Last Friday brought new meaning to the saying, “Live each day as though it were your last.” About 4pm, while I was concentrating on something completely different, a text arrived from a neighbour referring to shocking events at a local supermarket and asking if my sister and I were safe at home.
We were, but seven innocent people who had been doing their grocery shopping were not. They had suddenly become victims of a knife attack by a crazy political extremist and six were being rushed to hospital. The terrorist was dead, shot by police within a minute of the first cries of alarm, but scores of people around the scene were stuck there, terrified of what might happen next.
For myself, it was too close for comfort. Although we are in lockdown in Auckland because of a Delta outbreak, and although I generally shop at another supermarket, I could have been at one of the two pharmacies open in Lynn Mall close to Countdown where the attack occurred. I get prescriptions made up there. My doctor’s practice is at the other end of the mall. It could have been me with a knife wound in my gut being rushed to intensive care.
So I should be in the ranks of those complaining that New Zealand governments have been too slow to tighten anti-terror laws, too reluctant to deport criminals, too ready to believe refugees. But I find myself thinking more about how a young man became a terrorist and how it might have been prevented.
Born in an era of violence
Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen was a Tamil Muslim who came to New Zealand on a student visa in 2011 from Sri Lanka. There, ethnic resentment still simmered after three decades of civil war sparked by the Tamil insurgency. Admittedly, that is not a good start from the point of view of prevention of radicalism.
Born in the middle of this terrible conflict, “Aathil” was the youngest of several children, according to a statement from his family this week. Unlike the older children, who grew up mainly in (school?) hostels, he remained with his parents and was “very close to his father”. Perhaps too close – and too distant from siblings who could have moderated the intensity of that relationship.
It is possible that the father supported at least the political aims of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers), given the history of ethnic strife in Sri Lanka, despite their terrorist methods.
In Samsudeen’s application for refugee status in New Zealand he claimed that he and his father were persecuted, kidnapped and tortured because of their political background.
(The family have said that they were targeted in the civil war, and that their brother suffered “political torture”, which seems to mean that he experienced his political situation as persecution and mental torture. When interviewed in 2017 they did not corroborate his more serious torture and kidnap claims.)
Initially, immigration authorities had been sceptical. However, on the basis of his claims, forged medical records, and a psychologist’s report that Samsudeen presented as a “highly distressed and damaged young man” suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, he won refugee status on appeal. A few months later he was granted permanent residence.
That was in April 2014, and he apparently caused no official concern until 2016. His mother says that he was radicalised while visiting Sri Lanka that year by neighbours from Syria and Iraq.
By April he was posting ISIS inspired material on the internet, including videos and pictures depicting graphic war-related violence, comments advocating for violent extremism and support for ISIS terrorists involved in the Paris attacks in November 2015 and the Brussels bombing in March 2016.
He was warned by the police, but persisted.
From then until his final crime and violent death, the path was downhill. He was closely watched and spent most of his time in custody for various offences, awaiting trial or conducting appeals. He was released under 24/7 police surveillance and intense supervision in July this year only because the law did not allow him to be kept in prison any longer and he could not be convicted of planning a terrorist attack.
What happened during those years between Samsudeen’s arrival in New Zealand and falling into the grip of murderous fanaticism?
Was it possible for him to shake off his background and begin a new life? Of course. Countless people have gotten over experiences of oppression and war and even forgiven those they formerly resented. But the things that help us most to begin again – family, faith, friendship – he either pushed away or they eluded him.
The rest of his family also left Sri Lanka, but they did not come here However, some members of the wider family visited him here in 2013, and in this week’s statement, attributed to his older brother Aroos, said they kept in touch with him over the years, despite difficulties:
“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 [on Friday]. 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.”
He attended a mosque, and even shared thoughts with a fellow worshipper that led the police to believe he was heading to Syria via Singapore when they arrested him at the airport in May 2017. Later, the Muslim community would be involved in various ways in trying to support and supervise him, but these efforts failed.
A workmate from Samsudeen’s early years in New Zealand described him as a “loner” who did not speak about his family. “He hardly spoke to anyone and didn’t respond to much direction. He was just a difficult person to manage.” Yet he relaxed enough with this man to boast about duping immigration officials, shared Facebook posts about “living in a land of non-believers” and showed a video of a chicken being slaughtered.
From this short testimony one gets the impression of an immature fellow, self-centred, naïve, lacking in social skills and susceptible to anything that offered him a sense of belonging and purpose.
Like so many others, he was to find it on the internet in the form of ISIS propaganda.
Samusdeen’s early years in New Zealand coincided with the rise of Islamic State, which attracted young, rootless or alienated young people from around the world. Those years also saw the rapid growth of social media. Together they gave an outlet to the sense of grievance the isolated immigrant carried with him from his homeland and showed him how to take his revenge.
He increasingly retreated into his obsessions and refused help. Visits from an imam were arranged for him in prison, but he did not engage and after two sessions they were dropped. When offered mental health support while he was in prison, he refused to meet with the psychologist.
Living under intense supervision in the annex of a mosque after his release from prison in July, he developed an obsession with someone – a woman? – involved in his management, who was forced to withdraw and cut off contact with him.
Knowing that he was also under 24-hour police surveillance made him paranoid, and this is the reason his undercover security detail remained outside the entrance of the supermarket last Friday while Samsudeen went in to shop. Eleven minutes later he was dead with a chest full of bullets, and several people were fighting for their lives (all now recovering).
Could this terrible denouement have been prevented? Perhaps. With a law now progressing in parliament Samsudeen probably could have been convicted of “planning a terror attack” and kept in prison, or he could have been deported. It’s not certain.
But the whole tragic saga could only be averted by changes at every level: family, nation, community, politics, media… Society will always be imperfect and there will always be individuals who succumb to madness or violence as a result.
Each of us, however, can make a better effort to ensure that it is not one of our own family or community who does so, living each day as though it were our last.