14 Dec 2022

LynnMall terror attack: Chances to direct Samsudeen away from extremism missed - review

1:08 pm on 14 December 2022
A police officer outside Countdown, LynnMall, following a terrorist attack on 2 September, 2021

Police stand guard following the LynnMall attack in September 2021. Photo: Getty Images

Police, prisons and spy agencies missed chances to direct the LynnMall terror attacker away from violent extremism, and he was locked up for so long it greatly increased his radicalisation.

These are among the "significant deficiencies" found by a hefty independent review out today into the handling of Ahamed Samsudeen.

Samsudeen, a Sri Lankan Tamil who had gained refugee status in New Zealand, inhabited extremist websites, was locked up on remand for about four years, then surveilled 24/7 for weeks on his release, before he attacked shoppers in the Auckland mall, seriously injuring four women and one man with a knife, in September last year. Another man suffered a minor wound, and another dislocated his shoulder while trying to stop the attack.

Ahmed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen appears in the High Court in Auckland on 7 August 2018.

Ahamed Samsudeen. Photo: New Zealand Herald / Greg Bowker

The government called it a terrorist attack and vowed to strengthen laws.

A months-long review running to more than 100 pages has found:

"While the relevant agencies and individuals were generally doing their best to work together and manage the risk Mr Samsudeen posed, he was very challenging for them to deal with and there were four related areas where the response fell short":

  • missed chances to deradicalise him. "There were inadequate, fragmented and ad hoc plans for his releases from prison in both 2018 and 2021."
  • ad hoc measures for countering violent extremism, with no long-term planning to curtail the threat he posed
  • key information not shared by police and Corrections
  • locking up Samsudeen on remand for too long - more than four years in prison "greatly increased his alienation and radicalisation".

"We cannot say whether his attack would have occurred anyway, but his period in custody without the appropriate and necessary interventions and support enhanced the risk that he would," a summary said.

The review said agencies did not draw on international examples of successful deradicalisation.

Discussions about how to deal with Samsudeen were "fragmented and sometimes far-fetched".

There was no agreed plan what to do if surveillance had to stop and they believed he was still a threat.

"It is also not clear what would have convinced them that he no longer posed a risk, when not much was being done in the way of disengagement and rehabilitation.

"Their belief that an attack was inevitable meant that, as one interviewee put it, they were 'at battle stations… until you got that slight decrease of risk'."

However, police said in response today that agencies made numerous attempts to engage Samsudeen but were rebuffed.

Another finding was the 32-year-old posed a real threat to security and police were justified in shooting him dead.

The prisons inspectorate in a related 118-page review found shortcomings.

"Corrections did not meet its statutory obligations to provide for Mr Samsudeen's religious, spiritual and cultural needs," it said.

"While there were a number of challenges for Corrections, including Mr Samsudeen's changing views, more should have been done to provide access to an Imam or other support person."

An Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) 20-page finding showed Samsudeen threatened and stalked shoppers through the Countdown supermarket aisles.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster hold a press conference with the details of the Auckland supermarket terror attack in the Beehive Theatrette on Friday evening.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks at a press conference following the attack. Photo: POOL / Stuff / Robert Kitchin

He began the attack at 2.36pm and two officers ran into the mall two minutes later.

Within two minutes, they found and shot the attacker.

He suffered 12 gunshot wounds.

The review said the police's surveillance team decided not to follow him into the supermarket that day.

Samsudeen's behaviour leading up to that day had "indicated ongoing agitation and deterioration in his mental state".

"However, we do not think those dealing with him could reasonably have been expected to do anything more than they did to avert the attack.

"He was already under close surveillance, and had not committed any further offences that would justify arresting him earlier."

But the IPCA said as the attack began, both officers believed they needed to get to Samsudeen as fast as possible to stop him.

"Their sense of urgency was so high, they did not stop to gather more tactical options or body armour."

All agencies, the government and the Federation of Islamic Associations expressed their support for victims of the attack.

The federation has maintained for months that authorities failed to intervene properly early on.

"The prime minister mentioned at that stage (2021) that everything that could have been done was done," federation spokesperson Abdur Razzaq told RNZ today.

"What this report shows [is] that there was significant failings and these failings go to the heart of the issue of the person having mental health issues."

The case was examined by the IPCA, Office of the Inspectorate at the Department of Corrections, and Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.

Police keep watch outside the Countdown supermarket at LynnMall.

Police at the scene following the attack. Photo: AFP

The prisons inspectorate said Samsudeen was mostly held properly but for one eight-month period, he was "segregated without the required oversight and attention".

Upon his release in mid-2021, Corrections "lacked the capability" to properly manage Samsudeen, it found.

The main joint review found his long period locked up "was primarily caused by delays resulting from the legislative process of determining whether his online postings were objectionable, and the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown on the operation of the courts".

Police said the review recognised the agencies accurately assessed the risks and tried to mitigate them in an "extraordinarily complex case".

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said it showed Samsudeen was already radicalised when he came to police attention, and numerous attempts were made to disengage him from his extremist views but he resisted.

In a five-year period, "we took two successful prosecutions, sought multiple custodial remands, and we remained concerned about the recidivist nature of his behaviour, and the very real risk his violent extremism posed to the community", Coster said in a statement.

"Substantial effort was made within the bounds of legislation to manage the risk clearly presented to the wider community."

In other cases, police had had success turning individuals away from violent extremism, he said.

Police stood by the decisions and judgments made while recognising the review's findings about potential improvements.

The government said it accepted the findings.

"The report recognises the system did its best in what was a very difficult and resource-intensive situation," said the minister responsible, Andrew Little.

"This attack was carried out by an individual who acted alone. The attacker's actions do not reflect on any community, culture, religion or national grouping."

Though the review contained no recommendations, the government would ensure that improvements in line with the findings were made.

"This will include a focus on what we can do to address signs of radicalisation to violent extremism earlier," Little said in a statement.

Police were already working on this under the He Aranga Ake programme, and the government had made moves to improve counterterrorism efforts arising from the 2019 mosque attacks, Little said.

The Security Intelligence Service (SIS) said the review showed it "displayed no bias in prioritising him as a subject of investigation".

It put in a significant effort because of the extremist ideology and behaviour it became aware of after 2015, the SIS said in a statement.

The review found the SIS surveillance was "effective, proportionate and measured" and well co-ordinated with police.

"No intelligence was found to be withheld and information was supplied at the lowest classification settings possible, to ensure the right people had the right information at the right time."

It did not have any legislative function or capability to provide or facilitate rehabilitation programmes or social services, it said.

Legislation creating a new offence of planning a terrorist attack was fast-tracked because of the LynnMall attack.

  • LynnMall attack: Security fears trumped mental health support
  • One year on: Questions remain on anniversary of LynnMall attack by Ahamed Samsudeen
  • Silence over why mall attacker's request to leave NZ ignored
  • LynnMall attack: Friends knew of Ahamed Samsudeen's hopes of stabbing people, bar owner claims