Learning from Lindt Cafe siege

Generally speaking coroner Michael Barnes’s report on the Lindt Café siege has been well-received, but not everyone is happy. The Police Association of New South Wales pre-empted the report, calling it a witch hunt. Bernard Keane at Crikey thinks we now need a full judicial inquiry. ABC’s Four Corners provided a platform for the relatives of the victims (see The Siege Part One and The Siege Part Two who want adverse findings to be made, people within the police force to be charged, and the psychiatrist consulted at the time never to work for government again.However, Martin McKenzie-Murray in an excellent piece at Saturday Paper Making sense of the Sydney siege thinks it has a “deft balancing of respect and criticism”. [Saturday Paper allows one free view per week.]

As Mark Kenny points out, there is no nonviolent way of storming a venue. Collateral deaths are always to be expected. If police had stormed the cafe early, others relatives may now be saying that their loved ones died because the police blundered in.

In fact the police thought that Man Haron Monis had a bomb. They thought everyone in the cafe might die; they themselves expected to die. Some of them called loved ones to say goodbye before they went in.

To recap what happened, Man Haron Monis, on bail for over 40 sexual assault charges, plus another charge of accessory to the murder of his ex-wife by his girl-friend, and a long litany of very strange public behaviour (see Wikipedia), including a hate mail campaign against relatives of soldiers who had died in Afghanistan, entered the Lindt chocolate café in Martin Place, Sydney, across from a Seven Network television studio on the morning of 15 December, 2014 with a shotgun, taking hostage the employees and customers. He made the hostages hold an Islamic black standard up against the window of the café and demanded, unsuccessfully, to speak to the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Seems he wanted Australia to stop killing Muslims.

At 2.03am the following night he fired a shot in the general direction of some hostages who escaped. He had earlier threatened to shoot one for each hostage that fled. At this time he forced café manager Tori Johnson to his knees and fired a shot above his head. Then Tori Johnson was shot in the back of the head. At this point the forward commander said the trigger point of death or serious injury had been reached which justified sending officers in to die, so at 2.13am police stormed the cafe and shot Monis. However, lawyer Katrina Dawson was also killed by police ricochet bullets.

Much of the resentment of the families relates to the fact that the duty forward commander that night, Mark Jenkins, maintained to the inquiry that he would make the same decisions again. In fact the police admitted no fault at all until the new NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, promoted to the position about seven weeks ago, said last week:

    “in hindsight, we should have gone in earlier. But I cannot accept that some people are trying to whitewash the fact that police believed there was an explosive device in the backpack. Some people have tried to dismiss this fact. Again, I will not accept any criticism that police did not have any reason not to believe there was a bomb in the backpack, which also had to be considered when making decisions.”

Fuller in interview with Four Corners was looking forward rather than backwards, and said the prime need was to start with the 45 recommendations made by the coroner.

McKenzie-Murray says the coronal inquiry into the Sydney siege found mistakes made in awarding Man Haron Monis bail, and police tactics needed review. He summarises the 495 page report (Inquest site here) as follows:

    The 495-page report, though clear and considerable in its findings, will likely become a sort of Rorschach test. So it is important to state clearly some fundamental findings of the coroner: that the “vicious maniac” Man Haron Monis bore full responsibility for the tragedy and should be “the sole focus of our denunciation”; that the siege was an act of terrorism; that, believing Monis possessed a bomb, the tactical officers who stormed the cafe did so with a strong expectation that they would die; that despite this extraordinary courage, and the many other examples of police professionalism that day, the [broader] response was multiply flawed and the delay in triggering an emergency response too long; that legal error likely contributed to Monis being free on bail at the time of the siege; and that improvements must be made to the triaging and sharing of information by and between intelligence agencies.

The central charge of the Four Corners report is that while the police quite early designated the siege as a “terrorist” attack, police strategies remained in the domestic siege mode, where the “contain and negotiate” strategy was appropriate. To Sarah Ferguson, who worked on and presented the report, the incident was clearly an ISIS attack and should have been handled as such. ISIS attackers are usually suicidal and expect to die, taking a maximum of others with them.

I think this is a false characterisation of what Monis did, and prefer the characterisation drawn by McKenzie-Murray below.

