Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Could government agencies have averted the development of a terrorist?

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Could government agencies have averted the development of a terrorist?

The tragic terrorist attack at an Auckland shopping mall on Friday has led to a lot of debate about how it could have been prevented. It turns out authorities were well aware of Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen’s severe mental health problems and his capacity for violent extremism if not dealt with appropriately.

Much of the initial debate has been about why Samsudeen wasn’t deported or incarcerated. In the last day, however, the conversation has shifted to questions about how Corrections and Police handled Samsudeen over the last few years. There are allegations that these government agencies failed to provide the necessary and potentially vital services of rehabilitation and deradicalisation, which may have significantly reduced the risks of Samsudeen developing into a violent extremist.

The must-read piece on this is by Australian criminologist Clarke Jones, who was involved in the judicial proceedings around Samsudeen, and argues that at an early stage he was capable of being diverted from going down the ISIS-route. Jones, who is expert in de-radicalising Islamic extremists, believes authorities failed to take seriously the need for Samsudeen’s rehabilitation – see: I assessed the Auckland terrorist – our approach to extremism has to change.

Here’s Jones’ main point: “During Samsudeen’s trial in 2018, his legal team and I offered to run a bespoke, community-led intervention program to support Samsudeen in his transition out of prison, with one of its aims to alter his extreme views. The program, which has been successfully applied in the past with Muslim youth transiting out of prison, was accepted by the crown as the best and most appropriate way forward. Nonetheless, the police opted for a different approach to the crown, instead choosing surveillance and monitoring over rehabilitation.”

The Muslim community is also aghast that authorities passed up their offer to rehabilitate Samsudeen. The New Zealand Muslim Association explained today that they took a proposal to the Corrections agency to develop a formal programme, but the government department turned it down, essentially in favour of an easier option – see Anneke Smith’s Muslim leader ‘baffled’ Corrections passed up rehabilitation offer for LynnMall terrorist.

The same article reports that the Muslim Association were astonished that Corrections then chose this year to release Samsudeen into a small mosque without the necessary resources to deal adequately with him. According to the Association president Ikhlaq Kashkari, Corrections made an odd decision to send Samsudeen to the Glen Eden Masjid e Bilal mosque: “We’re a large organisation. We have skills, capabilities, people and resources to support something like this but we wanted to make sure it’s done properly. I have no idea how on earth they managed to talk this small Islamic centre, who were basically renting a property, to take him on board… I know the person that runs it used to work in the prison on behalf of Muslim community chaplains, a service provided to prisons, but that’s about it. Their skills, resources and capabilities beyond that is very, very limited.”

The Prime Minister is backing Corrections’ decisions. Jacinda Ardern has responded: “I’m confident agencies did everything within their power to keep the community safe” – see Edward O’Driscoll’s New Lynn attack: Community leaders say Corrections shouldn’t have housed supermarket terrorist in mosque. This article also reports that Police supported Corrections’ decision to send Samsudeen to the Glen Eden mosque.

The PM is reported in another article stating that all avenues around housing and rehabilitation were explored, but she admits that official reviews are needed to fully answer questions about this – see Thomas Manch’s PM says reviews will provide answers on terrorist’s management, as questions mount.

This article also possibly sheds further light on why Corrections rejected the Muslim Association’s offer of a rehabilitation programme – because such a programme would have required providing resources, as well as agreeing to a “terms of reference” setting out responsibilities not just for the association but for the government agency. Corrections has also explained that you can’t force rehabilitation on an individual who is unwilling.

Thomas Manch has also written a must-read background on Samsudeen’s life in Sri Lanka and then New Zealand, pointing out the severe mental health problems he developed over the years – see: The terrorist was a ‘highly damaged’ refugee, and efforts to help him failed. According to Manch, these details “raise questions about how the Government handled a psychologically damaged man who was readily captured by the extremist Isis propaganda.”

Manch cites criminologist Clarke Jones saying that he observed back in 2018 that Samsudeen was still redeemable: “At that stage, it was still manageable”, “There was definitely quite a lot of room for rehabilitation”, and “if they’d addressed his mental health needs then we might not have been in this situation now.” But Jones points out that the programme never got the “go-ahead” as “the police appeared to have little appetite for a community-led programme.”

Jones is also cited by Katie Todd in her article, Missed opportunities to deradicalise LynnMall attacker, says criminologist. Commenting on the fact that authorities chose to use surveillance and monitoring rather than rehabilitation, Jones says: “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.”

The terrorist’s family are also cited in the article, with his brother arguing that Samsudeen would sometimes listen to them when they challenged the ideological path he was going down. His brother also says: “The prisons and the situation was hard on him and he did not have any support. He told us he was assaulted there.”

Columnist Donna Miles has also asked some important questions about rehabilitation, and especially how and why Samsudeen became radicalised: “Why was this rehabilitation programme not effective? It has been reported that he refused the psychological assessment which was part of the programme. Did the police’s independent decision to put the attacker under constant surveillance have any impact on his rehabilitation?” – see: We must be careful not to fall into the terrorism trap.

Similarly, Jehan Casinader argues: “Friday’s incident should spur us to deeply examine the causes of radicalisation, and invest more money in efforts to deradicalise those who have already been identified by authorities” – see: ‘He’s not one of us’: Jehan Casinader responds to terror attack.

Casinader relays how he investigated the case of another refugee involved in a criminal act in New Zealand, finding: “Despite carrying significant trauma, she did not receive appropriate mental health support or rehabilitation, and became isolated and increasingly desperate in the lead-up to her offending.” He argues prevention is more effective than managing an offender: “There’s no point spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on detention and surveillance if state agencies are unable to provide culturally-responsive treatment for an individual at high risk of offending.”

As part of Samsudeen’s community supervision sentence he was required to undergo a psychological assessment this year. He apparently refused, but Corrections has been reluctant to answer questions on this – most importantly on why he was then allowed to continue with his community sentence. But today Charlotte Cook reports that the department “looked at charging him for the lack of engagement with both a private and Corrections psychologist, but was told it was not sufficient enough to be considered a breach of his conditions” – see: LynnMall attack: Terrorist threw faeces, assaulted staff – Corrections.

In this article, Correction’s national commissioner Rachel Leota is said to be “confident that Community Corrections staff were using every lawful avenue available to monitor, assess, mitigate, and manage his risk.”

Finally, there have been questions raised about whether Samsudeen’s mental health issues should be the subject of any public debate at all. The Mental Health Foundation suggests that his psychological condition should not be seen as part of the explanation for what has occurred. For more on this, see Lincoln Tan’s Terrorist couldn’t be detained under Mental Health Act after he refused psychological assessment: Legal expert.