Investigations into Friday’s (March 15) mosque shootings in New Zealand are focusing on apparent links between the suspected shooters and white supremacist groups, with the key figure believed to be an Australian rightwing extremist.

Police chief Mike Bush said that four people had been apprehended over the attacks, including an Australian identified in Canberra as Brenton Tarrant, 28, from the northern New South Wales town of Grafton.

One of the four arrested was later released without charge. There are unconfirmed reports that a fifth suspect is still wanted for questioning.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australian authorities were assisting their New Zealand counterparts with inquiries into the incident, with antiterrorism police in both countries tracing Tarrant’s movements.

“Obviously that element of the investigation Australian authorities are involved in, and they will be proceeding with their investigation, which has already been stood up, involving all the relevant agencies,” Morrison said.

An image grab from TV New Zealand taken on March 15, 2019 shows a victim arriving at a hospital following a mass mosque shooting in Christchurch. Photo: TV New Zealand/AFP; Inset: Selfie taken by gunman suspect Brenton Tarrant while driving to the mosque. Photo: Live Leaks screen grab

A rambling 73-page manifesto released by Tarrant on Thursday warned that “a terrorist attack” would be carried out in retaliation for gang rapes in Sydney, which he blamed on Muslims, and in support of Anders Breivik, the rightwing terrorist who killed 69 people at a camp in Norway in 2011.

He claimed to have briefly met with Breivik, though Asia Times could not independently confirm the claim. The document says that Tarrant planned the Christchurch attacks for two years and had a location lined up three months before they were enacted.

In an online post that emerged just before the shootings, Tarrant says: “If I don’t survive the attack, goodbye, godbless, and see you all in Valhalla!”

Tarrant streamed live video footage of the shootings in the Masjid Al Noor mosque that shows the gunman spraying bullets from an automatic weapon at huddled worshippers. The footage shows at least 20 people being hit with rifle fire.

Little was known about Tarrant before the shootings, but the manifesto says he has been a member of far rightwing groups with anti-immigration stances like the new order of the Christian Knight Templar. The original Templars fought Muslims in the Holy Land in the 11th century Crusades.

Rightwing extremist groups protest in Australia in a 2015 file photo. Image: Youtube

“I was a communist, then an anarchist and finally a libertarian before becoming an eco-fascist,” he said in the manifesto, without explaining what “eco-fascist” means.

According to the manifesto, Tarrant is also a supporter of US President Donald Trump, who he describes “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” But, paradoxically, he said the manifesto that he doesn’t like Trump’s policies.

New Zealand authorities appear to be working under the assumption that the operation was planned and executed out of Australia, with their country chosen for the attacks simply because it happened to be a softer target.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the suspects were not on any terrorist watch-lists in New Zealand.

New Zealand Labour leader Jacinda Ardern speaks to the press in Wellington on October 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Charlotte Greenfield
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to the press in Wellington, in file photo. Photo: Reuters/Charlotte Greenfield

There are several active white supremacist groups in New Zealand, including a local branch of the British rightwing National Front, as well as the Dominion Movement, a Wellington group which says it is committed to “the revitalization of European culture and identity in New Zealand.”

Meanwhile, more than 52,000 guns were imported into New Zealand last year, leading to calls for the establishment of a national firearms register. However, police say there are no indications white supremacists are arming themselves.

National Front supporters clashed with social activists in 2018 outside the country’s Parliament building and have tried to infiltrate some university campuses, but are believed to number only a few hundred at most.

The Dominions have a website that mostly mimics Nazi slogans and banners from radical supremacist organizations in the United States like Vanguard America. They apparently spend most of their time putting up posters.

New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said in an overview of white supremacist groups last year that they attracted limited local interest, and security analysts believe they are well down the list of terror threats.

There is also no clear evidence that extremists have targeted New Zealand’s small Muslim population, which stood at only 46,149 at the most recent census in 2013.

The New Zealand national flag is flown at half-mast on a Parliament building in Wellington on March 15, 2019, after a shooting incident in Christchurch. – Photo: AFP/Marty Melville

One reason may be that Islam in New Zealand is increasingly linked to the indigenous Maori community, who are converting in growing numbers thanks to Muslim icons like international rugby league star Sonny Boy Williams.

As a result, Islam is spreading at a faster rate than any other religion in the country, with a 28% increase between the 2006 and 2013 census counts.

But while the faith is taking on a higher profile, Islamic leaders in New Zealand say there are no tensions with local communities, which makes the motivation behind the mosque shootings even harder to comprehend.

“Muslims have been in New Zealand for over 100 years. Nothing like that has ever happened,” said Mustafa Farouk, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, after the killings.

“We go around the world and tell people we live in the most peaceful country in the world. This will not change our minds about living here.”