Sydney Siege Police Should Have Stormed Cafe Sooner, Report Says

(Bloomberg) -- Australian police made key mistakes in handling a siege at a Sydney cafe that ended with the death of two hostages along with the gunman who’d claimed allegiance to Islamic State, a coroner’s report has found.

Police wrongly assumed Man Haron Monis, who had a history of violence and extremist sympathies, didn’t pose an immediate threat to hostages during the December 2014 siege, New South Wales state Coroner Michael Barnes said on Wednesday after investigating the deaths. They shouldn’t have waited 10 minutes to raid the Lindt cafe in downtown Sydney after Monis fired his first shot, Barnes said.

“That event made it clear that negotiations had little or no chance of resolving the siege and that the hostages remaining in the cafe were at extreme risk of harm,” Barnes said. “The 10 minutes that elapsed without decisive action by police was too long.”

The coroner recommended that authorities rethink police “contain and negotiate” tactics used to deal with terrorist events. The findings came as U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May warned further terrorism attacks in the U.K. could be “imminent” after a suicide bombing killed 22 people at a Manchester pop concert.

Lindt cafe manager Tori Johnson, 34, was shot in the back of the head by Monis after being ordered to his knees. His colleague, 38-year-old barrister Katrina Dawson, died during the police raid that killed Monis; while she was hit by six ricocheting police bullets or fragments, Barnes concluded the police gunmen were not to blame for her death.

‘Controlled, Planned’

Born in Iran in 1965, Monis was frequently in the police eye for chaining himself to public buildings in Australia to publicize his views and wrote letters to public figures including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and Queen Elizabeth II.

While acknowledging Monis “almost certainly had a severe personality disorder,” Barnes said he wasn’t psychotic and “undertook the siege in a controlled, planned and methodical manner, marked by deliberation and choice.”

“He adopted extreme violence with a view to influencing public opinion concerning Australia’s involvement in armed conflict in the Middle East,” Barnes said. “That clearly brings his crimes within the accepted definition of terrorism. The siege was a terrorist incident.”

Monis was facing 43 counts of sexual assault at the time of the siege relating to his work as a self-styled spiritual healer and had been sentenced to 300 hours of community service over offensive letters he’d written to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, an inquiry into the siege heard in May 2015. Still, he was free on bail and not on a watchlist.

Stopped Plots

Australian intelligence services have disrupted or stopped at least a dozen major terrorism plots since 2014, including one last year that would have seen a bomb detonated in central Melbourne, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a radio interview on Wednesday.

Security at mass-assembly events in Australia is being tightened due to terrorism threats that are “constantly evolving,” Turnbull said.

“You’ll see heightened police presences, more obstacles, bollard, barriers put in the way to prevent vehicle-borne attacks,” Turnbull said. “We must be more agile than our enemies. So we have to learn from every incident.”

Barnes also recommended:

  • Police and prosecutors be able to access relevant information on a person’s criminal history
  • Negotiation methods be reviewed and negotiator training and accreditation be improved

Understanding the motivations behind Monis and other terrorists was crucial in thwarting the threats posed by terrorism, Barnes said. Communication between government departments and police needed to be improved, he said.

“Current arrangements for identifying and processing the risks posed by self-radicalized and isolated or fixated individuals who are not necessarily committing crimes tend to be fragmented rather than holistic, piecemeal rather than coordinated,” he said.