After Knife Attack, New Zealand Criminalizes Terror Plotting

New Zealand politicians on Thursday passed a law that makes plotting a terrorist attack a crime, addressing a legal loophole that drew heightened scrutiny after a knife attack in early September.

The new law had been months in the planning, but it was hurried through Parliament after an extremist inspired by the Islamic State terror group grabbed a knife at an Auckland supermarket on Sept. 3 and began stabbing shoppers. He wounded five, while two others were injured in the chaos.

Police officers shot and killed the attacker, Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen, after they said they confronted him in the supermarket and he charged at them with the knife. The authorities had been following him for weeks, worried that he planned to launch an attack at any moment after he was released from prison in July. However, the police had found no legal reason to detain him.

A year earlier, prosecutors had unsuccessfully tried to charge Mr. Samsudeen, a Sri Lankan national, with terrorism after he bought a large hunting knife and was found with violent Islamic State videos.

Prosecutors argued there was evidence that he purchased the knife with the intention of killing people and to further an ideological cause. But a judge ruled the act of buying a knife wasn’t enough to proceed with the case.

The judge found that New Zealand’s antiterror laws didn’t specifically cover plots. That “could be an Achilles’ heel,” the judge acknowledged at the time, adding that it was not up to a court to create new laws.

After the attack on Sept. 3, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed to pass the new legislation by the end of the month. Even before the attack, she said, her government had begun trying to speed up the process of passing the bill.

After the attack on Sept. 3, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed to pass a new law that would make plotting a terrorist attack a crime by the end of the month.Credit…Pool photo by Mark Mitchell

But Ms. Ardern also said that even had the new law been in place, it might not have stopped Mr. Samsudeen.

“This bill strengthens our counterterrorism laws to better prevent and respond,” said Ginny Andersen, a lawmaker with the governing Labour Party. “And these changes will also enable police to intervene earlier. If it saves lives, and makes New Zealanders safer, I believe that is a good thing.”

The conservative National Party joined Labour in voting in favor of the bill on Thursday, which passed by 98 votes to 22. But some of Ms. Ardern’s traditional liberal allies in Parliament voted against it.

The Green Party said its members were worried that the legislation had been rushed through without enough consultation, and that the definition of terrorism had been expanded to the extent that it risked including “direct action, activism, and protest.”

The Greens said they were also worried that some experts had characterized the new offense as a “thought crime,” and that accompanying powers allowing the authorities to carry out warrantless searches increased the risk of human rights abuses.

The new crime of planning a terrorist attack comes with a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. The bill also criminalizes travel to or from New Zealand to carry out an attack, and weapons or combat training for a terrorist attack.

Ms. Ardern has also been examining whether changes are needed to New Zealand’s deportation laws and policies, in light of the fact that the authorities had canceled Mr. Samsudeen’s refugee status on the basis of fraud in 2019 and ordered him deported back to Sri Lanka. An appeal by Mr. Samsudeen was still pending when he launched his attack.

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