This article was first published in March and has been republished ahead of sentencing.
On March 15, 2019, a 28-year-old loner from small-town Australia committed New Zealand’s worst mass shooting, killing 51 Muslims and injuring 49 others in Christchurch. What path took him there?
In the end, it came down to this: a mattress and a bookshelf, a colander and a dish rack, a few battered suitcases and a broken electric fan. A bottle of Steinlager and a family pack of Bluebird potato chips. A toaster and a worn vinyl computer chair.
A week after the March 15 mosque attacks in Christchurch, the material total of the gunman’s New Zealand life was dumped into a caged trailer outside his unremarkable rental in Dunedin.
Police had already secured as evidence most of the other possessions the 28-year-old Australian, Brenton Tarrant, had brought with him when he moved across the Tasman 18 months before.
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Police had first arrived at the property the previous Friday, just hours after the gunfire ceased.
The first shots had been fired at 1.41pm, during Friday prayers at the Masjid An-Nur (also known as the Al Noor Mosque) in central Christchurch.
By the time police arrived about six minutes later, Tarrant had already departed, leaving 42 bodies behind him.
At 1.52pm he attacked the Linwood mosque, fleeing after just three minutes. By then, seven more were dead.
The gunman may have been en route to a third target, a mosque in Ashburton, when two experienced rural cops intercepted him by ramming his 2005 Subaru Outback off the road.
By 1.59pm the suspect was in custody, and by 2.15pm he was being questioned at Christchurch Central Police Station.
Forty-nine people were dead, another 51 injured. Within a couple of months the numbers had flipped, with 51 people dead and 49 injured.
Determining whether Tarrant was acting alone turned out to be complicated. He was the only shooter; but, equally, there as a web of online and real-world extremism that cheered him on as he went about his killing.
Though police ended his massacre less than 20 minutes after it started, the threat from the ideology that supported him lingers.
To understand this contradiction, it’s worth tracing the path the gunman trod from a small town in Australia’s New South Wales, out into the world, then back across the Tasman to New Zealand.
‘HIS SOCIAL SKILLS WERE NOT THAT GREAT’
Brenton Tarrant was born in 1990, the second of two children to Rodney Tarrant, a fitness fanatic who worked the local garbage run, and Sharon, a teacher.
The family lived in Grafton, a pretty NSW town lined with jacaranda trees.
With a population of fewer than 20,000, Grafton skews a little older, a little poorer and significantly whiter than is average for Australia, with 87 per cent of its residents born in the country.
Those blindsided by what he has done include Marie Fitzgerald, his maternal grandmother.
A brisk, white-haired woman in her 80s, Fitzgerald lives in a seniors’ lifestyle community. Her modest living room is made homely with family photos, some of her now-infamous grandson.
There are roses on the table sent in sympathy by a friend she hadn’t heard from for years.
Asked how the family are finding things, Fitzgerald says Tarrant’s mother barely slept for 16 nights after the shootings. She, however, has had no such problems. “Everybody else in the family is saying, ‘How the hell are you sleeping?’ And I say, ‘Well, I didn’t do it.'”
She talks of Rodney and Sharon splitting up when the kids were little, blaming the divorce in part on Rodney’s increasing obsession with fitness, including participating in marathons and triathlons both here and overseas, which strained the family’s finances.
Her grandson was no athlete, but rather a chubby kid with little physical skill.
“You’d see him sitting on the sidelines or at the goalpost playing in the dirt, with everything going on around him,” says Fitzgerald.
Things started to change at high school, however, when a knee injury prompted him to join a gym. Like his father before him, he became obsessed.
Some who went to Grafton High with Tarrant recall a man without close friends who was given to playing pranks.
Former school colleague Aurey Marsh describes him as “a bit of a bully and a bit of a bloody menace” in his younger years.
He recalls a year-10 prank in which he shredded newspapers and put them on top of the fans and air-conditioner. “When the teacher came in and turned the fans on, all this shredded paper flew out.”
His interest in fitness grew once he finished school, when he took a job as a personal trainer at the Big River Gym.
