The tragic end to the hostage situation in Sydney’s Central Business District has, in many ways, left more questions than answers for the Australian government and public.
Despite the professionalism of the police and security agencies responding to the event, who throughout the day kept the situation under relative control and managed to keep casualties to a minimum when bringing the situation to a conclusion, there are queries about how an individual as clearly volatile as Man Haron Monis could have gone unmonitored and was able to carry out such an act. This leads to questions about the current gaps in Australia’s counter-terrorism approach and broader criminal justice system that allow an individual with his background to slip through the net.
Commenting in the immediate aftermath of the incident, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated: ‘How can someone who has had such a long and chequered history not be on the appropriate watch lists and how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community?’ Made whilst standing alongside the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police (AFP), such a strong, critical statement made so soon after the conclusion of the standoff is clearly intended to challenge the agencies involved in countering terrorism. Abbott has further reinforced his anger by commissioning an official enquiry into the situation in order to make sense of exactly what went wrong.
Man Haron Monis – Mentally Disturbed Criminal, Terrorist or Both?
We now know that the hostage taker was a man called Man Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant who arrived in Australia in 1996 and claimed political asylum in 2001. His background was a patchwork of past violent criminal offenses, Islamist extremist beliefs and mental health issues. He had been on the ‘radar’ of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the AFP and the Department of Immigration since the late 2000s, yet had somehow ‘slipped off’ their national watch lists in 2009. Evidently, even if he was on watch lists, it is not certain that this would have prevented the attack, but nevertheless we are left with difficult questions as to why he was not under closer observation.
Questions have been raised about whether Monis’ actions constitute an act of terrorism, or whether he was a seriously disturbed criminal who felt he had nothing to lose. During the siege he made three demands:
1). For an Islamic State flag to be delivered for the exchange of one hostage
2). For media to broadcast that the siege was an attack on Australia by the Islamic State
3). For Mr Abbott to contact ‘The Brother’ – understood to be Monis – on a live feed in exchange for five hostages.
He received none of these, yet the nature of the demands demonstrates that despite his background, Monis had decided to conduct these actions under the auspices of ISIS as an act of terror. ISIS ‘fanboys’ on Twitter were clearly confused and somewhat amused by the whole episode, yet there was a reluctance to identify too closely with Monis due to his Iranian heritage and previous Shia faith. However, this becomes a moot point given that ISIS have worked hard to spread their message widely in order to reach as broad an audience as possible, and as it is so easily available online, people such as Monis, who are clearly unstable and looking for something to identify with, are able to read and engage with ISIS videos, statements, battle reports, and ideology.
Harnessing the Lost and Dangerous – Terrorism of the 2010s
ISIS has encouraged its supporters to carry out attacks using low-level weaponry in their own nations to promote ISIS and draw more supporters to their cause. Abu Muhammad al Adnani, ISIS chief spokesperson underlined this in September 2014 stating:
If you can kill a disbelieving American or European - especially the spiteful and filthy French - or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.
We have seen others with backgrounds similar to Monis responding to this kind of rhetoric. Most recently, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau who shot dead a soldier and attempted to storm the Canadian Parliament building in 2014, was found to have a background of drug abuse and crime, and was a recent convert to Islam. There is clearly a danger that the pattern of ‘amateurish’ individuals attempting random attacks could continue in years to come.
Joining the Dots – Government Responses to the Lost and Dangerous
So what can be done to slow this trend? The answer, at least partially, has to be found in the ability of government to clearly articulate its counter-terrorism strategy and the responsibilities that accompany that approach to all of its social service departments. This necessarily includes those that deal with Health, Social Services, Education, Immigration and Borders, Defence, Policing, Prison and Probation Services, and Communities. Australia needs to update its 2012 Counter-Terrorism Plan so that it contains an up-to-date assessment of the threat, and incorporates the wider government framework within that. It also needs to provide a means of reporting individuals who are perceived to be, or carry a history of being, a risk to society, along with a workable way that departments can access that information in order to make decisions regarding issues such as gun licenses, for example.
Secondly, and vital for Australia, is that it creates a more robust Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme which contains clear intervention strategies for those who present a potential risk of becoming further involved in extremist activity. Monis was beyond this threshold as he should have already been a known entity to probation services and police alike, but for those at an earlier stage this is imperative. Australia has just announced funding of some $13.4 million towards boosting community engagement programmes which focus on preventing Australians from becoming involved with extremist groups. That is to be applauded. But before the money is invested it would be wise to have a strategy outlining what the government wants to achieve and to ensure that it is being spent in areas that have most impact. As yet, there is no comprehensive strategy for this new four-year programme of work. That should be a priority.
It is tragic that two hostages died and four injured during the dramatic scenes that took place in the early hours of 16 December in Sydney, but the outcome could have been much worse. It remains vital that the agencies involved identify how Monis slipped through the gap and reflect upon the lessons learnt from this episode. The official enquiry that Abbott has commissioned will be under intense pressure to deliver results, and fast.
Dr Tobias Feakin
Senior Associate Fellow