Be alert, not alarmed.
That was the theme of former Australian prime minister John Howard’s antiterrorism campaign in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombing that killed eighty-eight Australians, not long after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
While an active supporter of the U.S.-led “war on terror,” the nearest Australians had come to feeling threatened recently were the 2002 and 2005 bombings on the tourist island of Bali, a popular destination for Australian holidaymakers, along with an attack on the Australian Embassy in the Indonesian capital in 2004.
Yet with the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) recently raising the nation’s terror threat level from medium to “high,” meaning an attack is considered likely, and with a number of Australians having joined Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, some Australian leaders have recently been warning that “complacency is our greatest enemy.”
On Monday, terrorism arrived in the heart of Sydney , but the apparent propaganda bid by a disgruntled, Iranian-born, self-styled cleric backfired spectacularly. Instead of causing division, Australia’s commitment to the global antiterrorist fight has been strengthened and the community drawn closer together, with Muslims and non-Muslims alike showing solidarity in the wake of the hostage drama.
Laying a wreath of flowers at the site of the siege Tuesday, New South Wales (NSW) state premier Mike Baird said on Twitter : “Deeply moving overflow of support for siege victims and survivors from the people of Sydney. This is who we are.”
“The instant we changed forever”
Australians had just started the working week when news broke that a gunman had stormed the Lindt Chocolate Café in the heart of Sydney’s central business district (CBD) around 9:45 am local time, seizing around twenty hostages. The café’s location in Martin Place, across the street from the Channel 7 newsroom and near other major buildings, including the central bank, made it a highly visible target, and soon news channels were broadcasting blanket coverage.
Fears escalated when around an hour later, hostages held a black Islamic flag up against the windows facing Martin Place, sparking concern about a potential jihadist attack by Islamic State or other militants. The normally busy Martin Place railway station was shut down and nearby buildings evacuated, with even performances at the famous Sydney Opera House cancelled as the CBD went into lockdown and hundreds of police moved in.
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott announced that Cabinet’s National Security Committee had convened to discuss the hostage situation, although he said the nation’s law enforcement and security agencies were “responding in a thorough and professional manner.”
During the afternoon, three café workers and two other hostages escaped while the nation watched on live television, gripped by the unfolding drama. In a special afternoon edition, a Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph , headlined the story as “Death Cult CBD Attack – The Instant We Changed Forever.”
The terror suspect was identified as Man Haron Monis , 50, a “fake sheik” reportedly on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s watch list who was well known to ASIO and other authorities, having recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State, as well as being charged as an accessory to his former wife’s murder, and with a string of sexual offenses.
Monis arrived in Australia from Iran in 1996, and soon thereafter claimed political asylum, claiming he had formerly worked with Iran’s feared intelligence ministry and his life was in danger. However, he also came to the attention of Australian authorities over hate mail he sent to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009.
During the hostage drama, Monis reportedly demanded an Islamic State flag and to speak with the Australian prime minister. He also tried to contact a Sydney radio station and newspaper, and uploaded three videos to YouTube of hostages broadcasting his demands, alleging that “this is an attack on Australia by ISIS,” while also claiming that there were three bombs placed around the city.
However, Australian media complied with police demands not to broadcast Monis’ messages during the siege, reportedly infuriating the gunman.
As night fell, Monis turned the lights out in an attempt to block police monitoring of the café and his seventeen hostages. But at around 2 am, as the gunman dozed, the café’s manager, Tori Johnson, reportedly lunged for Monis’ gun. Six hostages seized the opportunity to escape and police stormed the café, with Monis killed during the assault. Tragically, Johnson, 34, and 38-year-old barrister and mother of three Katrina Dawson were also killed, with six others injured in the firefight.
Commenting on the sixteen-hour siege, the Australian prime minister described Monis as “a deeply disturbed individual” who had a known “infatuation with extremism.”
“How can someone who has had such a long and chequered history, not be on the appropriate [terrorism] watch lists? And how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community?” he asked.