Terrorist Used Drone to Spy on Mosque Before Killing 51 People, Streaming Live on Facebook

White supremacist terrorist Brenton Tarrant sits in the Christchurch High Court in Christchurch, New Zealand on August 25, 2020.
White supremacist terrorist Brenton Tarrant sits in the Christchurch High Court in Christchurch, New Zealand on August 25, 2020.
Photo: John Kirk-Anderson (AP)

Brenton Tarrant, the terrorist who livestreamed his massacre of 51 people on Facebook in March 2019, used a drone to spy on one of the two New Zealand mosques he attacked, according to newly public revelations by prosecutors this week. The news of Tarrant’s drone operation paints a disturbing picture of the extensive planning and surveillance Tarrant conducted to murder dozens of people, including small children, simply because they were Muslim. Tarrant’s youngest victim was just three years old.

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Tarrant, a 29-year-old Australian national, flew a hobby drone over Christchurch’s Al Noor mosque roughly two months before the attacks, studying the entry and exit points, according to the Australian Financial Review. Tarrant slaughtered 44 people in and around the Al Noor mosque with an AR-15 rifle before moving on to a second mosque named Linwood and killing seven people there.

Tarrant livestreamed the shootings on Facebook from a GoPro camera attached to his helmet and was broadcasting for an agonizing 17 minutes before his feed was taken down by Facebook moderators. Tarrant was on his way to a third mosque when he was apprehended by police. Social media companies struggled to delete video copies of the shooting that were distributed on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in the days following the attack.

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Tarrant has pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder, and one count of terrorism. Survivors and families of the victims are testifying in a New Zealand court this week in the lead up to Tarrant’s sentencing, which is expected to take place on Thursday. Tarrant, who described President Donald Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity” in his manifesto titled “The Great Replacement,” reportedly showed no emotion during the testimony from his victims. (Trump refused to support the so-called “Christchurch Call” to condemn online extremism a couple of months after the attacks, a largely symbolic international gesture that was spearheaded by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron.)

The March 15, 2019 attack was the worst in New Zealand’s history and led to a widespread call for reform of the nation’s relatively lax gun laws. Prime Minister Ardern was able to get new gun control legislation passed in just 12 days, a sharp contrast with the United States, where gun laws have become even less restrictive following high-profile attacks at schools and other public places in recent years. The Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 left 20 children and six adults dead, but prompted no new legislation in the U.S., despite widespread support for common sense gun laws by the general public. The 20 dead children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut were all six and seven year olds.

Mourners carry the casket of the youngest victim, 3-year-old Mucaad Ibrahim, at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 22, 2019.
Mourners carry the casket of the youngest victim, 3-year-old Mucaad Ibrahim, at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 22, 2019.
Photo: Mark Baker (AP)

New Zealand abolished the death penalty in 1961 and hasn’t handed out its harshest possible sentence since that time, which is life in prison without the possibility of parole. Wealthy nations, excluding the U.S., don’t often give someone a life sentence without the chance of parole, though it’s expected Tarrant’s sentence will be as harsh as possible, given the amount of suffering he’s caused and the premeditated nature of the attacks.

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News of Tarrant’s drone surveillance only became public this week because prosecutors talked about it for the first time in open court. Other revelations have included the fact that Tarrant texted family members at 1:31 p.m. local time, just minutes before the attack, to tell them of his plans. It’s not clear if Tarrant’s family members tried to warn police of his actions.

Tarrant also used the internet to study the layout of the mosques using interior photos and to determine important days for Muslims when the mosques would presumably be most busy. Tarrant, whose Facebook and Twitter pages were deleted after the attack, frequently posted anti-immigrant news articles and said that his explicit goal was to make Muslims in places like New Zealand terrified.

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One man who was injured in the attack made a point to say this week that Tarrant’s terrorist actfailed completely” because the Muslim community in New Zealand has received an abundance of support from people all over the world and is now stronger than ever.

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“You think your actions have destroyed our community and shaken our faith, but you have not succeeded,” Wasseim Sati Ali Daragmih told Tarrant in court on Tuesday, according to New Zealand’s RNZ news outlet. “You have made us come together with more determination and strength. So you have failed completely. So you have failed completely.”

Another victim, Aden Diriye, told the court in a written statement about how his son Mucaad Ibrahim died. The child was just three years old and clung to his father’s leg as Tarrant shot him. The disturbing Facebook Live video showed Tarrant methodically shooting at people in the mosque, including many who were already severely injured and on the ground crying for help.

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Ahad Nabi, whose 71-year-old father Haji-Daoud Nabi was killed in the terrorist attacks, called Tarrant “trash” who should be “buried in a landfill.”

“This world was created with color,” Nabi said, according to video published on New Zealand’s 1News website. “Your wish is to make this world a racist cult of one color but you will never succeed.”

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Nabi asked the court to put Tarrant with the mainstream prison population rather than “wasting taxpayer money” by giving him special protection from any fellow prisoners.

“My 71-year-old dad would’ve broke you in half if you would’ve challenged him to a fight,” Nabi told Tarrant in the courtroom on Wednesday. “You are weak. A sheep with a wolf’s jacket on for only 10 minutes of your whole life.”

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New Zealand has banned distribution of Tarrant’s manifesto, as well as the viewing of his horrendous livestream, and there are tight restrictions on what journalists can report during the trial. The idea, rightly or wrongly, is that a limit on publicity ensures even the most heinous killers can receive a fair trial.

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A neo-Nazi in New Zealand was sentenced to 21 months in prison last year after sharing footage of the massacre, which he described as “awesome.” That neo-Nazi previously delivered a pig’s head to the Al Noor mosque in 2016, three years before Tarrant’s attack.

The public will likely learn a lot more about Tarrant’s despicable actions following his sentencing on Thursday, though political leaders in New Zealand have stressed that public attention should remain with the victims of the attacks, many of whom suffer from PTSD and unimaginable pain after losing their loved ones.

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Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

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DISCUSSION

All the media in New Zealand abide by the guidance from our leaders to not mention his name, or at least as infrequently as possible. He is not to become a focus for any other misguided fanatics and he should never become infamous. It would be nice if the international media showed some solidarity and abided by the same informal agreement to let this particular arsewipe rot in prison as a nobody.