It is true that Monis gave allegiance to ISIS in November, and early in the siege said that it was an ISIS attack on Australia. The report says:

    While a criminal may employ violence to “terrorise” a victim (by waving a gun in their face, for example), a criminal is not ordinarily concerned with influencing public opinion. By contrast, the fundamental aim of a terrorist’s violence is to influence domestic or international politics, express a political grievance, or draw attention to a cause.

In this sense the incident was a terror attack, but not an ISIS-style attack. He did not come to the café with the intent of blowing people up, or mass murder, he wanted to talk to the prime minister. The threat of violence was to be instrumental in gainig access to the prime minister, not so much to send a message in itself.

He may have had other motives but I think the evidence is stacking up that Monis and the Lindt Café siege was one of a kind, with the ISIS component superficial. McKenzie-Murray sees him overall and still in his last scene more as a pathetic loser, who succeeded in nothing but hurting other people. McKenzie-Murray says:

    Importantly, the coroner found that Monis was not psychotic on the day of the siege. “Monis undertook the siege in a controlled, planned and quite methodical manner marked by deliberation and choice,” the report states. “He was not suffering from a diagnosable categorical psychiatric disorder that deprived him of the capacity to understand the nature of what he was doing.”


    A forensic psychiatrist, asked by the inquest to review Monis’s history of mental health, distinguished between “categorical psychiatric” disorders and personality disorders. The first, he said, “causes the patient to suffer greatly, whereas a personality disorder causes others, rather than the person with the disorder, to suffer”. The suffering Monis inflicted, over many years, is incalculable.

Missing in this, however, is the disabling effect stress and tiredness can have on cognitive functions, a large factor, I suspect, as day turned into night, no progress was made in access to the PM, and Monis gradually lost control as more hostages escaped.

The psychiatrist consulted during the siege was found to have made errors and to go beyond his expertise. Yet McKenzie-Murray says the psychiatrist told police:

    “A narcissist could be a very dangerous specimen if his sense of self-importance is threatened”.

However, the psychiatrist’s assessment was that Monis was mainly big-noting himself and even at 1.35am, according to Four Corners, said he showed no signs of harming the hostages.

The hostages on Four Corners told a very different story, with Monis becoming increasingly erratic and agitated, the more so each time some hostages escaped. To Monis control was important. He started with 18 hostages and ended with only seven. He himself would have been under great stress during the day, and became increasingly irrational as the night progressed. Hostage Jarrod Morton-Hoffman said that during the early hours of the new day he could not see the situation lasting the night, and thought it would end in someone being killed. He could not see everyone taking a snooze and then waking up in the morning to continue where they left off. Something would give and it would not be pretty.

McKenzie-Murray sees Monis as a mediocre narcissist, who wanted to be important. He says:

    Monis couldn’t possess authority without deception or duress, and failed at almost everything except destruction. “A narcissist could be a very dangerous specimen if his sense of self-importance is threatened,” a psychiatrist told police negotiators during the siege. Monis had faith in few things but himself, and his cynicism is obvious in his wildly varying religious and political poses. He wanted to be seen to be important. The vehicle for that – literature, spiritualism, criminality – hardly mattered. Monis was a dangerous loser.

Of one particular escapade Wikipedia says:

    Monis ran a “spiritual healing” business and promoted himself as a clairvoyant an expert in “astrology, numerology, meditation and black magic” services.[77] The business has been described as a front for sexual advances on vulnerable women, who were told that they could only receive treatment if they were undressed and massaged on the breasts and genitals.[12] With some women he threatened black magic curses if they did not submit to sex with him.

This information appears not to have been fully known to those considering bail, nor to the consulting psychiatrist and the police handling the siege. McKenzie-Murray says his capacity to kill was only revealed when he finally did it.

Michael Robertson at Crikey says the coroner was wrong to denounce the psychiatrist at the siege.

Michael Robertson is a clinical associate professor of mental health ethics at the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, School of Public Health, University of Sydney. His main point is that psychiatry is misused in our society and in our legal system as a predictor of behaviour. People can be locked up or set free on the assessment of a psychiatrist. Human behaviour, he says, is not that predictable.

Finally, in assessing the nature of what Monis intended, it came out in the inquest that Monis had on his person a handwritten list of Muslim prisoners in Lang Bay jail, with names and ID numbers, indicating that is where he expected to end up.

Some say that a man carrying a shotgun threatening people should be taken out by police snipers. A fair point and snipers were in place from several angles. However, they would have had to shoot through two panes of glass, obstructions that would alter the trajectory of the bullets available to them. Chanel Seven panes had bullet proofing. In fact there was only one short period when they had anything like a clear shot. Problem was they were not sure the head they could see was Monis’s and did not know whether others were behind him.

