The Sydney cafe gunman was once on the Australian national security agency’s watchlist – but dropped off it years ago for reasons that remain unclear, prime minister Tony Abbott has said.
Man Haron Monis, a 50-year-old Iranian-born, self-styled cleric – described by Mr Abbott as deeply disturbed – took 17 people hostage inside a Sydney city centre cafe on Monday. Sixteen hours later, the siege ended in a barrage of gunfire when police rushed in to free the captives. Two hostages were killed along with Monis.
Mr Abbott said Monis was on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s watchlist in 2008 and 2009, but was later dropped from it. The agency had been watching Monis because he had sent a series of offensive letters to the families of dead Australian soldiers, the premier said.
“I don’t know why he dropped off the watch list in those days, I really don’t,” he told reporters.
Monis was convicted and sentenced last year to 300 hours of community service for sending what a judge called “grossly offensive” letters to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009. He was later charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, and earlier this year he was charged with the 2002 sexual assault of a woman. He had been out on bail on all the charges.
“We particularly need to know how someone with such a long record of violence and such a long record of mental instability was out on bail after his involvement in a particularly horrific crime,” Mr Abbott said. “And we do need to know how he seemed to have fallen off our security agency’s watchlist back in about 2009.”
Mr Abbott also confirmed Monis, who wielded a shotgun throughout the siege, had a gun licence.
“Plainly there are questions to be asked when someone with such a history of infatuation with extremism, violent crime and mental instability should be in possession of a gun licence,” he said.
“We have very tough gun laws and I guess we can be pleased that he didn’t have a more potent weapon at his disposal. But why did he have a gun licence in the first place?”
Mr Abbott promised a transparent investigation. The government is expected to release a report in January looking into all aspects of the siege.
The prime minister said it was impossible for security agencies to monitor everyone, forcing them to make judgment calls about who posed the greatest risk of violence against innocent people.
Just three days before Monis began his deadly rampage, Australia’s highest court refused to hear his appeal against the convictions for sending the letters.
High Court documents show that judges ruled on Friday morning that the full bench of their court would not hear Monis’s constitutional challenge to his convictions. The next business day, a shotgun-wielding Monis walked into the cafe, just a short stroll from the courtroom where the ruling was delivered.
New South Wales state police commissioner Andrew Scipione said police had asked that Monis not be granted bail, but the court ruled otherwise.
“We were concerned that this man got bail from the very beginning,” Mr Scipione said.
Asked why Monis was not on the national security watchlist, Mr Scipione noted that the charges Monis faced were not politically motivated.
“Can we, should we, would we? Clearly, we work on a priority-based system so if somebody is on a national security watchlist, then we pay particular attention to them,” he said. “But on this occasion, this particular individual was not.”
The siege began when Monis walked into the Lindt Chocolat Cafe during Monday morning rush hour, trapping 17 customers and staff inside. He had some of the hostages record videos of themselves reciting his demands: to be delivered a flag of the Islamic State group and to speak directly with Mr Abbott. He forced some to hold a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith above the shop window’s festive inscription of “Merry Christmas”.
Thousands of tearful Australians continued to pour into Martin Place today, a plaza in the heart of Sydney’s financial and shopping district where the Lindt cafe is located. A makeshift memorial had grown into a mountain of flowers left to honour the hostages killed: Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old lawyer and mother of three, and Tori Johnson, the cafe’s 34-year-old manager. Officials have not said if the two died in crossfire as police stormed in or were shot by their captor.
Small boxes of Lindt chocolates had been left among the candles, flowers and cards, and a steady stream of mourners signed memory books for the victims. A wooden cross with the words “I’ll ride with you!” lay nearby, referring to the hashtag #illRideWithYou which was tweeted tens of thousands of times by Australians offering to accompany people dressed in Muslim clothes who were afraid of a backlash.
Bouquets were also attached to the police barricades that surround the cafe, along with an Australian flag emblazoned with the words, “Vale Tori Johnson” and “Hero”, a nod to reports that Mr Johnson brought the standoff to an end by grabbing Monis’s shotgun, saving the lives of most of his fellow hostages.
Monis grew up in Iran as Mohammad Hassan Manteghi. In 1996, he established a travel agency, but took his clients’ money and fled, Iranian police told the country’s official IRNA news agency. Australia accepted him as a refugee around that time.
Iranian police said Tehran tried to have Monis extradited from Australia in 2000, but failed because Iran and Australia do not have an extradition agreement.
Mr Abbott said he wanted to know how Monis had been granted permanent residency and why he had been receiving welfare benefits for years, despite being able-bodied, “if not necessarily of sound mind”.