to at length but no link between him and the terrorist was ever found.

The detective said through interviews with Tarrant, it was clear he liked to talk himself up and investigations found he self-funded the attack.

"There was obvious evidence of him being online and that obviously may well have contributed to his beliefs and his actions but all the narrative around his writings and during interview were 'I, I was acting alone', there was no 'we', there was no 'us'.

"Everything we did in relation to him points him back to being a lone offender."

Farrant also confirmed a person mentioned earlier in the inquest, who breached the cordon on Linwood Avenue and made disturbing comments, was arrested.

He was "very well known" to police and a search warrant was done at his home and 10 devices taken.

Farrant confirmed no link to the terrorist was ever found, either.

The inquest will examine the following 10 issues over six weeks:

  • Events of 15 March 2019 from the commencement of the attack until the terrorist's formal interview by police
  • Response times and entry processes of police and ambulance officers at each mosque
  • Triage and medical response at each mosque
  • The steps that were taken to apprehend the offender
  • The role of, and processes undertaken by, Christchurch Hospital in responding to the attack
  • Coordination between emergency services and first responders
  • Whether the terrorist had any direct assistance from any other person on 15 March 2019
  • If raised by immediate family, and to the extent it can be ascertained, the final movements and time of death for each of the deceased
  • The cause of death for each of the victims and whether any deaths could have been avoided
  • Whether Al Noor Mosque emergency exit door in the southeast corner of the main prayer room failed to function during the attack and, if so, why?

The inquest continues.

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