Thursday, December 9

The LynnMall attacker spent years under a watchful eye

Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen was under constant surveillance.

Since he was released from jail in July, members of the police special tactics group had been watching his every move.

Auckland High Court

Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

On Friday afternoon they followed him as he left the West Auckland mosque where he lived, got on a train and headed to the Countdown supermarket in LynnMall.

“There was nothing unusual about the subject’s routine,” said Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.

When Samsudeen arrived, she took a shopping cart and for about 10 minutes, it seemed like all the other visits she had made to the supermarket before that.

The surveillance team followed him as closely as they could as he moved through the hallways, Coster said.

But at some point, he took a knife.

In a frenzy, he stabbed several people, critically wounding some. Shoppers fled the mall in panic and screaming.

Within a couple of minutes, Samsudeen was dead, shot by one of the members of the police surveillance team.

What happened was a terrorist attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that night.

But it did not come without warning.

Under suspicion

Samsudeen, a Tamil Muslim from Sri Lanka, came to New Zealand on a student visa in 2011.

In 2013, he was granted refugee status.

But it wasn’t until 2016 that Samsudeen came to the attention of both the police and the Security Intelligence Service.

He received two formal warnings from police for posting violent, extremist and pro-Islamic State content online.

Undeterred by the warning, he used aliases to continue posting similar material.

A year later, in May 2017, he was arrested at Auckland Airport.

He was suspected of heading to Syria; He had previously told a devotee at an Auckland mosque that he wanted to fight for the Islamic State.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 3: Police guard the area around Countdown LynnMall after a violent extremist unleashed a terrorist attack by stabbing six people before being shot by police on September 3, 2021 in Auckland.

Photo: Getty Images 2021

When the police searched his apartment, they found a large hunting knife under a mattress on the floor.

They also found secure digital cards containing fundamentalist material, including propaganda videos, photographs of him posing with firearms, and firearms sales markers, crossbows, binoculars, military boots and a vest.

The police charged him and he was taken into custody.

In the tribunals

In June 2018, in Auckland High Court, Samsudeen pleaded guilty to representative charges of knowingly distributing restricted publications.

Police dropped an offensive weapon charge in connection with the hunting knife.

At the time, he had been detained for 13 months, far longer than any prison sentence for the charges he faced.

Judge Wylie granted him bail, pending his sentence, with strict conditions regarding the use of electronic devices and the Internet.

But in August 2018, Samsudeen violated those conditions.

He searched the internet for camouflage pants, as well as his own name, news about his offense and “loyalty to ISIS.”

Then he went and bought the same model of hunting knife that the police had previously found under his mattress, with a camouflaged sheath.

Samsudeen was arrested again and his room was searched.

That time, on his electronic devices, the police discovered that he had searched the Internet for “enemies of Allah”, “hunting knife” and “clothing of the Islamic State”.

He had also been accessing hymns and videos of the Islamic State, many of which showed violent acts. One referred to “how to kill non-Muslims.”

He was charged by the police and, once again, arrested.

More time in prison is not an option

In September 2018, Samsudeen was sentenced on the first set of charges to one year of supervision.

Judge Wylie concluded that a prison sentence could not be imposed, given the long amount of time he had already spent in custody in pre-trial detention.

Special conditions were imposed that restricted Samsudeen’s use of electronic devices and the Internet, and he was required to attend psychological evaluations and rehabilitation programs.

But Samsudeen seemed to exhibit a clear contempt for authority.

“The probation officer who interviewed him for the pre-sentencing report told him that he has an isolated lifestyle, a high sense of entitlement and a propensity for violence,” Judge Wylie said in his sentencing notes.

“He commented that he shows a minimal perception of his crime, that he believes the charges he has pleaded guilty to are ‘false.’

Because Samsudeen had been placed in pre-trial detention on the second set of charges, he remained in prison pending his trial.

Barbed wire in a prison

The Crown wanted to accuse Samsudeen of plotting to carry out a terrorist act, but a judge ruled that this was not a crime under the law.
Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Terror charge denied

The Crown had wanted to indict Samsudeen under the Suppression of Terrorism Act, claiming that he was planning to carry out a terrorist act.

But in July 2020, Judge Downs ruled that it was not a crime under the law.

In his decision, he said: “Terrorism is a great evil. The ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks with knives and other improvised weapons, such as cars or trucks, are far from unknown.

“Recent events in Christchurch show that New Zealand should not be complacent. Some of us are willing to use deadly violence for ideological, political or religious reasons.

“The absence of a crime to plan or prepare a terrorist act … could be an Achilles heel.”

Judge Downs said it was not for the courts to create such a crime.

“The issue is for Parliament,” he said.

A copy of Judge Downs’ judgment was delivered to the Attorney General, the Attorney General, and the Legal Commission.

Trial in Superior Court

Samsudeen was finally tried in Auckland High Court in May this year.

A jury found him guilty of two counts of possession of Isis propaganda promoting terrorism and one count of failing to comply with a search.

He was acquitted of a third count of possession of objectionable material and one count of possession of a knife in a public place.

He was sentenced in July.

Judge Fitzgerald did not accept Samsudeen’s explanation that he was listening to Islamic State ‘nasheeds’ (hymns) to improve his Arabic language skills.

“Rather, I accept that the larger context of his possession of these nasheeds, which included a variety of other Isis or Isil-related materials, suggests that he has an operational interest in Isis.

“In other words, I do not accept that you have simply come across these and other Isis-related materials in your research on Islam or the historic Islamic State,” he said.

A pre-sentencing report raised more flags.

“The writer of the report suggests that you support the aims and methods of Isis,” Judge Fitzgerald said.

“The writer of the report concludes that the risk that he will reoffend in a similar way to the current charges is high.

“It suggests that you have the means and the motivation to commit violent acts in the community and, despite not having violently offended to date, you present a very high risk of harming others.”

Given that he had already spent three years in prison awaiting trial, a new prison term was not an option.

The Crown said the maximum penalty for the crime would be a seven-month prison sentence, which had already been far exceeded when he was detained on remand.

Judge Fitzgerald sentenced Samsudeen to one year of supervision, with restrictions on the use of electronic devices, the Internet and social media.

“Police and community corrections clearly have concerns that you pose a non-negligible risk to the community at large,” Judge Fitzgerald said in her sentencing notes.

“I do not know if those concerns are correct and I sincerely hope they are not, although considering all the materials available at court, I can say that they are not entirely fanciful.”

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