New Zealand stabbings: officials tried for years to deport terrorist prior to Auckland attack, Jacinda Ardern says


New Zealand had tried for years to deport the terrorist who stabbed shoppers in an Auckland supermarket on Friday before being shot dead by the police officers tasked with watching him, the country’s prime minister has said.

Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen, a 32-year-old Sri Lankan man, was fighting to keep his refugee status in New Zealand when he carried out the attack, which Jacinda Ardern said was inspired by the Islamic State.

Neither his name nor the fact that he was a refugee could be reported until a suppression order by a New Zealand judge was lifted late on Saturday night. The identity of refugees, and their immigration status, are automatically protected by law in New Zealand.

Officials had tried to justify detaining Samsudeen in jail until his asylum case was resolved but there were no legal grounds for doing so. Instead, 30 officers watched him around the clock for more than 50 days before he grabbed a knife from a supermarket shelf and attacked shoppers, metres away from the undercover police surveilling him.

Seven people were hurt in the attack, five of them with stab wounds. Three of those injured were in a critical condition in hospital on Saturday.

The attack rattled New Zealand, which until Friday had not experienced an Islamic State-inspired act of terror, with the nation’s grief echoing the aftermath of the 2019 terrorist attacks on two Christchurch mosques, when 51 worshiping Muslims were murdered by a white supremacist from Australia.

Friday’s attack provoked fresh debate about a proposed law change currently before parliament that would make the act of planning a terrorist attack a crime – a legal gap identified after the Christchurch shooting.

Samsudeen arrived in New Zealand in October 2011, aged 22, on a student visa. Shortly after arriving he made a claim for refugee status. Immigration New Zealand declined this claim in 2012, but he appealed to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal and was successful. He was granted refugee status in December 2013.

In 2016 he caught the attention of the police and the Security Intelligence Service after talking sympathetically on Facebook about terrorist attacks, violent war-related videos and comments advocating violence extremism, and he was spoken to by police.

In May 2017, Samsudeen was arrested at Auckland International airport. Police believed he was heading to Syria, and a search of his apartment found Islamic State propaganda, and a hunting knife. He was released on bail, but in August 2018 – while on bail – bought a knife and police arrested him again, and found further extremist material.

Authorities had known Samsudeen wanted to commit a terrorist attack, but planning one is not a crime in New Zealand. Ardern said her government had asked the passage of a controversial new antiterrorism law to be sped up on the same day Friday’s mass stabbing took place, and she hoped it will pass by the end of the month.

By 2020, he had already been detained for three years. He was found guilty of the charges for IS propaganda, and sentenced in July 2021 to a year’s supervision, with a series of conditions that restricted him from internet devices.

Challenge to refugee status

Back in February 2019, Samsudeen’s refugee status was cancelled and he was served with deportation liability notices. Ardern added that his refugee claim had been based on a fraudulent document, although she did not elaborate further. He appealed against his deportation to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal. He was still in prison at this time, and facing criminal charges. The deportation appeal could not proceed until after the conclusion of the criminal trial in May 2021

“In the meantime, agencies were concerned about the risk this individual posed to the community. They also knew he may be released from prison, and that his appeal through the tribunal, which was stopping his deportation, may take some time,” Ardern said.

“Immigration New Zealand explored whether the Immigration Act might allow them to detain the individual while his deportation appeal was heard. It was incredibly disappointing and frustrating when legal advice came back to say this wasn’t an option.”

A person can only be detained under the Immigration Act for the purpose of deportation. Immigration New Zealand was required to consider whether deportation was likely to proceed but crown law’s advice was that the individual was likely to be considered a “protected person” because of the status of the country from which he had travelled, and likely treatment on return. Samsudeen and his family have said that he was harassed for his politics and tortured in Sri Lanka before he came to New Zealand.

Protected people cannot be deported from New Zealand. After receiving this advice, Immigration New Zealand determined it could not detain the individual while he waited for his appeal.

“Soon after, he was released from prison, and police began their monitoring and surveillance of him. On the 26 August, the Immigration and Protection Tribunal hearing was rescheduled. At the time of the terrorist attack, the offenders attempt to overturn the deportation decision was still ongoing.

“This has been a frustrating process,” Ardern said.

“Since 2018 ministers have been seeking advice on our ability to deport this individual. In July this year, I met with officials in person and expressed my concern that the law could allow someone to remain here who obtained their immigration status fraudulently and posed a threat to our national security.”

Ardern said she asked officials whether the law should be amended.

“Ultimately these timelines show that Immigration New Zealand from the beginning have sought to deport this individual, and were right to do so.” Jacinda Ardern said.

“Agencies used every tool available to protect innocent people from this individual,” Ardern said. “Every legal avenue was tried.”

Rehabilitation strategies

But some of those who had suggested rehabilitation strategies for Samsudeen said there were questions for the government and officials to answer about how the terrorist’s mental health conditions were addressed, and what deradicalisation work had been undertaken with him.

One analyst produced a report about Samsudeen for a court hearing in 2018 that assessed him as being of low harm if he was engaged in an adequate deradicalisation process. Such rehabilitation was ordered by the judge, but the analyst, Clarke Jones, told the Guardian it was not immediately clear whether any was carried out.

“The Australian and now New Zealand governments prefer to go on this securitised approach,” Jones said, referring to the decision to tail the terrorist and attempts to force him out of the country.

Referring to rehabilitation programmes when he said had worked well overseas, Jones said: “There’s no guarantees in any intervention to stop someone going down the pathway of crime or violent extremism but we would have had a much better chance.”

Advocates for Samsudeen suggested a programme for him in cooperation with Auckland’s Muslim community, Jones said. The Sri Lankan man did not fit the profile of young, radicalised ideologues and did not have a political agenda, Jones added.

Jones said New Zealand’s deradicalisation approach was still immature, and that work could not be left solely to religious leaders, especially for those, like Samsudeen, who had serious mental health conditions.

The terrorist’s brother echoed the concerns about his mental health in a statement provided to the Guardian by one of Samsudeen’s lawyers.

“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,” wrote Aroos, the brother, in a statement that characterised Samsudeen’s mental health as deteriorating over a decade. “Aathil was wrong again yesterday. Of course we feel very sad that he could not be saved.”

The family was “ready to help you all in the healing process no matter what it is needed from us”, Aroos added.

Ardern earlier said Samsudeen had refused a psychiatric assessment that could have seen him forced into a mental health facility.

There appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary when Samsudeen left his house to buy groceries at a supermarket in a west Auckland mall on Friday, said Andrew Coster, New Zealand’s police commissioner. Officers tailing him – who had waited at the entrance to the supermarket – had not realised until 60-90 seconds into the attack that he was stabbing shoppers.

Samsudeen was “highly paranoid”, took counter-surveillance measures, and had on other occasions accused members of the public of tailing him, Coster said.

Although court documents about the man were released on Saturday night, after a hastily convened hearing hours after the attack, Ardern said she would not speak the terrorist’s name, a policy she implemented after the Christchurch attacks for fear of giving the killer notoriety.

“No terrorist alive or deceased deserves a name to be shared for the infamy they were seeking,” she said.