Who is mosque gunman? The making of a mass killer

David Fisher
David Fisher

Senior writer, NZ Herald

Brenton Tarrant is about to be sentenced for the murder of 51 people in Christchurch on March 15. Born in Australia, Tarrant's pathway to New Zealand's darkest day took him around the world, and through the ugliest parts of the internet. David Fisher
investigates the making of a mass killer.

He slipped into the country and lived a hermit's life, until the day he killed 51 people.

In the end, it took a year for Brenton Harrison Tarrant to admit to what most had already accepted as a blunt, ugly truth - that he came to New Zealand to kill people and he did so in Christchurch.

The murderer came from Grafton in Australia, about an hour's drive from coastal Coffs Harbour in New South Wales.

Tarrant was an unassuming man from an unassuming town of 20,000 citizens.

It's been written that Grafton is poorer and whiter than the rest of Australia but the radicalisation of Tarrant owes more to what he absorbed online than his hometown.

Born in 1990, Tarrant was the second and last child of Rodney and Sharon Tarrant. Rodney worked the rubbish trucks and Sharon was a school teacher.

"He was such a dear little boy," Sharon's mum, Marie Fitzgerald, told the Sydney Morning Herald in the aftermath. She recalls the rascal who would run away from his grandmother when she looked after him and his older sister Lauren. He was a boy whose parents separated partly under the strain of Rodney's fitness compulsion, which led him to take part in marathons and triathlons in Australia and abroad.

Brenton Tarrant as a toddler.
Brenton Tarrant as a toddler.

It was an expensive compulsion - the family was never wealthy and the drain on finances put pressure on the marriage. The split came just before Tarrant's teenage years, according to The Australian. One of Rod Tarrant's first acts following the end of his marriage was to take his children on holiday to New Zealand.

That fitness drive that contributed to the end of the marriage wasn't something seen in the younger Tarrant. Marie Fitzgerald told the Sydney Morning Herald of how sport passed her grandson by, even as his sister excelled.

Instead, mates from Grafton High recalled him as a mischief-maker, a prankster, perhaps a misfit, someone without close friends. One former classmate recalled Tarrant putting shredded newspapers on top of an air conditioner, which sprayed everywhere when a teacher turned it on.

Former schoolmate and plumber Mitchell Firth told the SMH that Tarrant was no mental slouch.

"If there was a topic someone was talking about, he would know a hell of a lot more about it than anyone else. A lot of people would focus on one side of the topic while he would do his research all the way around it."

Even then he was a gamer - first-person, team-based shooters. The Australian reported he spent thousands of hours gaming online.

As he moved through his teenage years, Tarrant did find cause to exercise when recovering from a leg injury. It put him on the same obsessive path that captured his father and he began working out at the town's Big River Gym before and after finishing high school.

He became such a fixture that, in 2009, he became an instructor. Gym manager Tracey Gray told Australia media that Tarrant had gone through school being bullied for being overweight, and trained until he was a stocky, fit young man.

"He didn't have a big social network to draw from," Gray told the Herald. "It's not unusual when people who carry excessive weight get pushed to the outer and is not part of the group that's fun and popular."

Former governor of Grafton Jail, John Heffernan, also attended the gym and remembers Tarrant as someone whose "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," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Tarrant Bridge in the town of Grafton, New South Wales, where Brenton Tarrant grew up. Photo / Leon Menzies
Tarrant Bridge in the town of Grafton, New South Wales, where Brenton Tarrant grew up. Photo / Leon Menzies

A former colleague at the gym told The Australian that Tarrant would train six days a week, sometimes right through the week. His obsession was such that his diet became rigidly focused, eating "anything that comes from an animal or the ground … nothing out of a packet.

"He took that philosophy and really immersed himself and his training in it."

He took opposition to anything non-organic so much to heart that he even stopped washing his clothes until others at the gym complained.

Gray, who would buy him new, clean, shirts sometimes, also recalled his social awkwardness but remembered, too, how it eased as he became more confident about his changing, stronger,  body.

In an online conversation later, Tarrant set out to make a point about his ability to focus on a goal and then dig in and achieve it.

"I wanted to lose weight. I lost 52kg 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 18kg 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."

The "unravelling", as his mother Sharon called it, didn't really come until Tarrant's father died of cancer the following year. Rodney and Brenton Tarrant shared a home together at the time. Tarrant was 20, his dad just 49 when he died.

"I tend to think living with his father and watching him die must have been a terrible thing," says Fitzgerald.

Rod Tarrant's years of chasing a rubbish truck led to an early grave. The rubbish skips of asbestos he emptied on a regular basis were later blamed for the lung cancer that painfully and slowly took his life.

Sharon told the NZ Herald her son was profoundly affected: "He suffered from anxiety and chronic depression from his father's death."

Tarrant sought comfort in physical solitude, finding social contact over the internet. He would spend hours, days, alone playing games and engaging with people online. Sharon had worried at the time, concerned he was slipping to a place where bigotry and hatred ruled.

