By Helen Clark
At 2am Sydney time police raided the Lindt cafe in the city’s central Martin Place to free hostages taken early Monday. Two hostages of the 17 are dead, as is the single gunman who held them, Man Haron Monis. Five of those 17 had previously escaped. The two hostages killed were 34-year-old Lindt cafe manager Tori Johnson and 38-year-old lawyer Katrina Dawson. Six were taken to hospital, including two pregnant women. At the time of writing it is not known whether those shot were shot by the gunman by the raiding police.
Sydney tabloid the Daily Telegraph came under fire for its special 2pm edition front and back page, which declared ‘The Instant We Changed Forever’ and ‘Death Cult CBD Attack’ identifying the hostage taker as part of the Islamic State. Early during the siege hostages had to hold a black flag with white writing in Arabic, which was wrongly identified as the flag of the IS. In fact it bore the common Islamic creed the Shahada — which says that there is no god but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God — and though the flag has been used by group Jabhat al-Nusra it is not traditionally associated with terrorism.
From early on Australian authorities and Prime Minister Tony Abbott were professing their horror. Abbott called for calm during an afternoon press conference yesterday, saying they did not know the motivation of the gunman and continuing, “Australia is an open, peaceful and generous society and nothing should change that.”
The gunman, originally from Iran, was shot by police early this morning. Man Haron Monis had had run-ins, if that is the expression, with Australian authorities previously. He had sent offensive letters to three Australian families, two of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and one of a trade official killed in the Jakarta bombings of five years ago. This earned him a two-year good behaviour bond and 300 hours of community service. In 2002 he faced charges of indecent and sexual assault of several women, totalling 40 offences and has been accused of being an accessory to his ex-wife’s murder.
His extremism was also known. This piece from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Rachael Kohn from five years ago suggested he was both an extremist and an attention seeker. She said that, according The Australian’s Richard Kerbaj, ”the Melbourne-based Shia Muslim leader, Kamal Mousselmani, urged the Australian Federal Police to investigate Sheik Haron, whom Mousselmani claimed was not a genuine religious leader.” She also wrote, he “can seem a bit too loony to take seriously… The self-styled mufti is no shrinking violet when it comes to promoting hatred of the West and justifying violence in the name of Allah.”
Inevitably even before much of this information was known anti-Islamic sentiment was flaring up on social media. It prompted a response that got almost as much news coverage as the situation itself. The hashtag #illridewithyou essentially expressed solidarity with Muslims due to fears of reprisal attacks. Muslim women have already this year reported feeling more unsafe and have apparently been targeted by groups such as the Australian Defense League. There have also been unsuccessful campaigns by politicians such as Cory Bernardi, from the ruling Liberal Party, and now-Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie, to ‘ban the burqa’, a usually Afghan garment not really seen in Australia.
Terrorism and homegrown terrorism has been seen as an increasing threat for Australia this year. Large-scale raids were carried out across Sydney some months ago, and a Melbourne teenager was shot dead after stabbing police officers when called in for questioning. His passport had earlier been cancelled. There have been worries of ‘radicalised’ young Australians travelling to Syria to fight with the Islamic State returning back better equipped to carry out terror attacks in Australia. Wide-ranging laws regarding the mandatory retention of metadata by ISPs for two years have been brought in, amid public criticism, as a way to combat terrorism. In November Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made the focus of her speech to the United Nations Security Council the need to combat homegrown terrorism across the globe. However as many commentators, and even those vox-popped by television news, have pointed out it is the ‘lone wolf’ actor still best able to instill terror thanks to the unpredictability of his actions. How ‘predictable’ Monis’ actions were will likely be fiercely debated in the weeks to come.