SYDNEY (Reuters) - Tough new national security laws failed to prevent a deadly hostage crisis in the heart of Sydney this week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Wednesday, raising questions about the usefulness of such measures.
Three people were killed, including hostage-taker Man Haron Monis, when heavily armed police stormed a Sydney cafe early on Tuesday morning and freed terrified hostages held at gunpoint for 16 hours.
Police are investigating whether the two hostages were killed by Monis or died in the crossfire.
Monis, a self-styled sheikh who received political asylum from Iran in 2001, was well known to Australian police and security agencies, having been charged as an accessory to murder and with dozens of counts of sexual and indecent assault. He had been free on bail.
Australia in October passed sweeping new security laws aimed at preventing young people from becoming radicalized and going to fight in overseas conflicts such as those in Iraq and Syria, where scores of Australians have joined militant groups.
Despite those new powers, Abbott said Monis was not on any security watchlist and managed to walk undetected into the Lindt Chocolate Cafe with a shotgun on a busy workday morning.
“The system did not adequately deal with this individual, there’s no doubt about that,” Abbott said in an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.
Abbott said authorities would investigate what had happened in the lead-up to Monday’s siege, why Monis was not on any watchlist and how he got a gun.
Under the new security provisions, exercised for the first time earlier this month to block travel to Raqqa Province in Syria, Australians going to any area overseas declared off limits can face up to a decade in prison.
The legislation expanded both the intelligence services’ ability to access private computer networks, cracked down on the leaking of classified information and bolstered the cooperation of the domestic and foreign intelligence services.
The government is also introducing controversial data retention laws, although Abbott said on Tuesday that it was unclear whether those laws, aimed at intercepting communications between individuals plotting attacks, would have been useful in stopping Monis.
Monis, who was found guilty in 2012 of sending threatening letters to the families of eight Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, has been described by those who knew him as an outcast even from the radical Islamist community.
Critics of the security laws, touted by Abbott’s conservative government as necessary to prevent attacks such as the hostage crisis, have seized on the failure to argue against the granting of further powers.
“There’s no control order regime to account for this. There’s no metadata inside an apparently deranged mind,” Fairfax News columnist Waleed Aly wrote.
On Wednesday morning, people were still laying flowers and signing condolence books in Martin Place, a pedestrian strip near the cafe, which is surrounded by blacked out fencing and a blue tent over the entrance door. Office workers were also queuing for coffee at a cart just a few yards away.
Editing by Dean Yates