SYDNEY, Australia — Around the time that grisly images of beheadings circulated across the world this fall, Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia introduced a raft of laws in response to what he said was an increasing threat that the Islamic State would attempt a bold act of terrorism on Australian soil.
The laws, which passed the Australian Parliament with wide support, made it an offense to advocate terrorism, even on social media; banned Australians from going to fight overseas; allowed the authorities to confiscate and cancel passports; and provided for the sharing of information between security services and defense personnel. The government also deployed hundreds of police officers in counterterrorism sweeps across the country.
None of these measures prevented a man known to both the police and leaders of Muslim organizations as deeply troubled and with a long history of run-ins with the law from laying siege to a popular downtown cafe in Sydney, Australia, this week and holding hostages for 16 hours. The attacker, Man Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant, and two of the 17 hostages were killed early Tuesday amid the chaos of a police raid.
The victims were identified on Tuesday as Katrina Dawson, 38, a lawyer, and the cafe’s manager, Tori Johnson, 34.
“The new laws don’t add anything to what can be done in advance in a situation like the siege,” said Bret Walker, a lawyer who was Australia’s first independent monitor for national security laws. In this case, Mr. Monis was overlooked because he did not travel overseas and was not believed to be part of a gang or a terrorist network, experts said.
The case, like recent lone-wolf jihadist attacks in Brussels, Ottawa and New York, raises troubling questions about the ability of governments to monitor homegrown, radicalized would-be jihadists and prevent them from doing harm.
In Australia, the government even had information that the Islamic State sought to recruit just such an attacker to carry out a bold attack in Sydney. “All that would be needed to conduct such an attack is a knife, a camera-phone and a victim,” Mr. Abbott warned Parliament in September.
Mr. Monis, who was reported to be armed with a gun, did not appear to have put a great deal of planning into his attack at the Lindt Cafe. Lacking an Islamic State banner, he demanded one in exchange for several hostages, local news media reported.
Manny Conditsis, a lawyer who had represented Mr. Monis in previous criminal cases, described him as “on the fringe of the fringe.”
“He wasn’t accepted by anybody,” Mr. Conditsis said.
The violence in Sydney occurred two months after a gunman in Canada, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, killed a soldier and stormed the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, apparently driven by a similar mix of personal disaffection and jihadist zealotry.
Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau, a convert to Islam, had criminal convictions in cases that included robbery and drug-related offenses.
Mr. Monis, who won political asylum in Australia two decades ago, had been a Shiite cleric in Iran. He recently wrote on his website that he had converted to the Sunni branch of Islam.
The similarities among those attacks and one in New York in October, when a man with a hatchet set upon police officers, were the radicalization of people who were isolated from their communities, according to Greg Barton, the director of the Global Terrorism Research Center at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
“There is no easy answer to how you deal with that,” Mr. Barton said. “It is just not possible to put people under 24-hour surveillance unless they are prime suspects.”
In another jihadist attack in Canada, the suspect was under surveillance. Martin Rouleau-Couture, also a convert to Islam, had posted radical messages on his Facebook page, including screeds against Christianity and Judaism and praise of Islamic State’s brutality. He was being monitored by the police for possible extremist activity, and was blocked from traveling abroad in July to join Islamic State.
So he didn’t go abroad. On Oct. 20, he ran over two Canadian soldiers in a Quebec parking lot, killing one and injuring another before he was shot and killed by police officers.
Canadian officials have acknowledged that keeping Mr. Rouleau-Couture in the country may have only fueled his radicalism and put greater burdens on law enforcement to keep track of him.
The May shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, which left four people dead, raised additional questions about the ability of extremists to travel through Europe with little scrutiny. the French and Belgian authorities say the 29-year-old French suspect, Mehdi Nemmouche, had spent time in Syria with radical Islamists and tried to conceal it by traveling through Asia before entering Europe in Germany.
The French government used the case to press for laws that would block travel by possible extremists and increase the government’s ability to block websites that call for violent extremism. In Canada, the government introduced legislation increasing surveillance powers for country’s spy agency and granting anonymity to informers. Canada has also begun revoking the passports of people suspected of being militants to prevent them from traveling abroad or returning home.
But experts say counterterrorism laws can only do so much short of turning Western democracies into police states.
“The real problem is not a legal issue, or something the new laws can fix but marginalized and radicalized people who may in fact not be breaking counterterrorism laws before they commit an act like last night’s siege in Sydney,” said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The more sophisticated jihadist groups, like Islamic State, know this, hence its call in September for a supporter to snatch an Australian at random and behead him.
“The idea of a lone actor is something that terrorist groups have been pushing for some time,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Islamic State “has been trying capture this mood and it seems to be resonating increasingly. The attack package is a very low-grade effort. You don’t tell anyone about it, and that makes it very difficult for intelligence agencies to pick these people up.”
Yet Mr. Monis gave off ample signals.
Keysar Trad, a spokesman for the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, said he met with Mr. Monis several times, the first meeting prompted by sharply critical letters that Mr. Monis had sent to the families of Australian service members killed in Afghanistan. Mr. Monis was convicted and sentenced to community service for sending the letters, with the authorities using a rarely invoked law covering postal communications.
Last year, he was charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, who had been stabbed and burned to death. Mr. Monis was granted bail and was awaiting trial.
In April, he was also charged with the sexual assault of a woman in western Sydney in 2002. Forty more counts of sexual assault relating to six other women were later added to that case. Mr. Monis also seemed rattled by his inability to reunite with his family in Iran and by what he described as torture by prison guards during a stint in prison, said Mr. Conditsis, the lawyer.
“He had nothing to lose,” Mr. Conditsis said. “He may have been motivated by what he saw as the inevitability of going to prison.”
In a possible insight into the motives for the siege, Mr. Monis posted a message on Sunday to his website in which he lashed out at Australia, Britain and the United States for launching airstrikes against civilians.
“If we stay silent towards the criminals we cannot have a peaceful society,” the message said. “The more you fight with crime, the more peaceful you are.”
As Mr. Abbott said Tuesday: “How can someone who has had such a long and checkered history not be on the appropriate watch lists? And how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community?”
In the end, it was Mr. Monis’s isolation that made him difficult to track.
“If he had been part of a bigger group, he would have come up on the police radar,” Mr. Trad said. “He didn’t.”
Austin Ramzy contributed reporting from Hong Kong.
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