Warning: Graphic content
He tried to behead her near the milk cabinets of a suburban Auckland supermarket, but Ezmeralda Johns still feels a mixture of sadness and relief at the findings of a multi-agency review into how terrorist Ahamed Aathil Samsudeen was managed by authorities in the years before he knifed shoppers.
Among the findings of the review, following the terror attack at Countdown LynnMall in September 2021, which injured eight people - five with knife wounds - was that police were justified in shooting Samsudeen dead, an act which brought his Isis-inspired attack to an end.
Shortcomings in how the Sri Lanka-born Tamil Muslim refugee was managed in the years prior to the attack were also found.
“I’m really sad about the fact he had to die,” Johns told the Herald this afternoon.
“But I’m also glad that they found it to be just, because the police … were just doing their jobs and protecting everyone else in Countdown. For them, I’m really happy.”
The review, authored by the respective oversight bodies of police, Corrections and intelligence agencies, stressed those involved in Samsudeen’s surveillance - he was under 24-hour police watch because of concerns he would commit violence - did their best in an unprecedented situation.
Police officers believed Samsudeen had advanced on them with the knife, posed an immediate threat of serious harm or death to them, and continuing serious threat to supermarket shoppers, at the time they fired the shots, Independent Police Conduct Authority chairman Judge Colin Doherty said.
“They were justified in shooting at Mr Samsudeen in self-defence under section 48 of the Crimes Act 1961.”
But the review also recommended changes to future approaches to radicalised individuals who pose a threat.
Shortfalls identified included missed opportunities to provide rehabilitation, insufficient co-ordination between agencies, a reluctance to share information about the risk Samsudeen posed and placing Samsudeen in custody on remand for an “unacceptably long” period which “greatly exacerbated his risk of causing harm”.
The shortfalls in Samsudeen’s management were “a bit stressful” to hear, Johns said.
“Hopefully in the future the Government will work on strategies to help people they’re surveilling, or any other sort of threat.”
The Government has accepted all the findings and committed to adding to existing legislative and agency change with the aim of addressing signs of people’s radicalisation to violent extremism earlier.
Samsudeen had been released from prison in July 2021 after being convicted of two charges of possessing objectionable material relating to Isis, and one charge of failing to assist a police officer exercising a search power.
The 32-year-old first came to the attention of police in 2016 - receiving a formal warning - after posting images of graphic acts of war violence and support for Islamic State on Facebook. He later wrote on Facebook that he would “fill the enemies with stabbing and cut off their heads violently”.
In 2017, he had reportedly expressed a desire to fight for Isis in Syria, and if he was stopped from travelling there, would commit a “lone wolf attack” in New Zealand.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was among those aware of his radicalisation, and immediately following the attack shared her frustration over the process and length of time it’d been taking to have him deported.
Attempts by prosecutors to charge Samsudeen under the Terrorism Suppression Act failed because preparing a terrorist attack wasn’t an offence under the then-legislation.
Johns, who suffered multiple lacerations and stab wounds - including across her neck and one which left her intestines exposed - spent a month in hospital following the attack, the first two weeks unconscious.
The 30-year-old has since had several surgeries and is still not able to work full-time as an early childhood teacher. She has also faced psychological challenges, including a fear of knives and TV or movie scenes showing blood.
But, Johns told the Herald in February, she did not hate her attacker.
“I just decided I’m not going to live with hate.”
Her feelings haven’t changed, she said today.
“You never really know someone’s background until you live it yourself, so I don’t know what he has been through or what has led him to make decisions like this.
“So for me, to help with my emotional stability, the decision not to hate people that do things like this is fundamental to me … and it has helped me emotionally not to live with hatred.”
Fellow shopper Mike Andrews wasn’t physically injured by Samsudeen, but is among official victims because CCTV footage of the attack showed the terrorist’s knife came so close to his face police told him Samsudeen could’ve been charged over it had he lived.
The Auckland dad ran towards danger, challenging Samsudeen with a queue control bollard when he saw him trying to behead Johns, prompting Samsudeen to charge towards him with his knife.
He was “incredibly grateful” the police officers who shot Samsudeen had been cleared of blame.
“What they did, and when they did it, saved lives.”
He hasn’t yet read the full review, but doesn’t believe Samsudeen could’ve been deradicalised.
“I’d like to see the data where internationally it’s been proved you can deradicalise somebody. It just seems a little bit too woke for me.”
He lives with ongoing psychological trauma from the attack, memories of which he expects to “sit with me uncomfortably probably for the rest of my life”, Andrews said.
“I’ve got a houseful of kids and they’re screaming, and that’s triggering. How am I doing? I don’t know what’s normal anymore. There’s days you go to that same supermarket and everything’s fine, and there’s other days you walk in the door and you’re in a cold sweat.”
Three weeks after the attack, Parliament passed the Counter Terrorism Legislation Act, making it easier to prosecute people for planning and preparing a terrorist attack.
Today’s review - alongside police, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service and Corrections were the chief agencies responsible for Samsudeen’s management.
The review acknowledged individuals and agencies were doing their best to deal with an “extremely difficult situation” involving a “very challenging person … to engage with”.
“We were told that they faced problems they had never before experienced to that degree.”
The four primary deficiencies identified were, missed opportunities to develop a “wraparound” rehabilitative and reintegrative plan before and after Samsudeen was jailed, how the National Security system was run under the leadership of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, information about Samsudeen’s risk not being shared due to the “very restrictive interpretation” of who needed to be informed, and that Samsudeen’s time in custody on remand was extended by approximately 18 months because of several factors, including Covid-19 lockdowns.
The latter had “magnified Mr Samsudeen’s sense of grievance against the system, greatly increased his alienation, hostility and risk of increased radicalisation”, the review found.
“And [it] precluded agencies from properly considering other options for addressing the problem that he undoubtedly presented.”