One of the regulars was John Heffernan, the former governor of Grafton Jail. He remembers the Christchurch shooter concentrating on free weights rather than machines.
“He used to grunt and throw the weights down, cutting into the carpet,” he says. “He was oblivious to it. He did damage [the floor] on a couple of occasions. He pulled his back at one stage, which put him out of action for a while. For the size that he was and the age that he was, he had to take a bit more care in what he was lifting.”
Heffernan remembers him as a loner. “He was friendly, but I got the impression his social skills were not that great. He didn’t seem to be one that mixed very well. [But] there were no outbursts of anger or anything like that.”
Tarrant’s boss at Big River, Tracey Gray, also remembers a young man who was awkward, though not violent, nor a bigot.
“He didn’t show extreme views on religion, race … He never spoke ill of anyone behind their back based on race, appearance or beliefs or religion.”
He was fanatical about what he ate, and tried to encourage gym clients to adopt his strict dietary regimen.
He pushed himself, sometimes training for two or three hours at a time. On occasion, Gray would have to prompt him to go home and shower, and once even bought him some work shirts.
He was “on the outer of social circles”, she says, “not the bubbly, chatty one that could stand here and talk to anyone”. But his confidence grew with his fitness and body bulk.
Around this time, his father Rodney, who had spent his working life hurling building scrap into garbage trucks, fell ill with mesothelioma, a cruel killer of a disease most commonly caused by exposure to asbestos. He died in April 2010, aged 49, three years after diagnosis.
Brenton Tarrant was 20 and living with him, and when not in the gym, spending an increasing amount of time on Facebook.
“I tend to think living with his father and watching him die must have been a terrible thing,” says Fitzgerald. “I thought it must have played some part when his father died.”
Rodney Tarrant received compensation for his illness, thought to be about $500,000, and believed to have been shared between his two children.
Under the name ferretbiter, his son turned to a website, Aussie Stock Forums, for advice on what he should do with the money; indeed, with his life.
Responding to someone who advised him to pursue career satisfaction, he wrote, “There is more to life than money. But while I work I do not have time to do what I truly enjoy doing … So whatever job gives me the largest amount of income in the shortest possible time is the job I will always choose. I work to retire, I do not work for fun.”
Someone else chimed in, saying that the tough jobs created by the mining boom were lucrative.
He responded: “The only thing that stops me from joining the mining boom is that there is only one thing I believe is more important than wealth, and that’s good health. No use being rich if you are dead from gas exposure.”
Earlier in the same thread, he had listed the pros and cons of careers he’d considered. He wrote that he could move to the city to earn more as a personal trainer, or sign up with the RAAF’s Airfield Defence Guard. With a bit of study he could break into finance or real estate, though he worried he might not succeed in such competitive industries.
“Ferret, you need to change your whole vibe, IMO,” one online voice responded. “Based on what you’re saying, you have no self-confidence or self-respect, but it’s those very attitudes that are needed for success in any endeavour.”
He replied: “Truthfully I am extremely confident in every situation but talking over the phone (still don’t know what is up with that, I think it’s the lack of body language that throws me off). I run fitness classes with 20+ people daily who do nothing but stare/ask questions and mimic my movements for 60 mins and I enjoy it. My self respect is through the roof, I can truly do anything I put my mind to.
“I wanted to lose weight, I lost 52kgs in 30 weeks. I wanted to be able to walk again, I can now leg press 1000lbs. I wanted to grow muscle, I’ve eaten the same thing every day for 3 years, gained 18kgs of muscle and have had 5 days off training out of 622. I am a goddamn monster of willpower, I just need a goal or object to work towards.”
In a different thread, he confessed that he hadn’t told people in Grafton about his inheritance. He also claimed to have made money from cryptocurrency investments. “In my pissant town, you are the next Bill Gates if you have half a million in liquid assets,” he wrote. “Thus why no one must ever know I’m not a broke personal trainer living with my mother.”
With money in the bank, his father dead and no close friends to speak of, he was ready to hit the road.
