Damaged goods as weapons
Making sense of the Lindt café siege

To those mourning the loss of a loved one, a friend or colleague, determining whether the callous violence of Man Haron Monis was an act of terrorism or merely the all-too-familiar crime of murder-suicide can bring little solace.

Unfortunately, at times during this past week the terrorism question appeared to be cast in terms of a classic left–right divide. This question is too important to be occluded by petty politics. If we are to do our best to reduce the likelihood of such incidents re-occurring, we need to grapple with the question of who Monis was and what the motivations behind his actions were.

The matter of why Monis was released on bail after being charged with a number of violent offences, including as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, Noleen Hayson Pal, is one of the most troubling questions arising from this tragedy. It is made all the more poignant by the fact that Pal had told police that Monis had threatened to kill her and she was in fear of her life. Police took this threat seriously enough to lay charges of intimidation but he challenged this and in May 2012 was acquitted.

Monis had also been charged with more than 40 cases of sexual assault against women who had come to his “spiritual healing clinic”.

The victims of Monis’ abusive behaviour were not limited, however, to those who walked through his door, seeking help. In September 2013, he was convicted on 12 counts of misusing the postal service to cause offence after sending abusive letters between 2007 and 2009 to the grieving families of soldiers who had fought and died in Afghanistan. After his conviction, he chained himself to the railing on the steps outside the court and proclaimed: “This pen is my gun and these words are my bullets, I fight by these weapons against oppression to promote peace.”

The Friday before Monday’s siege, Monis had lost a High Court appeal to overturn that conviction.

For years, Monis had terrorised in the name of justice while seeking to present himself as a freedom fighter and peace activist. He had a long history of extremist religious views and strong political opinions expressed in a way intended to offend, to hurt and to draw attention to himself. At times, he championed the Shia group Hezbollah and once registered the business phone number “1300-4-JIHAD”. One of his first actions on Monday after ordering the cafe doors be locked was to force his hostages at gunpoint to hold a black banner in the front window of the Lindt cafe. The words on the banner were simply the Muslim creed of faith, but the colour and style of the banner were intended to imply a link with Jihadi terrorist groups, and in particular with the Islamic State (IS) movement. Any ambiguity about this disappeared when he demanded, through frightened hostages forced to make phone calls to multiple media outlets, that he be brought an IS flag (with the same words but distinctive calligraphy), and that the prime minister acknowledge he was conducting the siege in the name of IS.

The man who for years had hubristically, and, it appears, completely without foundation, described himself as an Islamic cleric had only days before the siege proclaimed on his website, since taken down, that he had turned his back on his Iranian Shia heritage (“I used to be a Rafidi [one who rejects], but not any more. Now I am a Muslim, Alhamdu Lillah”) and had embraced both Sunni Islam and the Islamic State, swearing allegiance to the latter’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Almost all of Monis’ actions can be explained in terms of delusion, anger and narcissism. Just as in the case of Norwegian far-right lone wolf Anders Behring Breivik who in 2011 killed eight people, this does not mean that Man Haron Monis was not a terrorist.

Since September, IS has been calling on thousands of followers in countries all around the world, including Australia, to, in effect “attack the Crusaders whatever you are with whatever you have”.  The first official statement came on 21 September, when in a rambling but evocative audio message IS spokesman Sheik al-Adnani declared:

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. Do not ask for anyone's advice and do not seek anyone's verdict . . . If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.

In mid October the fourth issue of the official IS magazine, Dabiq, repeated this call for lone wolf attacks in the west:

Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader, and kill him. It is important that the killing becomes attributed to patrons of the Islamic State who have obeyed its leadership. This can easily be done with anonymity. Otherwise, crusader media makes such attacks appear to be random killings. Secrecy should be followed when planning and executing any attack. The smaller the numbers of those involved and the less the discussion beforehand, the more likely it will be carried out without problems. One should not complicate the attacks by involving other parties, purchasing complex materials, or communicating with weak-hearted individuals.

IS represents one of the most dangerous manifestations yet of jihadi terrorism. This latest iteration of a movement that has been evolving for more than three decades differs from al-Qaeda and other affiliates that pre-date it: it is indiscriminate in its recruitment. Whereas al-Qaeda and most modern terrorist movements have been discerning about those allowed into their inner circles, and committed to rigorous, lengthy programs of indoctrination, training and filtering, IS has put the word out among those crossing the Turkish border into Syria that it will take all-comers. As a result, its ranks have swollen to more than 15,000 foreign fighters. At the same time, IS is actively seeking out the lost, lonely and vulnerable, those who might be dismissed as “damaged goods”.

