Auckland mall terrorist attack: How an Isis-inspired knife attack unfolded

Trolleys swerved down aisles in a wide berth, masked shoppers social distancing and sticking to the rules.

The streets were deserted and this normally humming west Auckland mall was a ghost of its usual self yesterday afternoon.

Customers shuffled inside LynnMall’s Countdown Supermarket single file.

Around 2.40pm yesterday, one man, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, bustled in. Moments later, two serious, otherwise innocuous figures followed behind.

They were tailing him.

As soon as he left his Glen Eden address, the officers – highly trained, gun-carrying members of an elite police unit – moved.

The man was an identified threat, a dangerous high risk to the public, on a terror watch-list, and was under 24/7 surveillance.

Inspired by ultra-radical Islamist group Isis, the Sri Lankan-born man, who came to New Zealand in 2011, had previously been arrested for allegedly planning a “lone wolf” knife attack.

The 32-year-old man — known only as “S” for legal reasons although later today he might finally be named — had been on the police’s radar for years.

He had been caught buying large hunting knives and possessing Isis videos. And in 2017, he was arrested at Auckland International Airport after booking a one-way ticket to Singapore, with police believing he was planning to join the terrorist group Isis in Syria.

He had only recently been released from prison.

But authorities were worried about his ongoing threat to society. He had been under constant surveillance since 2016 by police, including an armed tactical team, and national security agencies.

So when he left his house yesterday afternoon, two undercover members of the police Specialist Tactics Group (STG) shadowed him “as closely as possible without detection”.

It likely wasn’t an easy tail yesterday. Covid-19 alert level lockdowns meant the streets, bar a few joggers, walkers, and cyclists, were barren.

They had to stay back, or else their cover would be blown.

There was nothing to suggest that S had any deadly intent when he left home.

Around 2.40pm, he entered the Countdown store at LynnMall shopping complex.

It’s understood by police that he took a large knife available for sale from one of the supermarket shelves and started lashing out at shoppers.

One 34-year-old local man was in the milk aisle when the terror unfolded.

Shouts of “Allahu Akbar” – meaning “God is most great” – rang out from a loud and strained voice.

S lashed out with the large knife. He stabbed two women, continually hollering “Allahu Akbar”, running down the aisles.

“There was this lady in front of me and he jumped on her so she fell… he also fell, then he got up,” the witness says.

“But I was behind so I couldn’t see his face but this person was wearing like a khaki jacket and he had a knife, a pretty big knife – like I would say the size of his arm. It was very scary.

“It was like a mini sword, not like a full sword. It was like a sword literally.”

Shoppers started screaming, “He’s got a knife” and running to get away.

Harrowing video from a member of the public’s cellphone captures the sheer panic.

“There’s someone here with a knife, whānau,” the woman filming says.

“Holy f***. What the f***.”

By now, the undercover STG cops had drawn their pistols.

Hiding in the aisles, innocents caught up in the attack, were told to stay down. Six people had been injured by the knifeman – the police were going to end it.

Videos inside the supermarket record the moment. A volley of gunshots ring out. Pop, pop, pop…. perhaps as many as eight shots. S fell to the ground.

It was over. From the start of the attack, until police shot him dead, it took just 60 seconds.

But the violent noise spread more panic, with frantic shoppers, some with children, now running from the store.

Some of the injured victims, bleeding, clutching knife wounds also ran from the store.

One terrified woman ran to an Auckland Transport bus parked in the middle of Great North Rd.

She hid inside the bus until emergency services came and she was then stretchered away with what appeared to be shoulder wounds.

“While people were coming out, I could see one lady wearing a white T-shirt completely bleeding and really panicking. People were trying to help her,” the witness said.

“I saw another person bleeding from the shoulder really bad.”

The undercover officers who shot the attacker dead turned their attention to the injured.

Blood covered the aisles. Some victims had been stabbed multiple times.

The policemen grabbed nappies and paper towels to try and stem the bleeding.

A store security guard tried to keep others back.

One brave bystander helped a wounded woman who had been stabbed in her right hip.

The witness wrapped their jersey around her and still had blood on her when she spoke to the Herald.

Dozens of police officers rushed to the scene, along with several ambulances. Sirens blared, roads were blocked off, and the police Eagle helicopter circled overhead.

Shoppers trying to flee in cars nearly crashed into one another.

About 20 panic-stricken people trying to flee were ushered inside a neighbouring pharmacy some 40m from Countdown.

They joined another 45 people who had been there to get vaccinated and stayed barricaded inside with the doors locked until the coast was clear.

“It wasn’t a nice scenario,” a staff member said.

Auckland City Hospital prepared multiple operating theatres ready to treat the injured. Some had chest and neck wounds. Of the six people injured, three were said to be in serious conditions.

Armed police cordoned off the mosque on Waikaukau Rd in Glen Eden.

Word soon circulated that a terrorist attack had happened in Auckland.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was briefed. She would later hold a press conference alongside Police Commissioner Andrew Coster at 5.15pm.

Police confirmed it was a lone wolf attack and that the man had been under police surveillance “because of concerns about his violent, extremist views”.

Coster said the incident was over in around a minute.

“Inside the store, we believe this man took a knife from one of the supermarket shelves and attacked shoppers,” he said.

“The police staff challenged the man and diverted his attention.

“He charged at them with the knife and the officers shot him. He died at the scene shortly afterwards.”

Both officers were involved in shooting the man – but Coster, who praised their courage and quick actions, said he didn’t know how many shots were fired at this stage.

He also knew police would come under scrutiny for not having acted sooner.

“The reality is when you are surveilling someone on a 24-hour basis it is not possible to be immediately next to them,” Coster said.

Ardern said it was a terrorist attack carried out by a known threat under constant watch.

“What happened today was despicable,” she said.

“It was hateful, it was wrong. It was carried out by an individual, not a faith, not a culture, not an ethnicity but an individual person who is gripped by ideology that is not supported here by anyone in the community.”

She said that agencies had been using “every single possible means” available to them to protect the New Zealand public from this individual.

There were “very few” people in the same category as the man, Ardern said.

But who exactly was this lone wolf, who was so well-known to police and other agencies?

Last night, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said the Crown was urgently asking the courts to lift suppression orders around the man’s name which had been granted after he pleaded guilty to possession of restricted material.

The reason for the suppression order granted in 2018 could not even be reported yet.

After an emergency hearing last night, a High Court judge agreed that name suppression should not continue.

His identity, however, still cannot be revealed until at least tonight – at the earliest – after the judge delayed his order by 24 hours to give the man’s family back in Sri Lanka an opportunity to seek suppression orders of their own.

A number of inquiries into the attack had already been launched last night, including by the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) and the Coroner.

In the meantime, many questions remain as to how the attacker was allowed to be free in the community, even if his murderous intent was snuffed out in just 60 seconds.

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