The massacre that took place in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, invites questions about the country’s counterterrorism (CT) response. Who is responsible for dealing with such situations? Why wasn’t the elite New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) called in? In this article, we break down the country’s different units in an attempt to answer these questions.

The New Zealand CT response has three layers. The first layer is made up of the Armed Offenders Squads (AOS), which are part-time law enforcement units manned by New Zealand police officers from throughout the force. There are approximately 17 AOS teams divided across the country’s major population centers. Each AOS is comprised of between 15 and 30 operators and is supported by negotiation experts. The AOS are very much reactive in nature given their part-time function. For instance, in the case of a terrorist attack, AOS operators would have to abandon their normal duties, report back to their HQ, and then respond to the incident. In counterterrorism and active-shooter scenarios, where time is of the essence, their response time would be excruciatingly slow. During the Christchurch mosque attacks, the local AOS operators were the first responders, but unfortunately were too late to be of any use.

The second layer is made up of the Special Tactics Group (STG). This is a full-time unit with national authority. STG operators respond to armed incidents, active-shooter cases, and terrorism scenarios that are outside the capabilities of the AOS. STG teams are also responsible for providing close protection to VIPs. Whereas the AOS is more focused on containing high-risk situations, the STG is focused on resolving them. For example, if the gunman in the Christchurch mosque attacks had barricaded himself inside the mosque and taken hostages, the AOS teams would cordon the area while the STG would storm in. STG operators have also been deployed overseas in support of major international events (for example, the G-20 summit). According to the New Zealand government, the STG was deployed 84 times in 2018, whereas the AOS deployed 961 times, highlighting their different roles.

The third and final layer of New Zealand’s CT response is made up of the New Zealand Special Air Service (NSZAS). The first difference between the NSZAS and the other two layers is that the NZSAS is part of the New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF).

According to the New Zealand Ministry of Defense, the NZSAS are tasked with four missions:

  1. Surveillance and reconnaissance – Operate in complex terrain and difficult situations, often for long periods of time on a range of missions and tasks.
  2. Combating terrorism – Respond to a terrorist situation in support of the NZ Police at the request of the New Zealand government.
  3. Direct action – Flexible force capable of conducting complex, joint special operations for short-duration strikes to recover designated personnel and material.
  4. Support and influence – Organize, train, and advise host nation military and paramilitary forces to maintain internal security. Also, provide assistance to other New Zealand government agencies in the conduct of national strategic operations.

Unlike in the United States where the Posse Comitatus Act restricts federal troops from operating within the country, New Zealand may utilize their forces domestically. More specifically, D Squadron NZSAS is responsible for counterterrorism. D Squadron used to be the Commando Squadron, but it was reformed in 2009. Operators serving in the squadron undergo the same selection and training as the operators serving in the regular squadrons. The NZSAS has five squadrons: A and B Squadrons are assault squadrons, D Squadron is the dedicated CT unit, E Squadron is the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) unit, and the Support Squadron provides assistance to the others.

The NZSAS are reserved for the most complex terrorist scenarios that neither the AOS nor the STG can deal with. Judging from the video footage of the attack, the Christchurch mosque attacks could have been dealt with by the STG. It’s also worth noting that the attack on the first mosque, which was the deadlier of the two, was over in approximately six minutes.

Since 2012, New Zealand has been a member of the Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee (ANZCTC), which coordinates operations during a terrorist attack as well as being responsible for crisis management, command and control, intelligence and investigation, and media cooperation.