December 16, 2014 / 1:12 PM / 3 years ago

'Lone wolf' Australian hostage-taker had violent, unsettled past

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his wife Margie prepare to place floral tributes near the cafe in central Sydney December 16, 2014 where hostages were held for over 16-hours. REUTERS/David Gray

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The self-styled sheikh behind a siege at a Sydney cafe had been charged as an accessory to murder and with multiple sexual offences. He also harbored deep grievances against the Australian government and had found little kinship in the city’s large Muslim community, where he was seen as deeply troubled.

Man Haron Monis, an Iranian refugee described by those who knew him as a loner, was killed early on Tuesday after heavily armed police stormed the Lindt Chocolate Cafe to end a 16-hour hostage drama that made global headlines.

Last year Monis was charged as an accessory to the stabbing murder of his ex-wife, who was set alight in a Sydney apartment block. He was charged this year with more than 40 counts of sexual or indecent assault against women in Sydney, according to court documents.

He was also found guilty in 2012 of sending threatening letters to the families of eight Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan and sentenced to two years in prison, although he served only a portion of that penalty.

Those charges and the conviction, as well as public statements Monis made on his website, have raised questions in Australian media about whether authorities should have done more to monitor him.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters that Monis was well known to police. When asked by a journalist whether it was appropriate for Monis to have been granted bail for the murder charge, New South Wales state Premier Mike Baird declined to comment.

Monis’s website, now taken down by authorities, painted a picture of a man unraveling, enraged by Australian courts and by perceived injustices against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Man Haron Monis ... has continuously been under attack & false accusation by the Australian government & media since he started his political letter campaign from 2007,” Monis wrote on the website.

He also railed against what he said was a decision by a court to prevent him from seeing his children.

“His children have been taken away from him by the Australian government and he is not allowed to visit or even call them,” Monis wrote.

UNSETTLED LONER

Sydney-based criminal defense lawyer Adam Houda, who represented Monis over the letters sent to the soldiers’ families, described him as a deeply unsettled loner, wholly apart from Sydney’s tight-knit Muslim community.

“He was a very, very, very unusual guy, and he had no affiliations with any group. He operated alone. He was a lone wolf,” Houda told Reuters.

A source close to Sydney-based Islamists, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monis did not belong to any local radical group and that leading figures held him in contempt.

In December Monis seemed to suggest on his website that he had switched from Shi‘ite to Sunni Islam, which would help explain media reports that he had demanded police bring a flag from militant Sunni Islamist group Islamic State to the cafe.

“I used to be a Rafidi, but not anymore,” he wrote, using an Arabic word that can be translated as “heretic” and is sometimes used by Sunnis as an abusive term for Shi‘ites.

“Now I am a Muslim,” he added.

Monis left predominantly Shi‘ite Iran in the late 1990s after coming into conflict with authorities there, said lawyer Manny Conditsis, who represented him in the murder case.

After receiving asylum in Australia in 2001, Monis obsessed about exposing violence against Muslim civilians abroad, Conditsis told Reuters.

His website showed graphic images of children that he says were killed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes, as well as media coverage following his court appearances and statements addressed to the Muslim community and Abbott.

DEEP SCARS

He compared himself to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, saying he was being persecuted for his political beliefs.

“Since the Australian government cannot tolerate Sheikh Haron’s activity, (it) is trying to damage his image by these false accusations,” he wrote.

While in prison Monis claims he was tortured, smeared with excrement and forced to sleep on a bare concrete floor, Conditsis said.

“I know that left quite deep scars for him,” he said.

“If he had formed the view prior to this siege that he was going to inevitably go back to prison, whether he was guilty or not ... I can see that might have unhinged him.”

Despite the warning signs, police must focus limited resources on groups attempting to pull off major terrorist attacks, said Greg Barton, director of the Global Terrorism Research Center at Monash University in Melbourne.

Barton said there was only a tiny category of people at any given time police can legally and financially justify keeping under surveillance.

“On the triage priority list, he would be well down that list,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a case of a failure or a mistake. I just think it’s a case of the harsh reality of dealing with this kind of threat.”

Abbott seemed to confirm as much on Tuesday evening, when he told reporters that Monis had not been on any watchlist.

“Even if this individual had been monitored 24 hours a day, it’s quite likely, certainly possible, that this incident could have taken place,” Abbott said.

Additional reporting by Lincoln Feast and Swati Pandey in SYDNEY; Editing by Mike Collett-White, Paul Tait, Dean Yates and Will Waterman

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