Forty people are dead and more than 20 are seriously injured after a heavily armed gunman clad in military-style gear opened fire at a mosque in the center of Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday. A second mosque was also targeted in what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called a well-planned “terrorist attack” making for “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”
Authorities said they had four people in custody — three men and one women — but later clarified that only three were believed to have been involved in the violence. Police also deactivated a number of improvised explosive devices that had been attached to vehicles used by the suspects. Counterterrorism forces were activated across New Zealand and Australia.
Portions of the ghastly attack were broadcast live on social media, adding a new dimension to the scourge of gun violence — one sure to put more pressure on social media companies already under scrutiny about how they police their platforms.
Schools and public buildings, as well as the Christchurch Hospital, were on lockdown for hours on Friday afternoon as New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush advised residents of Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, to stay off the streets.
He appealed nationwide to people who had been planning to visit a mosque.
“I want to ask anyone that was thinking of going to a mosque anywhere in New Zealand today not to go, to close your doors until you hear from us again,” Bush said at a news conference. He pledged to mobilize “every national police resource to keep people safe.”
In a country of nearly 5 million, more than 46,000 residents are Muslim, according to data from the 2013 census, up 28 percent from 2006.
The prime minister said New Zealand had suffered “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence.” She singled out the country’s migrant population. “Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand. They may even be refugees here,” she said. “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home.”
“They are us,” Ardern intoned.
Whoever perpetrated the act, she said, has “no place in New Zealand.”
Before the attack, someone with apparently advanced knowledge of unfolding events posted links to Twitter and the message board 8chan of a manifesto, as well as to a Facebook page where the individual promised that the attack would be streamed live. The Twitter posts include images of weapons and ammunition, as well as the name of perpetrators of past mass-casualty shootings.
The 17-minute video, apparently filmed from a helmet camera, captures the man’s drive to the mosque, where he can be seen spraying bullets through the corridors and into the rooms of the house of worship.
Facebook “quickly removed both the shooter’s Facebook and Instagram accounts and the video” as soon as the social media company was alerted by police, a spokeswoman, Mia Garlick, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We’re also removing any praise or support for the crime and the shooter or shooters as soon as we’re aware.”
The aggregation and discussion website Reddit was also “actively monitoring the situation” and removing “content containing links to the video stream,” a spokesperson told The Post.
In the manifesto, the purported shooter identified himself as a 28-year-old white man born in Australia. He described his motivation, which he said involved defending “our lands” from “invaders.” He aimed to “directly reduce immigration rates,” he said.
He also said he intended to deepen strife in the United States over gun ownership and the Second Amendment.
Gun laws in New Zealand are more stringent than American regulations, but not as strict as those in Australia and much of Europe. In 2017, more than 1.2 million guns were held by civilians, according to a tracking website maintained by the University of Sydney School of Public Health.
New restrictions came into effect, including on military style semiautomatic weapons, after the deadliest shooting in New Zealand’s modern history in 1990. Thirteen people were killed in the seaside town of Aramoana when a resident, David Gray, went on a shooting spree after an argument with a neighbor.
After Friday’s attacks, national public broadcaster Radio New Zealand quoted an eyewitness who said, “There was blood everywhere.”
Reporters with the New Zealand Herald described seeing dead bodies near the Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch, where several hundred people were inside for afternoon prayers, according to local media accounts. Eyewitnesses inside the mosque at the time described to local television how they heard fellow worshipers crying out for help and saw bullet shells strewn across the floor.
Jill Keats, 66, told Newshub she was on her way to lunch when she heard noises that she thought at first were firecrackers. Then, she saw victims come streaming out of the mosque, some of whom she helped find medical aide. “I never thought in my life I would see something like this,” she said. “Not in New Zealand.”
The second location attacked was a mosque in Linwood, an inner suburb of Christchurch several miles away from the downtown mosque.
Among those inside the mosque in downtown Christchurch were members of Bangladesh’s national cricket team, according to a Bangladeshi journalist, Mohammad Isam. The ESPNcricinfo correspondent posted a video on Twitter of the cricket players hurrying through nearby Hagley Park as sirens wailed in the background.
The mayor of Christchurch, Lianne Dalziel, addressed residents in a Facebook video on Friday, asking them to remain calm. “It looks as though the worst has happened,” she said.
Government ministers voiced shock and outrage. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, speaking on Checkpoint, said the country had been robbed of its “innocence,” while Andrew Little, the justice minister, affirmed, “There is no place for hate in New Zealand.”
Officials in Australia, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, expressed solidarity. Morrison, speaking to reporters Friday evening, confirmed that one of the individuals taken into custody was an Australian-born citizen.
Whereas authorities in New Zealand were restrained in speaking to the motivation for the attack, Morrison called the suspect “an extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist.”
Marise Payne, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, said, “Targeting people in a place of worship is abhorrent and an affront to all.”