The last time Fitzgerald saw her grandson was in June 2018, when he returned home for his sister’s 30th birthday.
“You wouldn’t have known there was anything wrong with him,” she says. “Sharon was just happy that he came home, we could all give him a cuddle and say hello, because we never see him. We had a happy night down at the Jacaranda pub.”
It would be a different story, however, when Sharon visited her son in Dunedin, only months before the massacre.
The full extent of her son’s travels are not clear, though from his social media posts and later reports by police and intelligence agencies, an outline of his movements can be traced.
He began by driving a campervan through northern Australia in 2013 and 2014, before turning his attention to south-east Asia.
In 2014, he wrote on a web forum of plans to visit 27 Asian regions, boasting that he had “unlimited time and budget”.
It’s not clear how much of this Asian odyssey he ever undertook; within a year or so, his interests had moved towards the shifting and often bloody historical borders between the Ottoman Empire and European states, between Islam and Christianity.
He travelled in 2016 to Serbia and surrounding countries, visiting the sites of historic battles as well as the museum of Marko Miljanov Popovic, a Montenegrin Serb general who fought against the Ottomans in the 19th century and whose name he would later cite.
The following year, he visited a number of other European countries including France, which has the largest Muslim population in the Western World, primarily due to immigration.
In August 2017, he decided to move to New Zealand.
He travelled again after settling in Dunedin. In 2018, he visited Pakistan, a place filled with “the most earnest, kindhearted, hospitable people in the world”, according to a message attributed to him on a hotel owner’s Facebook page.
He also travelled to North Korea, then returned to Europe where he visited Bulgaria, stopping in Pleven, the site of a battle of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.
According to Julia Ebner, an Austrian researcher into new waves of extremism with the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Europe’s new far Right is showing a keen interest in such destinations.
This is particularly so among those known as “Identitarians”, who believe Europe is under attack by Muslims who seek to displace them in their “traditional lands” via “outbreeding” and immigration.
Author of the 2017 book The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism , Ebner says that by emphasising an “inevitable” clash of civilisations, the Identitarian movement has been effective in recruiting young people who might be repelled by overt references to National Socialism and the Holocaust, and to circumvent laws in some European countries banning pro-Nazi rhetoric.
To do so, it has harnessed the language of computer gamers and their online forums. Like Islamic State, Ebner says, the Identitarian movement casts its members as victims of historical injustices and as warriors courageous enough to take up arms in defence of their people.
During this trip he visited Austria, home of Martin Sellner, a 30-year-old Identitarian leader. A fortnight after the Christchurch attack, Sellner’s home was raided by police.
Sellner denied he and the Christchurch shooter ever met in person, but confirmed to the BBC that they’d exchanged emails. Some time in 2018, Tarrant donated €1500 (NZ$2806) to Sellner’s cause.
Ebner thinks it unlikely Tarrant was drawn to the Identitarian cause by one particular person or in one specific location. Rather, she thinks his online world was driving his travels, and that his travels were fuelling his online conversations, each aspect of his life reinforcing the other.
TOXIC CHAN CULTURE
As the Australian fitness trainer began his travels, the online ecosystem that has supercharged far-Right extremism around the world was beginning to explode. Close to its epicentre were two online forums, 4chan – created in 2003 by Christopher “Moot” Peel, a 15-year-old New Yorker – and its spin-off, 8chan, created a decade later by Fredrick “Hotwheels” Brennan.
The “chans”, so-called “image boards” due to their focus on visuals rather than text, are virtual meeting places where like-minded members can socialise, gossip and share information.
The idea originated in Japan, where boards have long been used to discuss the graphic novels and cartoons known as manga and anime.
Typically, these boards are only loosely moderated by their administrators, if at all. Their members post anonymously and their contributions last for only a short period before they vanish.
The chans are the internet stripped of self-control and devoid of memory. They illustrate, too, all the restraint and sophistication for which adolescent boys are known.