Seasoned al-Qaeda fighters and radicalised former Iraqi officers are holding captive eight million people in a territory the size of Great Britain. Within this disciplined leadership elite, one of the nine ministries that governs IS’s day-to-day operations is its media council. This body produces slick, professionally edited videos and powerful online publications through which it has been calling for lone wolf attacks around the world. IS also has a very long tail of foreign fighters and an international network of recruiters and supporters, most of whom are neither experienced nor professional but are encouraged to contribute through their own social media postings, and their own acts of terror.

To young men it wants to recruit as fighters or to the others it hopes to persuade to act in its name, the message is the same: the world has looked down on you and rejected you and people say that you amount to nothing. But join us and you will be a hero.

We’ve seen this redemptive narrative at work in the example of Mohammad Ali Baryalei, the former Kings Cross sex club spruiker, and the other young Australians he recruited to fight in Syria and Iraq. Islamic States’ call for lone-wolf attacks also appears to be what drove Abdul Numan Haider to violently confront two police officers in the car park outside Endeavour Hills Police Station on 23 September 2014, the day after Islamic State’s spokesperson Sheikh Abu Mohammad al-Adnani had issued the first of IS’s many calls to action.

The IS call to action also seems to be behind the actions of Martin Couture-Rouleau, who on 20 October lined up his car in a Quebec parking lot and ran down two uniformed soldiers, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. Similarly, the actions of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa two days later, when he shot dead Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a ceremonial guard on duty at the war memorial, and then attempted to storm Canada’s parliament seem to be linked to this call to arms. And it seems likely that Zale Thompson in New York, who attacked four police officers with a hatchet on 23 October, was responding to the same message. All three attackers were troubled individuals, angry and alienated, who appear to have found larger purpose in responding to the call of IS.

The bad news keeps on coming and some sort of pattern is emerging. Saturday’s attack in the French central town of Joue-les-Tours appears to be an IS-inspired lone wolf attack. Burundi-born French national, 28-year-old Bertrand Nzohabonayo, a convert to Islam who had posted an IS flag on his Facebook page, was shot dead after attacking two officers at a police station with a knife, slashing the face of one. Much less clear, however, are the causes of Sunday’s attack in the eastern French city of Dijon, where a psychiatric patient drove his small hatchback into a group of pedestrians, injuring 11. What does seem clear is that the fatal shooting of two NYPD officers sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn was not an attack of Islamist terrorism. Posting on Instagram, the shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, claimed to be avenging the wrongful deaths of African Americans at the hands of police.

It would appear that Monis was pushed down the levels of an ASIO’s terrorism risk-assessment matrix because he was unconnected and without broad influence: a deranged loner not plugged in to any of the known networks. The rapid evolution of IS and its recent incitement to lone-wolf attacks are forcing us to think differently. It is now clear that IS is targeting disgruntled loners in its call for action.  Unlike most previous terrorist groups, it is not fussed about filtering out troubled and unstable individuals for its attacks in the west. It does not need them to follow orders – so long as when they act on their own they act in the name of IS. In fact, IS is in the business of turning “damaged goods” into weapons. Sadly, there are no easy ways to meet the threat of lone-wolf terrorism. Without the conventional patterns of chatter between cell members and within terror networks, and of long months of preparation, the chances of early detection are greatly reduced.

So what can we do? Firstly, we need to understand the nature of the threat and recognise that attacks like those seen in Sydney are likely to be repeated. Secondly, we need to redouble our efforts to work with the communities and groups best positioned to be aware of individuals who represent a threat and/or are in danger of being radicalised. Haider was just one of around 70 young men whose passports had been withheld, many at the request of their families. We need to work with every one of these individuals, with their families, with community groups, and with those who have returned from fighting abroad, and with everyone else whose homes have been raided or otherwise cross the path of the authorities. Such case management interventions might not have stopped last week’s attack but they could stop future ones.

More than ever we need to work to ensure that interagency co-operation and timely sharing of intelligence between ASIO, the Australia Federal Police and state police forces is supported and nurtured at every level. Suddenly, it’s just become a whole lot harder.

Greg Barton
Greg Barton is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Monash University.

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