Missed opportunities to deradicalise attacker in NZ tragedy, says criminologist

Police guard at LynnMall Countdown
A police officer outside Countdown LynnMall in the west Auckland suburb New Lynn following the terrorist attack on September 2. Image: RNZ/Getty

By Katie Todd, RNZ News reporter

An Australian criminologist who deemed the New Zealand shopping mall attacker “low risk” in 2018 believes there were missed opportunities to steer him away from violent extremism.

Ahamed Samsudeen was described as a high risk to the community when he was sentenced in July for possessing Islamic State propaganda — with the means and motivation to commit violent acts.

However, three years earlier, Australian National University criminologist Dr Clarke Jones told the High Court Ahamed did not appear to be violent and did not fit the profile of a young Muslim person who had been radicalised.

At the time Dr Jones suggested “a carefully designed, culturally sensitive and closely supervised intervention programme in the Auckland Muslim community”.

Now, he said, it was unclear how much rehabilitation actually took place.

“People can change, sometimes quickly, sometimes over a longer period of time. But back in 2018, we didn’t think that he was violent,” he explained.

At the time Samsudeen appeared to feel marginalised and disconnected, Dr Clarke said, like he couldn’t “get his foot up” in society.

‘Rigid life views’
“Some of the material he was reading was of concern and he had fairly rigid views around religion and around life in general. But he’d also had some experience in difficult times and was, I would argue, deeply depressed.”

On Friday, Samsudeen walked into a Countdown supermarket in LynnMall, picked up a knife and stabbed at least shoppers, leaving some of them critically injured, before he was shot dead by tactical force police tailing him.

Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen
Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen as identified in New Zealand news media. Image: TVNZ screenshot APR

In the High Court in July, Samsudeen had admitted two charges of using a document for pecuniary advantage, two charges of knowingly distributing restricted material and one charge of failing to assist the police in their exercise of a search power.

Another expert was consulted — forensic psychiatrist Dr Jeremy Skipworth — who echoed Dr Clarke’ concerns.

“Dr Skipworth said that any form of home detention would tend to further exacerbate your mental health concerns, and that your successful community reintegration is likely to be assisted by cornerstones, such as stable housing, personal support, appropriate employment and medical care,” reads Justice Wylie’s sentencing notes.

Justice Wylie imposed a sentence of supervision, with special conditions, including a psychological assessment and a rehabilitation programme with a service called Just Community.

Dr Jones said he really would like to know more about what support Samsudeen was actually given in Corrections.

‘Was he responsive?’
“Was he responsive to that treatment, if he was receiving any treatment at all, or was the focus more on on the security side and the monitoring and the surveillance?”

Asked if the terrorist had enough support to “get better”, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said there had been attempts to change the man’s mind — and none of them were successful.

But in a family statement released after the attack, Samsudeen’s brother said he sometimes listened.

“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.”

Dr Clarke said, “I would say that we haven’t got the balance right. In this case there was too much focus on the counter-terrorism or counter violent extremism narrative, rather than actually getting to the core of what was wrong with Mr Samsudeen.”

“We can always improve the way we do things to have have greater preventative sort of mechanisms within government, police and communities.”

Dr Clarke said what happened in LynnMall was a tragedy and a terrible situation.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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