"It was the space he slipped into when he was grieving," Sharon said. "All of those people on the dark web encourage each other, it's so frightening. But what they don't realise is they are chronically depressed."

"Gaming is addictive because everyone is a winner. You are not learning about the real world where things don't always go the way you want it.

"You have to work hard and communicate with each other but young people have lost that ability and go into spaces that are psychologically harmful."

The loss of his father brought Tarrant a inheritance. The Weekend Australian reported he and his sister inherited about $300,000 each.

When it came, the money gradually opened a door to the world for Tarrant. He went in small steps, leaving Grafton for New Zealand to see friends The Australian said he had met online. From there, it was back to Australia and a trip in a van through northern Australia where he was exposed to the despair and poverty of Aboriginal communities. That was 2013-2014.

And then onwards, to southeast Asia, China, India, African and South America. By one estimate, The Australian reported, he had visited almost 80 countries.

It was an odyssey that became a pilgrimage as Tarrant went from visiting those countries familiar to a young Australian traveller to focus on those with links to themes pushed by right-wing idealogues.

Grafton court house in the town of Grafton, New South Wales, where Brenton Tarrant grew up. Photo / Leon Menzies
Grafton court house in the town of Grafton, New South Wales, where Brenton Tarrant grew up. Photo / Leon Menzies

By 2016, Tarrant was on the road in Europe. With what came later in Christchurch, his travels take on a sense of foreboding as he toured sites that were rallying cries for the far-right extremists who believed Western civilisation was under threat.

Those who later celebrated Tarrant's act of violence were the same who inhabit the darker corners of the internet, talking of Western Civilisation and the threat posed by Islam. They would focus on battles fought in centuries gone by in which Christian knights had repelled the "infidel" invader, the Crusades, the war between those who sought to unseat Christianity and the world it had built.

By 2016 and through 2017, Tarrant was travelling Eastern Europe. There were trips to Greece and Turkey, Israel, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He would visit castles where victories against invading Muslim forces were lodestones for the far right, and walk mountain trails that once carried mighty armies.

Brenton Tarrant in the dock in the Christchurch District Court. Photo / File
Brenton Tarrant in the dock in the Christchurch District Court. Photo / File

Such destinations are of great importance to Europe's far right and particularly so among those called "Identitarians", Austrian researcher Julia Ebner told the Sydney Morning Herald. Ebner, who studies extremism with the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says these locations are physical markers for those believing Europe to be under attack through "outbreeding" and immigration.

In Serbia, he visited the museum of the general Marko Miljanov Popovic who fought against the Ottomans. Popovic's name would later be seen among the words written on the weapons Tarrant used in Christchurch.

Tarrant travelled as if the money in his bank account would never run out. He was in Europe in the spring of 2017, travelling through France. Another name he would paint on his firearms was that of Charles Martel, a French leaderof 1300 years ago now praised by white nationalists.

Travelling through France, Tarrant described himself later as "swinging between fuming rage and suffocating despair" because of the pervasive presence of non-white Europeans.

Maclean High School in the town of Grafton, New South Wales, where Brenton Tarrant grew up. Photo / Leon Menzies
Maclean High School in the town of Grafton, New South Wales, where Brenton Tarrant grew up. Photo / Leon Menzies

As he journeyed the continent, there were events he would later claim as triggers that compelled him to plan an attack he eventually carried out in Christchurch. In April, five people were killed in a vehicle-based attack in Stockholm by an unsuccessful asylum seeker. Among the victims was Ebba Akerland, 11, whose name also appeared on Tarrant's weapons.

The election of Emmanuel Macron as president of France in May was another trigger claimed by Tarrant. He fumed over a political leader's opinions and policies.

Both Ebba's death and Macron's election fed anger in the online white nationalist community in which Tarrant was immersed.

When Tarrant moved to New Zealand in August 2017, he later said he did so to plan and train for the attack he had already conceived. He moved to Dunedin, rented a house in a quiet street, and set about planning a massacre. New Zealand wasn't the target he initially intended to attack, but it became the country he settled on.

The rental property in Dunedin where Brenton Tarrant lived. Photo / Dean Purcell
The rental property in Dunedin where Brenton Tarrant lived. Photo / Dean Purcell

And still Tarrant travelled. He was in Spain in early 2018 and back to Australia for his sister's birthday party at Coffs Harbour. Then he was off again, visiting Bulgaria and Romania, and then Pakistan where he wandered an isolated northern province on the largely Muslim country. It wasn't how a backpacker would plan a journey - the destinations didn't lead into each, and he would journey half the world to his next destination.

In Dunedin, those on Somerville Street rarely saw their new Australian neighbour. Others on the street would leave for work, arrive home at night, chat or simply wave to each other as they passed. It was a casual courtesy in which Tarrant had no part. He had isolated himself from life from years, withdrawing from society as he immersed himself in an online world that drew him further towards extremes.