4chan users were some of the earliest creators of what we now know as meme culture. Lolcats (funny cat videos) grew out of the 4chan ecosystem, as did rickrolling (sending surprise links of video clips by British singer Rick Astley).
But alongside idiosyncratic in-jokes, 4chan’s anonymity and blokey ecosystem fostered a toxic culture.
Many of its boards were soon dominated by virulently sexist and racist conversation and imagery. Above all else, their members despised political correctness.
As higher standards of courtesy and respect were adopted in the wider world, their members responded with darker and more hateful language and imagery, normally laden with irony; it is always just a joke.
4chan was used to organise mass hacking or doxxing attacks (the latter involving posting personal information online) on institutions and individuals who dared criticise its ugly, freewheeling tone.
After memes, organised trolling became 4chan’s second great cultural contribution. 4chan’s influence soon started bleeding into the wider world.
In 2014, a handful of 4chan users organised online mob attacks on two prominent US women in the gaming industry. The women’s lives were upended as personal information was hacked and published. They were inundated with rape and death threats.
The controversy exploded into a full-blown culture war that became known as GamerGate. 4chan’s dark side – and the power of its troll armies – was suddenly exposed to the outside world.
Frustrated that all the negative attention was spoiling his attempts to attract advertisers to the site, its founder Peel finally sought to assert some restraint over 4chan and banned GamerGate discussions on its boards.
Furious at the imposition, hardcore users defected to 8chan, a site Brennan had conceived while on a psychedelic mushroom trip.
8chan would be like 4chan, he decided, but with an endless number of discussion boards – the 8 represents the infinity symbol on its side. Crucially, 8chan would have just one rule: no user could post, request, or link to content that was illegal in the United States. Here, 4chan refugees could run their hate campaigns in peace.
The cultural impact of the chans is hard to exaggerate. They would seed the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theories, including the claim that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the FBI were involved in a “deep state” plot to destroy Donald Trump. Trump himself echoes parts of these theories to this day.
Steve Bannon, the alt-Right champion who became Trump’s campaign CEO and then later White House chief strategist, lending a quasi-intellectual framework to Trump’s reflexive ethno-nationalism, quickly recognised the power of this mob.
“These guys, these rootless white males, had monster power,” Bannon told an American journalist.
One rich topic of discussion on the chans was “replacement theory”; the Identitarian notion of “white” displacement. In its American guise, the “invaders” are characterised as either Latin American or Muslim.
A handful of messages left on other social media sites give clues about how Tarrant’s politics were developing, and how his online and real-life travels were converging.
In 2016, he commented on Facebook with a post about Blair Cottrell, the Australian who led the anti-Islam white nationalist United Patriots Front (UPF). “Never believed we would have a true leader of the nationalist movement in Australia, and especially not so early in the game,” he wrote of Cottrell.
Cottrell later told the ABC that he didn’t know Tarrant, but confirmed the UPF had received a donation from someone in his name.
In December 2017, someone thought to be Tarrant went on Facebook under the name Barry Harry Tarry, using a photo of English footballer Wayne Rooney, to whom he bore a passing resemblance.
In this guise, he left a five-star review on the Facebook page of a Gold Coast machinist business belonging to 24-year-old “eco-fascist” Marcus Christensen, whose workshop bore a mural of 1930s British fascist leader Oswald Mosley.
Christensen, happy to pose for a photo in front of it, told reporters he “indirectly” knew the gunman through others but disavowed his violence.
Christensen is also a supporter of the Australian white nationalist group Lads Society, and has used imagery of the secretive neo-Nazi group Antipodean Resistance in his social media posts.
Social media screenshots obtained by the fascism monitoring group The White Rose Society show Christensen wearing a swastika armband, posting Third Reich memes and encouraging friends to join the Lads Society.
He once featured the death mask symbol of Antipodean Resistance – a skull associated with Hitler’s SS, wearing an Akubra – on his business card.
Christensen confirms that in late 2017 he received a series of business reviews, including one from the shooter, after putting a call out for support in a private Facebook group.
“I don’t believe I had him as a Facebook friend, but I remember seeing a few posts on various groups at the time and nothing since.”
