The 17-hour siege of the Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney's Martin Place ended with gunfire and explosions early Tuesday, in a shootout that claimed the lives of two hostages and the lone gunman who had held them captive. The standoff in the heart of Sydney’s business and legislative centers of power riveted world media, even as details began to dribble out about the bizarre personality at the center of the drama — the 50-year-old Iranian-born self-styled cleric Man Haron Monis.
Although many details of the incidents remain vague, some key takeaways from the story have already emerged:
1. Media discipline
Once it became clear that a hostage situation was underway, police and government authorities asked media to keep details to a minimum so as not to compromise their handling of the crisis. Remarkably, all of the major news outlets seem to have complied. One TV network said it had received a video in which a hostage inside the café was conveying the gunman’s demands, but — at the behest of police — had refrained from broadcasting it. A radio broadcaster also said he had been contacted by a hostage inside the café, but refused to put them on the air. Even videos posted online by the gunman outlining his demands were not aired on major television networks during the siege. Indeed, the media only began reporting Monis' name after being authorized to do so by police. And that's despite the fact that the the Lindt café may well have been chosen by the gunman because it falls directly in the backdrop street view typically shown live behind the anchors of the Seven News Network.
2. A very lone 'wolf'
Despite an initial flurry of media reports suggesting a transnational plot after some of his hostages were forced to display a black flag with white lettering of the Islamic declaration of faith, known as the Shahada — a banner frequently used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — the perpetrator turned out to be a very local actor who was well-known to law enforcement.
The dead suspect, Man Haron Monis, was a political refugee from Iran, a self-declared cleric who reportedly abandoned his Shia faith and seemingly embraced a radical outlook associated with the ISIL interpreation of Sunni Islam. Once police released his name, his criminal history also emerged — painting a more fuller picture. Monis has fought several cases with the country’s highest court about his convictio over several offensive letters he has sent the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. He was, at the time of the siege, on bail after being charged as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife — the woman accused of the murder is his current girlfriend. In addition, he faced charged of sexual assault and has been accused of dozens such abuses while working as a “spiritual healer." Since his name was revealed at least 40 Muslim organizations in Australia have publicly condemned his actions as criminal and not connected to Islam.
3. Police readiness
The speed with which Sydney police mobilized in response to the siege may indicate that the force has long been preparing for such a scenario. Officials said police had been training for months, which was apparent as bomb disposal experts, SWAT teams and reportedly even special forces commandos reached the site. The bloody end to the siege may, however, raise questions over police tactics and whether there was a chance lives could have been saved. Although it may be the case that more casualties would have resulted if not for the swift raid that ended the standoff.
The Australian government had raised its terror warning level in September, and officials said that based on intelligence, the police had conducted dozens of raids in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. As a result of those raids, one man was charged with conspiring with an ISIL leader in Syria to behead a random person to be grabbed off a street in Sydney.
ISIL leaders have urged Australian Muslims to conduct "lone wolf" operations and at least 100 Australians have traveled to Syria to join the group. Earlier this year one Australia, Khaled Sharrouf, posted a picture on Twitter of his young son carrying a severed head with the news that he and his sons have joined ISIL, throwing a spotlight on the number of foreign fighters the group now has in its ranks.
It is not known if the elevated security level in September is relevant to the siege or whether Monis was reacting to Australia's latest security crackdown, including new proposed restrictions on Australians traveling to regions in conflict. But Monis had used his Facebook page in the past to rail against the Australian government and its foreign policy, particularly its military involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
4. #Illridewithyou solidarity
In the course of the siege, one Australian Muslim girl was so fearful of an anti-Islamic backlash that she removed her hijab headscarf while traveling on a train in Sydney. A fellow passenger recounted in a Facebook post that she went up to the girl and told her that if she wanted to wear it, “I’ll walk with you.” That Facebook post led to Twitter exchanges, which then turned into the hashtag #illridewithyou. The phrase was then picked up and retweeted throughout the day, prompting more than 200,000 postings and comments from around the world — as an expression of solidarity with Muslims targeted for abuse in the aftermath of terror attacks.
Nonetheless, news that Monis was granted political asylum and was able to remain in Australia despite his criminal behavior could inflame anti-immigration sentiment. Canberra has hardened its policies regarding asylum seekers in recent years and in spite of international criticism has refused to allow refugees who try to enter the country illegally to stay, referring them instead to offshore detention centers.
5. Questions over gun laws
Guns are not illegal in Australia, but their use and ownership is restricted by legislation passed in response to mass shootings years ago. Reports that Monis had brandished a sawn-off shotgun during the siege will prompt questions and investigations. Anyone wanting to purchase a shotgun in Australia is required to demonstrate “genuine need” – a farmer or sport shooter for example. Monis' possession of such a weapon despite his criminal background and the fact that he was out on bail on an accessory-to-murder charge will certainly spark concern in a country whose laws are designed to prevent guns falling into criminal hands.