Many problems were revealed in the handling of the siege. Four Corners account of the storming of the cafe, for example, is Monty Pythonesque. The team entering from the foyer simply had to open an unlocked door. The leading officer threw a “flash bang” at it which led others to do the same. In all they exploded 18 flash bangs in the foyer, practically blowing themselves up, arriving only after Monis had been killed.

Of the three coming in the other entrance, one got a bead on Monis and discharged 17 bullets in three seconds, killing him instantly. A second discharged his weapon as he slipped, and gave three different versions of what happened. The third managed to do nothing.

No-one should joke about this. People should understand that under high stress our cognitive functions are usually overwhelmed and memories later about what happened are highly unreliable. They should also understand that many people when it is their duty to kill, often find it hard to do so. Training and muscle memory are crucial, but the real situation cannot in the end be replicated in simulated exercises.

One of the biggest problems was in communication with the café. Police never made direct contact with Monis. Eight calls by hostages to the help line went unanswered. No attempt was made to get to Monis through radio, which he was monitoring. The “contain and negotiate” strategy failed abjectly in the ‘negotiate’ part.

Moreover, when no progress at all was made in negotiating, the strategy should have been reviewed. The coroner found, and Commissioner Mick Fuller accepts that the police should have intervened earlier through what is known in the lingo as “deliberative action”. We are told that the head of the tactical team had devised and rehearsed a “DA” and was keen to implement it, but was prevented by the forward commander.

Fuller has now reversed a decision made by his predecessor Andrew Scipione.

    Mr Scipione had announced that Ms Burn would be the deputy commissioner for the new portfolio which has brought together counter-terrorism and field operations and Mr Hudson was going to be in charge of support services.

Dave Hudson had been assistant commissioner in charge of crime in the past, and is popular within the police force. If the culture needs changing he is well-placed to do it.

Cath Burn had been the responsible deputy commissioner during the siege who had assured the relatives of the hostages that the team on the job was world-class and that everyone would be got out safe. When things went pear-shaped, the police took two and a half hours to notify Dawson’s relatives of her death. Burn and Scipione had checked off at midnight to get some kip.

Imre Salusinszky, who was Mike Baird’s media director at the time, defends them and says the media have hunted Burn as a pack. Sleep deprived officers become useless, says Salusinszky.

Terry Goldsworthy, Assistant Professor in Criminology at Bond University, thinks Burn and Scipione showed a distinct lack of leadership during the siege.

Not sure that is true. There is much to be said for bosses leaving it to those with specific expertise and responsibility, but providing support and assistance when called upon. I think one should have stayed on duty.

Bernard Keane says Victims of the Lindt cafe siege deserve better than ‘lessons learned’ (probably pay-walled). He wants a full judicial inquiry to get to the bottom of how potential terrorists can be identified and stopped.

The coroner had some interaction with ASIO which is redacted in the public report. Not sure an inquiry would help. Certainly the coroner called for better record keeping and availability so that actors along the way would have more than a partial view.

Finally, there is an interesting letter in the SMH on what happened when bail was being considered.

For earlier posts see Sydney siege from December 2014, and Awkward questions about the Sydney siege.

11 thoughts on “Learning from Lindt Cafe siege”

  1. I would hate to have had the responsibility of deciding what to do when in this siege. Specially when you knew that people would be baying for your blood no matter what you decided.
    One of the takeaways for me is that key people were all staying awake instead of rostering some sleep so that the risk of key decisions being made by someone who had not got enough sleep was minimized.

  2. John, I understand the forward commander was changed for the night shift. Both took the same view about being reluctant to send the police in.

    On another matter, today I heard that since Lindt there have been 4 terrorist attacks and 12 prevented.

    In the UK Jeremy Corbyn is taking the view that that if they have a less interventionist foreign policy they are less likely to be attacked.

  3. Justice Peter Johnson said he was satisfied that Monis planned the murder of his ex-wife, and that Amirah Droudis carried it out.

    In that murder, the deceased was stabbed repeatedly, then doused in petrol and set alight.

    Monis was on bail, charged with being accessory to the (at that time, alleged) murderer.

    I think it’s untrue to say that at the time of the siege, Monis had never killed anyone.

    None of this is a joking matter. The “spiritual guidance” scam is a shocker.