He had no job. He did little other than train at a local gym and shoot at a gun club south of the city. Even there, he sought little contact with others.

In all, he spent more than a year in the weatherboard house in Dunedin East. He bought guns and ammunition, and he planned a massacre.

His mother visited Dunedin and pleaded for him to come home three months before her son acted. She was worried. This wasn't the son she had raised, living in a sparsely furnished house.

"His accommodation was so stark it may as well have been in a cell. He hadn't even put sheets on his bed," a source told the Weekend Australian.

In the hours before the attack, Tarrant sent her a message. There would be "the most terrible things" said about him, he predicted, because of what he had chosen to do.

It's on me, The Weekend Australia reported that he told her, and not how you raised me. As he prepared for the attack that would leave 51 people dead, he told her he loved her and that she should get on with her life.

Sharon Tarrant might have physically brought her son into the world. But it wasn't her who made the killer of March 15.

By then, he was a long way from the red-haired boy with curls framing his face who sat at the sidelines while his sister played hockey. He was no longer the school prankster, or the obsessive free-weight lifter who wouldn't wash.

What made a mass murderer?

In that rented Dunedin house, there were two chairs, a table and a mattress. It was here, it is believed, that Tarrant sat and worked on the so-called "manifesto" in which people would later seek answers.

The document recounts Tarrant's journey mentally and physically towards the massacre.

Tarrant's manifesto was a "trap", wrote Robert Evans a journalist with an expertise in far-right terrorism online, that was "laid for journalists searching for the meaning behind this horrific crime".

And yet, wrote Vox writer Jane Coaston, there is value in studying Tarrant's manifesto for what is not written but can be read between the lines. The language and themes chart the flow of white nationalist ideology across the internet, across borders.

As Coaston points out, terrorist manifestos don't aim to provide an accurate reflection of the belief structure, motivations or planning behind attacks.

"The main intention of terrorist manifestos is not to help everyday people understand how they became terrorists — it is to create new terrorists."

The Herald's Matt Nippert - who researched a string of linked mass-shootings at Cambridge University - described the killers as a movement. They were a "lone wolfpack of white supremacists spawned in the dark corners of the internet", he said.

Studying four mass shooters, Nippert described the killers as not defined by their targets but by their tribe. "They are all young white men, who see their dominance - characterised as 'European identity' - as facing a threat so existential that peaceful democratic solutions are seen as either hopeless or part of the problem".

"Violence, chiefly indiscriminate and shocking violence designed to spur polarisation and retaliation, is seen as the only solution."

In the cases studied by Nippert, the killers moved from "radical ideas to action … (after) a personal or domestic shock".

"They're not members of violent groups, but sometimes try to join and are rejected, and are often found hanging around the fringes."

They feed off each other, he found, and the ideology to which they grasp becomes a "contagion", spreading online with the reach of a virus. They weren't "lone wolf" killers but a "lone wolfpack", physically separate but unified in their sense of displacement and the way in which they sought to resolve it.

On March 15, Tarrant put his plan into action. He had left Dunedin and must have known he would never return. There was nothing, really, to return to.

In the minutes before arriving at the Al Noor mosque, Tarrant spoke to his tribe, an internet petri dish of the far-right, of Identatarians, of white supremacists.

He emailed his manifesto widely - including to the office of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - and set up his Go-Pro to livestream what followed.

A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch following the attacks. Photo / AP
A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch following the attacks. Photo / AP

When it was done, and Tarrant was arrested, we braced for the trial to come. There were many who said a trial was unnecessary, and there were concerns Tarrant would use it as a soapbox.

Norway wrestled with the risk of Breivik's public trial. Author Åsne Seierstad wrote One Of Us in 2015, in which she studied Breivik's life and motivations that culminated in 77 deaths.

When it came time for Breivik to speak at his trial, she told the Herald "it was rambling".

And the prosecution served to deconstruct and demolish the fictions in which Breivik had wrapped himself.

"For ten weeks he basically had to sit there and hear everything from experts: On all sorts of ideological movements, which tradition he is a part of. His brain gets dissected, his social life gets dissected."

Flower tributes left for victims at Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Photo /  Michael Craig
Flower tributes left for victims at Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Photo / Michael Craig

It was cathartic for the nation, she said. In the end, it exposed him before a wounded nation and in doing so, allowed it to heal.

Tarrant's decision to plead guilty means the detailed presentation of evidence, not just of the killings but what led Tarrant to commit those murders, will not be aired.

If there was catharsis to be found, it won't entirely come through the courts. It may yet through the Royal Commission set up to investigate the massacre.

When Tarrant pleaded "guilty", it was the first heard from him since a letter written from prison in July, four months after the massacre.

The letter showed, in the time he had to reflect, that his views had not changed.

A man speaks on a phone near the mosque after the shootings. Photo / AP
A man speaks on a phone near the mosque after the shootings. Photo / AP

In total, the letter is 40 sentences long. Of those, half begin with the accused referring directly to himself.