Christensen says he is not part of any far-Right group, dismissing his online Nazi references as “s…posting” – the practice of making chaotic and apparently meaningless posts designed to confuse, enrage or amuse
S…posting is also used to foster extremism, says Julian Feeld, an American writer and co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, which explores online Right-wing conspiracy culture. It serves as a recruitment tool, and if called to account for the content, the poster can dismiss his actions as humour or irony.
Christensen admits some jokes were “in bad taste”. “Honestly, most of the ‘lads’ that I’ve met have been wonderful guys and it’s true that there is a lot of dark humour in that scene, but if anything, Lads Society is more of a de-radicalising force than anything,” he says.
On the day of the shootings, however, Lads Society president Tom Sewell assured conspiracy theorists in a private Facebook group that the attack was genuine.
“This one was not a false flag … take my word for it,” he wrote.
When contacted about the posts, Sewell says people in his circle knew of the gunman online going back about three years. In 2017, he even tried to recruit Tarrant over Facebook to his new Lads Society venture, to help create a white-only parallel society. He refused, Sewell says, as he was going to New Zealand.
‘HE WAS IN A BAD PLACE’
On the morning of Friday, March 15, Tarrant left his home in Dunedin and drove alone to Christchurch, his car loaded with his guns and ammunition, his tactical gear and helmet, his camera and microphone rig.
The drive north takes nearly five hours if you push through without a break, across what were the lands of the Ngāi Tahu tribe before the Treaty of Waitangi made it British.
The single carriageway winds up the volcanic hills that ring Dunedin and meets the sea again on a plain so flat that the land itself seems to disappear into the Pacific, then twists through farmland marked by towering hedgerows.
In Christchurch the community he was driving towards was preparing for its weekly congregational prayer. Friday prayers are not only the most sacred of the week, but a time to catch up with friends and family.
Yama Nabi and his 71-year-old father Daoud had argued a few weeks earlier and not seen each other since. The falling-out was weighing on Yama’s mind, and Daoud has been missing Yama’s six-year-old daughter, Zahal.
Yama decided to bring her with him to prayers so his father could spend time with them both, but he was running late.
Daoud is well known at the mosque. A leader in the Afghani community, he has a habit of greeting arriving Muslim refugees at the airport no matter where they’ve come from.
Dr Mohammad Alayan, the owner the An-Nur child care centre in Dunedin, was on time. The Alayan family split their time between Dunedin and Christchurch and on this day he arrived for prayers a few minutes before his son, Atta Elayyan.
Well known about town, Atta attended Christchurch Boys High and was coach of its soccer team. A successful young executive, a former competitive computer gamer and a prominent app developer, married with a two-year-old daughter, he was the starting goalkeeper for the New Zealand Futsal Whites.
At 1.34pm, the gunman drove through the leafy inner-suburbs near the Al Noor mosque. He pulled over to flick on the camera on his helmet, and turn on his car stereo. The live feed was by then on Facebook and he posted to 8chan to direct an audience to it.
“Well lads, it’s time to stop s…posting and time to make a real life effort post,” he wrote. “I will carry out and attack against the invaders, and will even live stream the attack via Facebook.”
A racist ditty bleeds out of the Subaru’s stereo. The gunman’s camera showed a pile of loaded magazines in his lap, three long arms on the passenger seat and an assault rifle by his right leg. All the hardware was scrawled with slogans and names of his Identitarian heroes.
Tarrant’s entry into the mosque was so fast and violent that Dr Alayan was still on his knees at prayer when he was shot. One round goes through his shoulder and another hits him in the side of his head. He survived, but learned when he came out of surgery that his son Atta had not.
Yama and Zahal were still parking when the gunman arrived. Daoud, the man who greeted refugees at the airport, was by the front door. Tarrant approached, clad in his body armour, strapped with his guns. Still Daoud offered the customary welcome.
This is an edited version of a story that was first published in August 2019 in Good Weekend, a magazine inserted into The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. Legal reasons prevented its publication in NZ at the time.
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