Police stepped up security across Sydney after a 16-hour siege in a city cafe ended in a shootout that left two hostages and the gunman dead.
Mother-of-three Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old barrister, and cafe manager Tori Johnson, 34, died after officers stormed the premises in a pre-dawn raid. Man Haron Monis, 50, a self-proclaimed Islamic cleric from Iran with a history of violent crime and extremist sympathies, was also killed.
Officers launched Operation Hammerhead, increasing patrols at transport hubs, landmarks and places of worship to safeguard the public, including members of the Muslim Community. Monis, who opposed Australia’s role in the Afghan conflict, had forced some of his 17 hostages to hold a black Islamic flag in the window of the Lindt cafe in Martin Place.
“Tragically, there are people in our community ready to engage in politically motivated violence,” said Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose government raised Australia’s terrorism alert to the highest level in a decade three months ago. “The events in Martin Place also show that we are ready to deal with these people, professionally and with the full force of law.”
Rapid gunshots and explosions at about 2 a.m. broke the silence in the plaza, which is home to the Reserve Bank of Australia and the U.S. Consulate. Police stormed the cafe after gunfire was heard inside, New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione told reporters.
Four people received gunshot wounds, including a 75-year-old woman who was hit in the shoulder, a 52-year-old woman who was shot in the foot, and a 43-year-old woman treated for a leg wound, police said in a statement. All three are in a stable condition. A police officer received a minor facial injury and was discharged from the hospital after treatment.
The gunman was well known to Federal and State authorities and had a “long history of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability”, Abbott told reporters in Canberra. He said later in Sydney that Monis wasn’t on any police or intelligence watchlists.
“That is the question that we were asking ourselves around the National Security Committee of Cabinet today: how can someone who has had such a long and checkered history not be on the appropriate watchlists and how can someone like that be entirely at large and in the community,” he said.
Monis was charged last year with being an accessory to murder and had sent offensive letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
“He sought to cloak his actions with the symbolism of the ISIL death cult,” Abbott said, referring to Islamic State, an al-Qaeda offshoot that has this year expanded the area under its control in both Iraq and Syria.
The cafe’s manager, Johnson, died in the final moments of the siege as he attempted to wrestle a shotgun from Monis, who was dozing off, Nine television network reported. Four of the captives worked for Westpac Banking Corp. (WBC), which said in a statement that the employees were all now safe.
Five of the hostages escaped from the building on the first day, while about six fled in the closing moments of the siege.
The increased security comes two weeks before New year’s Eve, when tens of thousands of people, many overseas tourists, gather on the foreshores of Sydney harbor to watch a midnight fireworks display that kicks off global celebrations.
The increased police presence will continue over Christmas and in the build up to Dec. 31, state police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn told reporters.
Looking for Notoriety
Monis was facing a string of charges, including being an accessory with his girlfriend to the murder of his ex-wife, who was stabbed and then set alight in Sydney. He had also been charged this year with sexual offenses dating back a decade, when he had operated as a self-proclaimed “spiritual healer,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. He was on bail in relation to both cases, the newspaper said.
“This guy was clearly a risk, judging by his website and his criminal background, and it looked like he was trying to gain the attention of ISIS,” Anne Aly, who runs a counter-terrorism research program at Curtin University in Perth, said by phone. “He was a man after notoriety, not fighting for an ideology.”
In a letter on his website, Monis said he was “under attack” and subjected to “false accusations” by the Australian government and media since his letter-writing campaign against Australia’s involvement in the Afghan conflict.
His former lawyer, Manny Conditsis, said it’s unlikely Monis engaged in “concerted terrorism” as part of any wider group, and described his ex-client as “damaged goods,” according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Floral tributes piled up in Martin Place and flags at government buildings were flown at half mast as a mark of respect.
“I’m just sad, very sad,” said Voula Tzanis, 54, who works as a typist at a law firm around the corner from the cafe. “You go to get a coffee and you die. It’s sad.”
Authorities cited the threat posed by Islamic State when they raised the terrorism alert three months ago. In September, police carried out their largest anti-terrorism raid, foiling an alleged plot to randomly abduct and behead a member of the public in central Sydney.
An 18-year-old man was shot and killed on Sept. 23 after wounding two counter-terrorism officers in Melbourne with a knife. He stabbed the officers in an unprovoked attack outside a police station, where he was due to be interviewed by police after waving an Islamic State flag inside a shopping center.
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