  4. Ambigulous, that’s true, but the judgement was nearly two years later. Amirah Droudis’s lawyers claim that she had been repeatedly assaulted by Monis, and that is probably true too.

    My main point is that what happened at Lindt was the playing out of Monis’s deeply flawed personality, plus the proximal stresses of the day as events unfolded, rather than radicalisation to the ISIS agenda.

    I think it’s important that this be understood. It’s tragic that the security authorities just dismissed him as a nutter.

  5. He hadn’t been convicted yet, that’s true.

    He was entitled to the presumption of innocence in both the ‘accessory to murder’ and ‘spiritual advice/sexual assault/rape’ cases, in a court of law.

    But having taken a lethal weapon into a cafe and held hostages at gunpoint; he wasn’t on the day in question appearing peaceably in the dock in a quiet courtroom, with lawyers advising him and only certain evidence admissible, etc.

    At that stage, I wouldn’t say he was “allegedly” threatening some fellow citizens with death [ahem, unless the gun had turned out afterwards to be a child’s toy or harmless replica].

    So those very serious charges, current at the time, could have informed the police at the scene, and the psychologist advising them, of some relevant context.

    I’m not saying it was easy to end the siege without deaths or injuries. Monis’s actions put the authorities in a diabolical quandary. I agree that if the police had stormed in earlier, we might have seen different (and possibly more) families mourning the outcome.

    But it was known to some authorities that detectives had persuaded prosecutors that strong cases had been made against him on very serious charges.

    BTW: many thought there was probably a bomb in the backpack; there might have been a can of petrol, too. By chance I met an experienced firefighter who was ‘on the front line’ at the Lindt cafe siege, and whose shift finished at midnight, before the assault began. They felt very sorry for the ‘young firies’ who had to enter the cafe immediately after the shooting ceased.

  6. One of the things I’m learning from the Lindt cafe siege, the Bataclan and Stade de France assaults, the Nice foreshore rampage, ditto Westminster Bridge, ditto London Bridge; the Manchester concert bomb, the Melbourne (Brighton) murder, other murders in Australia, car bombs in Baghdad, explosions in Kabul, etc.

    is that I’m getting pretty damn sick and tired of murderous thugs targetting unarmed, innocent citizens.

  7. Ambigulous, I hope you include in that list the murderous thugs toting their second amendment assault rifles into post offices, fast food joints and theatres where they target unarmed innocent citizens.
    For some reason they never seem to attract the descriptor “terrorist” but I’m pretty damn sick and tired of them too.

  8. Brian: I have no links but I do remember that, after the end of the cold war, US security people started talking about the “Islamist threat”. When you have an industry that “gotta have an enemy” to survive past allies like Bin Laden can suddenly be held up as the new threats and actually become enemies because they resent the new way they are being treated.

  9. zoot, I certainly do include those; and I fail to see why (for example)
    * a disgruntled, sacked employee should shoot up their former place of work (happened in Melbourne years ago, too, once)
    * unhappy school students should kill teachers and classmates
    * angry motorists should shoot traffic cops
    * someone should mow down customers in a gay night club
    * someone should explode a truck bomb outside a Govt building, yes I’m looking at you Mr McVeigh
    * guys should fly airliners slap bang into tall buildings

    there’s too much of this going on.

    John: I believe Osama bin Laden declared war on the US before his people exploded a dinghy near a US warship, and before the 9/11 attacks.

    I recently saw two paperbacks about Osama, published before Sept 2001. Can provide the details if you’re interested.

  10. zoot: many Americans share your distaste for gun violence perpetrated on innocent people. The American public have it in their democratic processes to take steps to lessen the carnage.

  11. The two paperbacks mentioned on June 6th.

    Simon Reeve, The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism, London: Andre Deutsch, 1999. (284 pp., ISBN 0-233-05048-5)

    The reprint I have includes on its cover a reference to 9/11, but nothing inside the book; I assume the cover is merely a marketing ploy. Cover also labelled “The New York Times Bestseller”.

    Yossef Bodansky, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing [Random House], copyright 1999, 2001. (439 pp., ISBN 0-7615-3581-0)

    Seems to have been reprinted (swiftly) after 9/11 as the cover says ‘Now, he is linked to the recent catastrophic assaults on the WTC and the Pentagon’. Final chapter, “What’s Next?” apparently written in 1999, and not updated for the late 2001 edition.

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