A sixteen hour siege in the centre of Sydney has ended with the deaths of two hostages and their captor. The siege began at 9.44AM (GMT+11) on Monday 15 December when a man armed with a shotgun took 17 people hostage in the Lindt Chocolat Cafe on Martin Place. After taking control of the cafe, the hostage-taker, Man Haron Monis, forced hostages to display a black flag bearing Arabic script in a window. As the crisis unfolded, police responded by placing snipers on the roofs of surrounding buildings and positioning tactical response group officers on and around Martin Place. On the orders of police, nearby buildings were evacuated, including the Channel Seven building, the State Library, the New South Wales Supreme Court and the New South Wales Parliament’s executive offices. After almost six hours, three hostages emerged from the building, followed ninety minutes later by two more. At approximately 2AM on Tuesday 16, in the final moments of the standoff between police and Monis, the cafe’s manager Tori Johnson, 34, and barrister Katrina Dawson, 38, were shot dead. Ballistic tests are still being conducted to determine whether they were killed by Monis or in the crossfire which erupted when police stormed the building. However, sources have said that Johnson may have been attempting to wrestle Monis’s weapon away from him when he was killed. After the firefight, seven of the hostages, including two pregnant women, were taken to hospital to be examined. Among those who had been injured in the exchange was a male police officer who suffered a minor injury to the face and was discharged shortly thereafter.
There is, as yet, insufficient evidence to confirm or deny whether Monis was a “lone wolf” or if the attack was planned and executed by an established terror network. It is, however, likely that Monis was operating on his own accord. Although he claimed to have been a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) there is no indication that he received training or support from the terrorist group. Furthermore, given the nature of his attack, there is no reason to believe he would have needed the kind of operational support a terror network could have provided. To shut down the centre of Sydney all Monis needed was a shotgun, a flag and a crowded cafe. The simplicity and devastating impact of this kind of attack is precisely why ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has encouraged western sympathisers to launch independent attacks on non-Muslims. As far as such groups are concerned, attacks that are not centrally coordinated are appealing for two reasons: first, an individual conspiring on his own is less likely to draw the attention of the authorities than a network; and second, it creates the impression that the terrorist group’s operational capability stretches far beyond the Middle East.
The demands which Monis made during the siege further support the theory that he was a “lone wolf”. Not only did Monis ask to speak to the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, he also requested that an ISIL flag be delivered to him. Although early reports described the flag which was held up by hostages in the cafe window as an ISIL flag, it’s message was in fact an expression of faith in Islam which translates as: “There is no God but Allah: Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” If the attack had been centrally organised from Iraq or Syria, it is unlikely that this flag, rather than an ISIL standard, would have been used.
Finally, there have been questions raised in the media about the nature of Monis’s motivation. Monis, a self-described Muslim cleric, was born in Iran and granted political asylum in Australia in 2001. In 2010 he achieved notoriety for sending offensive letters to the families of deceased soldiers. After being convicted for this offence, Monis was placed on a two year good behaviour bond and was required to perform 300 hours of court mandated community service. He had recently lost a High Court appeal to have this conviction overturned, a defeat which has prompted speculation that the attack was motivated by a desire for revenge rather than out of sympathy for the idealogical aims of ISIL. Because Monis’s motives remain unclear, it is too early to describe the attack in Sydney as an act of terrorism. By definition, terrorism must be politically motivated; in the case of Monis, he may simply have been using the theatre of terrorism to promote a personal cause the nature of which we are unable to understand or explain.