Hostage crisis in Sydney

For the past twelve hours, a gunman has been holding numerous people hostage at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney, Australia – a target evidently chosen for its proximity to the city’s financial and media headquarters, including a news network situated right across the street.  The customary media tap dance to portray the terrorist as a random lone wolf of mysterious motivations and religious affiliation ended abruptly and decisively last night, as Fox News reports:

Australian broadcaster Network Ten reported that the unidentified gunman has forced hostages to call him “The Brother” and demanded a flag of the Islamic State terror group in return for the release of a hostage. He has also demanded to speak directly with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

The broadcaster reported that the gunman had relayed his demands to them through two hostages. The man also claimed that he had planted two bombs inside the cafe and two others elsewhere in Sydney’s central business district.

New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione addressed concerns about explosive devices elsewhere in Sydney, telling a press conference Monday evening that authorities were concentrating their efforts solely on the cafe and were not concerned with any other location

Late Monday, Abbott released a pre-recorded statement calling the attack “very disturbing” and “profoundly shocking.” His office has not responded to the gunman’s demands.

Is it really that hard to get an authentic ISIS flag?  That seems like a failure on the part of their marketing division.  As it stands, while a torrent of Tweets from reporters assured the public that the black flag currently displayed in the window of the cafe is not an ISIS banner, it does resemble a flag used by al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra.  Maybe that’s all they had left at the Evil Scumbag Flag Superstore after the holiday shopping rush.

Five of the hostages, several of them apparently cafe employees, have escaped thus far, and while the authorities have not released a precise estimate of the hostages remaining, they say it’s less than 30 people.  Although the police say no one has yet been harmed in the incident, one of the escaped hostages was taken to a hospital.  Eyewitnesses report seeing a rotating group of about a dozen captives forced to stand in the cafe window and hold up the terrorist flag for hours at a stretch, their faces “pained, strained, eyes red and raw” according to one reporter.  The terrorist has also attempted to force his captives to read statements on radio broadcasts, but the radio host he got in touch with, Ray Hadley of 2GB, denied the request.  ABC News interviewed Hadley and another broadcaster about the phone calls they received from inside the cafe:

“I could hear the hostage-taker in the background issuing instructions to him on what to request me to say on air,??? Hadley told ABC News.

With the armed gunman nearby, the hostage couldn???t say much over the phone, especially nothing negative, Hadley recalled.

After speaking with the male hostage, Hadley consulted with police. A negotiator eventually arrived to his studio, picking up the conversation.

Other hostages, meanwhile, spoke off-air to the negotiator, Hadley said.

Hadley says the situation became ???heart-wrenching??? when a mother called into his show, saying her 18-year-old son was being held hostage inside the café.

???She was in a situation where she was feeling terribly bad for the hostages, and then she suddenly realized her own boy was inside there, being held hostage,??? Hadley said.

Mark Burrows, a reporter with 9 News Australia, said he also spoke with two hostages who called his newsroom directly.

???The first one, as I spoke to her, the gunman was actually reeling his demands through her, a long list of demands,??? Burrows said. ???I think No. 1 was that he wanted to speak to someone with authority, but mainly the prime minister, and there were quite a few other of those demands.

???I asked her whether she was OK, she seemed reasonably relaxed.???

About an hour later, another hostage called, Burrows said, with the second hostage in a more ???agitated??? state.

???Again she had the gunman hovering over her, making these demands through her,??? Burrows said. “That lady was far more anxious, far more agitated, because she got the feeling nothing was being done, but that???s not the case.”

As for the bomb threat, the Sydney Opera House was briefly evacuated, but has since been swept and pronounced clear.  The downtown area has been evacuated and put under police control, which is going to cause big problems on Monday morning, doubtless in accordance with the attacker’s design.

The BBC reports that “police have identified the gunman and he is well known to them.”  A few glimpses of the terrorist, wearing a backpack and bandanna, have been caught though the cafe windows.  Australia has been dealing with a troubling number of ISIS wannabees who took the caliphate’s call to perform random terror attacks very seriously, culminating in a large-scale anti-terrorist raid last September.  The gang in question was planning to kidnap people in Brisbane and Sydney and cut their heads off on camera, in the manner of a traditional ISIS hostage-murdering video.

The Australian reports that the Muslim community in Sydney has denounced the hostage-taker, holding an interfaith prayer session last night with a local priest and rabbi at the Lakemba Mosque.  The Australian National Imams Council denounced the cafe standoff as “despicable” and accused the terrorist of “trying to give some sort of religious image to a criminal act.”  Sydney commuters responded by creating a Twitter hashtag, #illridewithyou, to arrange carpool rides with Muslims as they go to work, in a gesture of fellowship.

Naturally, there are people hanging around the cafe and uploading selfies.  There was also a brief spasm of online outrage last night after the Uber ride-sharing service jacked its minimum fare up to $100 in Sydney, more than twice the usual minimum, ostensibly to “encourage more drivers to come online and pick up passengers in the area.”  After enduring half an hour of withering scorn on social media, Uber backed down and instead offered free rides out of the crisis area “to help Sidneysiders get home safely.”  The Internet remains a double-edged sword, and one of the edges is very silly.

Update: The terrorist has been identified as Man Hanon Monis, an exceptionally colorful cleric who proclaimed himself a sheikh, and has the sort of law-enforcement history that makes you wonder why he wasn’t dealt with a lot sooner… especially since Muslim community leaders say they’ve complained about Monis to the authorities several times.

Yeah, he looks like a barrel of laughs.  ABC News runs down his biography:

Man Haron Monis was born in Iran as Manteghi Bourjerdi and migrated to Australia in 1996, according to Australia???s 9News. In 2013 he made headlines when he pleaded guilty to sending letters to the families of fallen Australian servicemen in which he called the soldiers ???murderers??? and child killers. Monis was sentenced to community service.

Australian media reported more recently that Monis had been accused of dozens of counts of sexual assault while he was working as a ???spiritual healer??? and was allegedly linked to the brutal murder of an ex-wife.

A website that appears to have been made by Monis or his supporters says these latest allegations are ???in fact political cases against this Muslim activist, not real criminal cases.???

The website says Monis is ???not a member of any organization or party??? but he ???supports his Muslim brothers [and] sisters??? [and] he promotes peace.???

Ah, so it’s a Mostly Peaceful hostage crisis, then.

Update: Another hostage has reportedly escaped, or been released, from the cafe.  The Daily Telegraph reports receiving a phone call from a female hostage who said that one of her fellow hostages was pregnant.

Update: The standoff came to a dramatic end at roughly 10:15 AM Eastern time, as Australian tactical squads went in hot, lighting up the cafe with flashbang grenades and gunfire.  A cluster of hostages broke free and ran during the battle.  There are reports of at least four people leaving the scene on stretchers, but no details yet on whether they’re injured or dead hostages or policemen, and coming up on 10:30 AM, no word on the fate of the terrorist.

Update: The more I look at the traffic on that #illridewithyou hashtag, the less it looks like a healthy expression of fellowship.  It looks more like an anticipatory anti-Muslim-backlash backlash.  Could we wait until the hostage drama is resolved and see if there actually is some sort of anti-Muslim backlash before denouncing it, or is the opportunity to do a little moralistic preening just too tasty to pass up?

Update: Reports are now saying two dead, three seriously injured after the cafe assault, which seems to have been initiated when Monis began shooting his captives.  It looks like one of the dead was the terrorist, while the other was one of his captives.